Runners do it before a race. Swimmers do it before hopping in the pool. Your average gym rat does it before starting to pump iron. Most coaches, gym teachers, and personal trainers preach that stretching before exercise is an essential part of both avoiding injury and improving performance. But while it’s still popularly considered a basic tenet of health and wellness, scientific research into the value of stretching has cast doubt on its usefulness. For many athletic pursuits, studies suggest that stretching might actually be detrimental.
Even for those who follow fitness science closely, old habits die hard and many may be loath to give up stretching. “Because stretching decreases pain and makes you feel good, it is easy to extrapolate this to think it will prevent injury. But unfortunately, the reason it makes you feel good is one of the reasons it does not prevent injury,” states Dr. Ian Shrier, a sports medicine physician at McGill University in Montreal and author of many scientific studies on stretching.
“I strongly recommend people warm up as they start activity and increase the intensity gradually,” Shrier says. “In general, if they stretch before activity, I suggest they stop and replace it with more warm-up because most people simply do not warm up enough.”
“Pre-run, for example, we use lunges to simulate the running stride and prep the muscles; before a tennis match, pulsing in and out of a squat and circling the arms will get you ready to play,” says Sage Rountree, author of The Runner’s Guide to Yoga.
*Image of “woman stretching” via Shutterstock