Many of us, myself included, were raised in a sporting environment that emphasized stretching. As a distance runner, I was routinely advised to stretch for 1/2 hour or more prior to running every day. Unfortunately, many continue to repeat what they were taught and never question the status quo. There is a wealth of evidence that suggests static stretching can rob us of performance, although I do acknowledge some degree of tissue extensibility/mobility is necessary.
Those who treat runners know motor control (stability) is often an issue, particularly in the frontal and transverse planes. Recently I saw the most under-controlled runner I’ve seen in a long time. After an evaluation, corrective strategy, and conversation we reassessed and saw a nice improvement in symptoms and movement quality. We discussed the future course of care and home exercise prescription and were about to part ways when…. the patient asked me what stretches he should add to the 2 exercises I just taught him. Maybe I did the world’s worst job communicating what I thought the problem and potential solution were, but I suspect I was just up against an insurmountable preconceived notion. Stretching is not a panacea solution. It is also not a necessity for all activities, in particular running. See NY Times Article: Reasons Not to Stretch.
There is also abundant evidence questioning the value and timing of static stretching. A random selection, in no particular order:
- Stretching inhibits performance, where submaximal running and practice jumps had a positive effect.
- The results of this study suggest that performing a static stretching protocol following a dynamic warm up will inhibit sprint performance in collegiate athletes.
- Moreside and McGill’s study indicates that changes in passive ROM or core endurance do not automatically transfer to changes in functional movement patterns
- Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. We conclude that the usage of static stretching as the sole activity during warm-up routine should generally be avoided.
- Acute effect of passive static stretching on lower-body strength in moderately trained men. The findings of this study suggest that intensive stretching such as lower-body passive static stretch should be avoided before training the lower body or performing the 1RM in the squat.
I understand that handing out copies of the NY Times article or giving patients research citations, abstracts, or even full text articles isn’t a solution to the problem. Further, in the current healthcare setting time and efficiency is often a key factor in clinical treatment. So how do we effectively communicate this idea that stretching may impede performance as clearly and succinctly as possible?
Here’s one way I’ve had success. I recommend you judge your successful communication by the change in facial expression (shocked), demeanor (surprised and curious), and the light bulb appearing above your patient/clients head.
The way you move is coordinated in the subconscious portion of your brain. This is done based on feedback regarding length and tension. Changing your length and tension by stretching just before you run is like changing the length of the strings on a marionette just before the puppeteer takes the stage. The performance will suffer.
I’m not sure why this analogy works better than all others I’ve tried, but it seems to. Perhaps it’s the image of the clumsy puppeteer? Maybe it’s the non-threatening nature of the analogy as it doesn’t directly compete with what so many ‘experts’ have told the athlete before? Either way, it seems to be a way for people to grasp a complex concept that is often in opposition of their existing beliefs.
This conversation often continues into why they feel ‘tight’. Here’s a nice recap of Professor Janda’s thoughts by Craig Liebenson, DC.