If you’re like me, you probably feel guilty about not making stretching a part of your regular exercise routine. I attributed my history of low back pain to lack of stretching, although when I began practicing yoga last year I experienced no lasting benefits. Stretching was uncomfortable and I saw very little improvement in my flexibility for all my efforts. I eventually gave up after one well-meaning yogi told me that I may just be “genetically incapable” of making much progress. I turned to strength training and running with complete resolution of my back pain – though with a continued inability to bend over and touch my toes or sit cross legged for prolonged periods. Oh well. No traditional Japanese dining for me!
And so it was with great surprise that I read the conclusions from a recent analysis (by Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D.) of the science of stretching. I recommend that you read it for yourself (along with the links to the primary source literature). But I’m going to summarize his findings here:
Q: Does stretching reduce the risk of injuries during exercise?
A: Not that we can prove.
Q: Does stretching help you avoid soreness after exercise?
Q: Does stretching make you stronger or faster?
A: No. In fact, there is some evidence that stretching can have the opposite effect. Why? Muscles have spring-like properties, so that when they are stretched out, they become less able to transmit as much force. Imagine the difference between the power of a thick, metal spring and a thin metal spring. Studies have shown that the more flexible you are, the less efficient you are as a runner.
My take away message is that there’s no need to flagellate yourself into stretching if you don’t like it. It really depends on what you need to do with your body – if you’re a gymnast, then stretching will always be a part of your life. If you’re a runner who hates yoga, so be it. You may never win a toe-touching competition, but then again, you can probably crush the Primal Games competition. Wish me luck as I attempt to do just that in two weeks!