How often have you stood at the start of a road race, scanned the crowd, and seen people stretching quads, hamstrings, and calves? They often look at ease chatting with friends while simultaneously hanging with their heels off a curb. While this type of stretching has become commonplace before many athletic events, it may not be the best choice for you or your athletic endeavors.
Over the past several years, there has been a shift in the research from a static stretching program to a dynamic warm-up prior to running or other athletic activity. There are several varieties of stretching, including static stretching, dynamic stretching, contract-relax, and ballistic stretching. Static stretching is when you hold a stretch in the same position for any given length of time. Dynamic stretching is when you are performing an active stretch with movement. The best type of dynamic warm-ups are those that incorporate sport specific movements. For example, if you are a runner you should focus on warming up in the sagittal plane as this will be the direction you are moving. If you are a hockey player, you will want to incorporate more lateral and diagonal movements into your warm up. Examples of dynamic stretches are: walking lunges, squats, toy soldiers, forward and lateral leg swings, caterpillar walks, high knees, kick your butt, and many others.
Until about 10 years ago when more research was being conducted, many athletes were using static stretching prior to athletic activity. Did you know this type of static stretching prior to sports can actually decrease athletic performance and increase the risk of injury? It may help your muscles feel loose and warmed up, but what we see more frequently is that the rest period while statically stretching can drop your core temperature making you less prepared to exercise. The research has found that the duration of stretch is important. Stretches held over 60” prior to sports have been shown to decrease strength and power output in athletes whereas shorter stretches <45” have minimal-no effect on athletic performance. (Kay AD, Blazevich AJ. Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review. Med Sci Sports Exercise. 2012; 44 (1): 154-164.)
It has been shown that both static and dynamic stretching increase body temperature, increase anaerobic metabolism, and increase oxygen uptake, so how do we know that dynamic stretching is better? The benefit to static stretching is that it does not deplete energy stores prior to activity, although it does not prepare an athlete for the sport specific task as well as dynamic stretching does. Because you are moving, a dynamic warmup will better prepare the muscles for the task at hand by moving into those positions that you may be using in sport or game. (McGowan CJ, Pyne DB, KG, et al. Thompson Warm-Up Strategies for Sport and Exercise: Mechanisms and Applications. Sports Medicine. 2015; 45 (11): 1523-1546. )
There is a lot of research out there now on this topic and as our profession is shifting towards more research based practices, I think some of the results are important to point out. Most of the studies out there show no change in muscle strength, flexibility, and vertical jump using a static stretching warmup. In comparison, the dynamic warmup groups showed a statistically significant improvement in hamstring length, eccentric quadriceps strength, and vertical jump height. These improvements can be important in helping to prevent injury, especially for those athletes who’s sports require changing directions, cutting, and decelerating. (Aguilar AJ, DiStefano LJ, Brown CN, et al. A Dynamic Warmup Model Increased Quadricep Strength and Hamstring Flexibility. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012; 26 (4): 1130-1141.) (Carvalho FL, Carvalho MC, Simao R, et al. Acute effects of warm-up including active, static, and dynamic stretching on vertical jump performance. Journal of strength and conditioning research. 2012; 26 (9): 2447-2452.)
Don’t get me wrong, static stretching still has it’s place, although may not be as useful as we once thought. Refer to blog post “What you think you know about stretching is probably wrong. Yes Really” which notes that increasing flexibility is more the product of desensitization to the sensory part of the nerve vs muscle tissue actually being physically lengthened from stretching. This does not mean it is not good to ever statically stretch. Static stretching and foam rolling can be excellent post activity recovery tools to decrease muscle soreness.
In conclusion, if your coach is having you do a lot of static stretching prior to practice or game, ask them why. Maybe direct them to look at some of the more recent research showing that dynamic stretching is better than static stretching prior to athletic activity to elevate the heart rate and better prepare the athlete for the task at hand.