Stretching can feel good and plays a role in increasing flexibility, but that’s about where the benefit ends. It plays no role in injury prevention, warming up or recovery. For most people, being more flexible seems to have no benefit for any situation they will find themselves in life. Stretch if you need to be more flexible for a specific reason or if you enjoy the feeling of stretching, but probably for no other reason.
When I think about fitness, I’m naturally drawn towards looking at evidence-based ways to improve most effectively with my time. One area I’ve become interested in recently is flexibility. I’ve never been particularly flexible (I was only able to touch my toes without bending my knees during one period of my life), and flexibility and range of motion is something that will likely become more important as I progress in sports climbing.
The conventional wisdom is that stretching can improve your flexibility (among other things). Recently it occurred to me to wonder what stretching was actually doing to make you more flexible. Some advocates of stretching suggest that your muscles are getting longer or more flexible over time. This doesn’t seem to be the case.
The answer seems to be mostly neurological. Stretching is likely just a controlled way of teaching your nervous system that it’s ok to stretch a little further.
Claims of the benefits of stretching include:
* warm up and injury prevention
* prevention/treatment of exercise soreness
* treatment of sports injuries and chronic pain
* performance enhancement (e.g. faster sprinting)
* it feels good
It seems like the evidence only supports the first and last of these claims.
It’s fascinating to me that as a child I was always taught to stretch before running as a form of warm up and injury prevention. More recently, I had the mindset that I need to stretch to prevent injury when working out. There seems to be no basis to this, and it makes me wonder where these ideas even came from.
I should note that there does seem to be good evidence to support ‘warming up’ as a form of injury prevention, but static stretching (e.g. holding a stretch for 5+ seconds) doesn’t constitute warming up. The best way to warm up seems to be dynamic movements and starting with whatever activity you’re planning on doing with low intensity and slowly ramping that up.
I hope you found this as fascinating as I did! I got this information from a few sources, but most of it is from this one review of the science of stretching from an Paul Ingraham of PainScience, who I’ve come to trust to be evidence-based. The author covers many other topics around the science of pain and fitness/health. They are long reviews, but are fascinating, engaging and well worth the read.