About 20 years ago, I decided to adopt the prevailing wisdom that serious stretching was a necessity for aging athletes. Old folks supposedly need as must flexibility as they can muster to ward off injuries.
I wasn’t thrilled with this concession to getting old. I had never liked stretching, and since I rarely got injured, I saw no need to inflict this on myself. A few sprints up and down the court and I was ready to go.
Once I had committed to the idea, I did a little research, selected about a half-dozen stretches – the kind where you bend and hold a position for 30 seconds or so – and began tormenting myself. Being a self-disciplined type, I stuck with the pre-workout routine for years. I became superstitious as well. I feared breaking the routine would set off a series of injuries.
In the past year, I’ve come across studies that have caused me to rethink my embrace of what is now called static stretching. Evidence appears to be mounting that such stretching does little to prevent injuries and undercuts performance, especially in strength and power activities.
Researchers have discovered that static stretching “can lessen jumpers’ heights and sprinters’ speeds, without substantially reducing people’s chances of hurting themselves,” Gretchen Reynolds wrote in a New York Times column earlier this month. She noted two new studies that “augment a growing scientific consensus that pre-exercise stretching is generally unnecessary and likely counterproductive.”
According to one team of researchers, Reynolds said, “static stretching reduces strength in the stretched muscles by almost 5.5 percent, with the impact increasing in people who hold individual stretches for 90 seconds or more. While the effect is reduced somewhat when people’s stretches last less than 45 seconds, stretched muscles are, in general, substantially less strong.”
Scientists suspect that stretching loosens muscles and their accompanying tendons, but in the process makes them less able to store energy and spring into action, like lax elastic waistbands in old shorts, Reynolds said.
Goran Markovic, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Zagreb in Croatia and one of the scientists mentioned by Reynolds, recommends “dynamic” stretching rather than static stretching.
“A better choice is to warm up dynamically, by moving the muscles that will be called upon in your workout,” Markovic said. “Jumping jacks and toy-soldier-like high leg kicks, for instance, prepare muscles for additional exercise better than stretching.”
As for the value of static stretching after workouts, the jury is still out. Such stretching appears to slightly reduce soreness, Reynolds said in an April 26 column, and expand range of motion, but only temporarily.
For the time being, I’m hedging my bets. I do some static stretching in a hot tub followed by at least 10 minutes of jumping jacks, crab crawls, shooting and running before getting on the court. After playing, I do more static stretching, which feels good, if nothing else.
I like to think the warm-ups and cool-downs have kept me injury free for two years now. At least that gives me the illusion of being in control of what happens to my body.