It often feels good and seems like commonsense to warm up muscles before exercise. But is there any evidence that stretching improves performance or reduces muscle soreness and/or prevents injury?
Stretching became quite popular in the 1960’s when scientists believed that muscle soreness, now known as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), was related to muscle spasms. Lengthening the muscle ( by stretching it), was thought to restore blood flow and reduce the spasm. But while this theory of muscle soreness has been disproved, the practice of stretching continues.
The Cochrane Collaboration, a non profit group focused on research, has published several reviews during the last 10 years, on stretching. They looked at the efficacy of stretching before and/or after exercise on muscle soreness in a number of small, randomised control trials. They found that across the studies, the trend was that stretching provided little or no reduction in muscle soreness.
Stretching does however, seem to help to improve your flexibility.
Better flexibility may improve your performance in physical activities. Better flexibility can decrease your risk of injury by helping your joints move through their full range of motion.
For example, your Achilles tendon is tight and if you do a lot of hill walking, your foot may not move through its full range of motion. Over time, this can increase your risk of developing a tendonitis ( when you overload the tendon and micro-trauma occurs). Stretching your Achilles tendon though, may improve your ankles range of motion, in turn decreasing the risk of injury.
So, to stretch or not to stretch?
Easing into your workout is always a good idea. It should involve light intensity movements that are relevant to the exercise you are about to do. For example, if you were about go for a run or brisk walk, simple knee hugs, leg swings and a light walk would be appropriate as a warm up.After you exercise, is a perfect time to then stretch to maintain your flexibility, as your muscles are warmed up.