Stretch, run, repeat. For decades, athletes and regular exercisers have given very little thought to their pre-workout routine. It has long been a given, after all, that in order to prevent injury and prepare the body for sustained exercise, the muscles need to be suitably stretched first. But many health and fitness experts are now arguing that the conventional wisdom behind stretching may very well be wrong.
A study published in April last year in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that if athletes stretched before they lifted weights, they were more likely to feel weaker and wobblier than usual.
A second Croatian study from the University of Zagreb found people who only practised static stretching as their warm-up reported a 5.5 per cent reduction in the stretched muscles, with the impact increasing in people who hold individual stretches for 90 seconds or more.
None of these findings surprise Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA) Project Officer, Carly Ryan, who concedes there is some evidence that stretching before exercise won’t prevent injury and may actually hinder athletic performance.
“Stretching is great, don’t get me wrong, but the real question is when to stretch and to what end,” she says.
“If you are an athlete we know there is a risk that if you stretch before an intense work-out there may be instances of decreased endurance.”
Warm up first
While stretching before a workout may decrease athletic performance, is it actually detrimental to our muscles? Are we more likely to be injured if we perform a stretch on cold muscles?
“It may be the case, and the science is inconclusive at this point,” says Ms Ryan.
But this does not mean we should simply throw on our joggers and jump straight into the workout.
“The key is warming up, rather than stretching,” says Ms Ryan.
“There are so many parts of your body that need to work together when you workout that you need to give them time to begin working efficiently.”
For instance, Ms Ryan says people who are preparing for an intense cardio workout should begin with a walk, while those who are prepping to lift weights should warm up by lifting the bar without weights for a few minutes.
Perth-based physiotherapist Jo Milios says stretching before a workout is a good idea — once you have warmed up the body.
“Let the body warm up first and only then incorporate some stretching,” Ms Milios advises.
Play it cool
While fitness professionals are moving away from the pre-workout stretch, most of them are big champions of the cool down.
Ms Milios, who is also a yoga teacher, says gym-goers who leave training sessions without properly stretching are doing their bodies a disservice.
“Stretching after a workout is a great time to give your muscles a chance to recover and to really increase your range of movement,” Ms Milios says.
“We know anecdotally, too, that it helps reduce the risk of stiffness the next day.
“Furthermore, if you leave the gym without properly cooling down and your heart rate is up, you will have higher cortisol levels and your body is in a state where it may feel that it has to push itself, which can lead to fatigue.”
Similarly, Ms Ryan says while pre-workout stretching may not be the panacea many thought it was, she is a big fan of flexibility exercises, which she recommends people practise three times a week.
“Flexibility exercises (once you have warmed up), such as yoga, are great and people who are more flexible have better posture, and their muscles are working more efficiently,” she says.