In the past, stretches have typically been a part of any warm up – whether getting ready for a run or a game of football. However, now there are a plethora of studies showing that static stretching impairs performance. Could all that good warming up and stretching you have been doing before the game actually be impairing muscle performance? Today I am going to delve into these studies and let you know, in easy to read terms, if stretching really does affect performance.
Static stretching has been considered an important part of a pre-game/event warm up for decades and has been ingrained in the minds of young and old as the thing to do. Static stretching involves taking a muscle to end of range (on stretch) and holding it there for 15-60 seconds and yes has been shown to be effective in improving muscle length.
So if static stretching does the job we want in improving flexibility, then how can it decrease performance?
A decent amount of research has emerged over the last 15 years showing that sustained stretching can impair performance (1, 2, 3, 4 to list a few). Static stretching of over 30 seconds has been shown to decrease, strength power, balance and reaction time, such as:
- A study by Nelson et al looked at the effect of static stretching on 20m sprint times and showed that it had a significant increase in sprint times – slowing the sprinters down.
- Behm et al showed that stretching for 45 seconds to the point of discomfort negatively affected both balance and reaction time.
The impairments brought on by static stretching are thought to be due to changes in the muscle compliance – it may affect the muscle’s ability to detect and respond to changes in the muscle – Basically slowing down the reflexes and responses within the muscle.
There findings are significant for many athletes – particularly those that need explosive power and only minor differences can separate you from making the podium or not. Examples of this is sprinting, weight lifting etc were, small differences and loss in power can make or break it for you.
What you should do:
Before exercise: A warm up to minimise any impairments and loss in performance should include:
- Sub-maximal aerobic activity (running, cycling etc)
- Large amplitude dynamic stretching (this has NO affect on performance)
- Sports specific dynamic activities/drills
- 5-10 minutes cool down aerobic activity (light jog)
- 5-10 minutes static stretching
I must mention that there are a few ways to get around this decrease in performance with static stretching. The research has shown that stretches less than 30 seconds that are low intensity have little or no effect on performance. That is pretty ideal I think as I discussed in a earlier post, you get just as good an improvement with a 30 second stretch as you do with a 60 second-plus stretch! So if you do take part in a sport that requires a high degree of static flexibility – you should use low intensity stretches (don’t push to that ow point), held for short duration 15-30 seconds.
- Dynamic stretching is best before exercise as this lengthens muscles AND gets them warmed up and firing.
- Static stretching after exercise to reduce muscle soreness and enhance recovery.
- Hold static stretches for 15-30 seconds – and they shouldn’t hurt!