If you ask people whether stretching prevents sport related injuries or not, I imagine that almost all of them would answer with a resounding YES. I would too… at least, that’s what I used to do.
After all, this is probably why most of us do stretching before we begin lifting weights, running, or any other fitness related activity. We were told by some trainer or friend that stretching is good for us and that it can help us avoid muscle soreness and injury from our workout.
Recently, though, I stumbled upon a few articles that contradicted this assumption. Some of them stated outright that stretching did NOT prevent workout injury at all and they said that scientific studies supported this view. I decided to seek out the relevant information myself to find out the truth. What I learned surprised me quite a bit…
What The Research Says On Stretching and Injury Prevention
The question of whether stretching helps to prevent injury has been looked at by many different studies. Some examined this question generally, while others took a more specific perspective: examining whether you need to do stretching before or after exercise, what sort of stretching is best for you to perform, and the effect of it on various sports and activities. Let’s look at what the studies show:
The first study I want to talk about was done by USA Track and Field which examined about 3,000 runners to see the effect of stretching on their risk of injury.
The runners were divided into two groups, one that did a pre-run stretching routine and one that did not. At the end of 3 months, the rate of injury in the two groups was compared. What was found is that this rate was virtually the same. As one researcher stated:
With the number of runners who contributed to this study, we have shown that the difference in injury rates between those performing pre-run stretching and those who did not is negligible.
However, the study did stumble upon another finding which was interesting: those runners who were used to performing stretches before a run and were assigned to the non-stretching test group suffered a higher than usual injury rate. It seemed that once your body is used to stretching before a run, you may as well keep doing it.
A review paper performed in 2004 and published by Dr. Stephen Thacker and colleagues went over a great deal of former trials and research studies on the subject of stretching and injury. The conclusion was that “Stretching was not significantly associated with a reduction in total injuries” . In layman’s terms it means that there was no scientific reason to believe, according to the reviewed studies, that doing stretching exercises will help prevent injuries at all.
Dr. Ian Shrier who also published a paper on the matter came to even more negative conclusions: in his review of past studies he found some that did support the theory that stretching reduces risk of injury, but that they do so in only limited cases.
In addition, he found many other studies which showed no such connection and some that showed that stretching may even increase the risk of injury because it masks muscular pain and may lead to various skeletal damages . The bottom line is that he supports the findings that state that doing stretches won’t keep you from injury.
Another study, done in the military supports the new finding that stretching, at a certain level, may actually lead to injury. In a study of new recruits and their training injuries it was found that those who had low or high flexibility were most likely to be injured . So, too much stretching which leads to greater flexibility may lead to greater risk of training related injury. However, some stretching may also be positive as those with very low flexibility were also at greater risk.
The Mayo Clinic, however, does state that stretching may improve range of motion and reduce risk of various injuries, such as tendinitis. It seems that the benefits of stretching directly relates to your primary sport of activity. So, some specific injuries may be avoided by including this in your fitness routine.
Does Stretching Help Muscle Soreness
Most people, me included, assume that stretching reduces muscle pain and soreness. This, however, is also not supported by research. As WebMD reports, various studies examined the effect of both pre-exercise and post-exercise stretching on muscle soreness. In both cases, the reduction in soreness did not exceed 1%. This is virtually negligible. It seems that light exercise may be more helpful.
Should You Stop Stretching
The benefits of stretching extend beyond injury prevention and muscle soreness and they warrant their own post. What is clear is that for some people stretching is a part of a ritual without which their fitness routine is incomplete.
I like to stretch. It makes me feel good and there is no reason to stop doing it, as far as I could find. It is also recommended by the American Council of Sports Medicine. However, stretching does not seem to prevent injury, in most cases, and it will likely not prevent post-workout muscle pain either. Safe workout habits are what you should focus on.
1. The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: a systematic review of the literature. Thacker SB, Gilchrist J, Stroup DF, Kimsey CD Jr. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004 Mar;36(3):371-8.
2. Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury: a critical review of the clinical and basic science literature. Shrier I. Clin J Sport Med. 1999 Oct;9(4):221-7.
3. Physical training and exercise-related injuries. Surveillance, research and injury prevention in military populations. Jones BH, Knapik JJ. Sports Med. 1999 Feb;27(2):111-25.