Let’s face it: Stretching is not in vogue. It’s usually the last thing people think of when they work out and the first thing to be dropped from the routine when they’re pressed for time. It can’t make us stronger, faster or more likely to win at a competition.

Or can it?

Like many things, there is a right and a wrong way to stretch. Much of this depends less on how we stretch and more on when we stretch.

Hundreds of studies have been done on stretching, and a consensus is emerging. Experts agree that stretching before exercise can cause cold, tight muscles to become weaker. Sprinting times and weightlifting power are worse when athletes stretch before competition. They are also more likely to become injured, most often by pulling muscles such as the hamstring or calf.

From the standpoint of almost all of the measures that are important to athletes, not stretching at all is better than stretching cold muscles.

So does this mean we should stop stretching entirely? Not really. Studies show there is a right time to stretch, and that’s after we are warmed up. I advise athletes to run, bike or practice until they have a good sweat going. Only then are they ready to take some time off to stretch out their muscles.

Studies suggest that stretching under these circumstances, when the muscles are loose and more flexible, can be of benefit. Injuries may be less common. Muscles have improved power and sprint times are faster. Running endurance may also improve with stretching.

Interestingly, not all warm muscles are the same. Stretching after warming muscles in a hot tub is just as dangerous as if the muscles were completely cold. It seems that there is something intrinsically important about the fact muscles get warmed up by exercising.

One thing that stretching does not seem to help is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). That’s the muscle pain we feel on Monday morning when we have overdone it on the weekend. So stretching may keep you from being injured, but it may not prevent you from being sore the day after a hard workout.

A stretching technique that seems to be harmful is to stretch to the point of pain. Not surprisingly, this pulls the muscle fibers apart and may make them more susceptible to injury.

There are some athletes who seem to be intrinsically tight. No matter how much stretching they do, they have trouble touching their toes or reaching their hands behind their back.

Generally, women may be more flexible than men. For inflexible athletes, stretching has the same benefits as for flexible ones, but these individuals may never equal the flexibility of their peers.

Inflexible athletes may have the advantage in one realm: While they may be more prone to muscle injuries, they also may be less likely to injure ligaments and tendons. Their tightness may keep their joints from moving into vulnerable positions.

So what’s the verdict on stretching? The best bet is to warm up before stretching. Make sure to stretch to the point of muscles tightness, but keep the muscles from becoming painful. And to prevent DOMS, rely on good judgment rather than stretching.

 

Dr. James Glazer is a sports medicine physician for Coastal Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Freeport. He serves as a consultant for the Portland Pirates and the U.S. ski team.