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Health & Fitness

Olympians Don’t Stretch: the athlete’s best kept secret

Sports teachers and personal trainers have been telling you for years – ‘stretch or you’ll pull a muscle!’ So intuitive is the idea that few dispute it. Enter Matt Linsdell, our new Fitness Guru: a self-professed ‘evidence-based’ personal trainer who dares to challenge health orthodoxies. Most of the time he doesn’t bother stretching, and here is why you shouldn’t either…

As you watch the Olympic Games this summer, odds are you won’t see any of the athletes stretching. You might expect to see Usain Bolt standing by the starting blocks before the 100 meter sprint with hands on hips in a semi lunge – but I bet you won’t. Or perhaps you’ll see an athlete with one arm crossed over the other waiting for the opportunity to toss a discus? That’s not going to happen. You won’t even see a swimmer sitting on the ground with feet bottoms pressed against one another before entering the pool.

So why won’t today’s top athletes – who are at the pinnacle of physical fitness – not bother to stretch their muscles? The world’s greatest ever sports men and women should surely be giving themselves every opportunity to perform at their best. And that is precisely why they are NOT stretching.

I’ll cut to the chase and answer a few questions about what stretching can and can’t do:

  • Does stretching prevent injury? No
  • Does stretching prevent muscle soreness? No
  • Does stretching warm you up? No
  • Does stretching increase flexibility? YES

Surprised? Now for some more detail…

Myth 1: Stretching prevents injuries

There is no good evidence in the scientific literature to show stretching your muscles protects against getting injured. Quite the contrary. Stretching actually causes small amounts of damage – although this in itself is no big deal. On any given day it’s probably a good thing: muscle damage actually leads to strength gains – providing you allow adequate healing time. But these gains are relatively small and the body’s adaptation peaks fairly quickly. If you are an inactive person and you start going to a normal yoga class (basically stretching) you might notice an increase in strength. But the increase won’t keep progressing and will probably peak after a month or two. So our Olympic contenders, who need to perform at their absolute best, know that any muscle damage is only going to detract from their performance.

Myth 2: Stretching prevents soreness

Muscle soreness is caused by the body’s immune response to muscle damage after sustained training. It’s the way muscles heal and repair. Stretching hasn’t been shown to do anything whatsoever for your immune system – or the rate of muscle recovery. Sure, it might distract you from the pain of sore muscles, but the effect will be fleeting and it certainly doesn’t speed up healing. It just feels nice.

Myth 3: Stretching is a warm up

It’s probably important to define terms here. Whipping your legs around like John Cleese at the ministry of silly walks is not stretching. Some people would call that ‘dynamic stretching’. That’s just semantics. The sort of movements that qualify as an exercise are those that cause repeated muscle contraction. This, in turn, increases the temperature of the muscle and prepares you for your chosen activity. Static stretching will not do this. In the words of the ever poignant Paul Ingraham (from saveyourself.ca):

“You simply cannot ‘warm up’ your muscles by stretching them: that’s like trying to cook a steak by pulling on it.”

Stretching does make you more flexible

Germany - Floor

Impressive. Rather you than me though. (Source: Flickr)

Thank goodness there is something positive that stretching can do! Stretching improves flexibility, although the mechanism by which this happens is not clear. Prolonged and intense static stretching has been shown to increase the flexibility of joints. This is thought to be because stretching desensitises you from the discomfort of moving your limbs outside their normal range. The question I pose to you if you are going to stretch is – why? What are you going to do with that extra flexibility? More importantly, is it healthy? No one can answer with any degree of certainty whether hyper-mobile joints equate to a healthier person. And simply being able to kick someone in the face doesn’t really count as a good reason to increase your flexibility! I would however suggest that, before you embark on a mission to increase your flexibility, you make sure you know the reason. If you reach your goal of suppleness, then just make certain you use your skill for good, not evil!

I’m sure you can now see why Olympians won’t be stretching before a big event (and possibly not even after). Some of them do use stretching as an essential part of their training regime, gymnasts being the obvious example. A number of other athletes also stretch to increase flexibility and so improve their performance: hurdlers, swimmers, divers, and the ones with the long skinny swords.

You are welcome to disagree with my view, but please ask yourself, “why?” It’s likely you’ve had someone in authority instruct you to stretch, and then spent years thinking about how beneficial it is. Just keep in mind what I’ve written is not just my opinion: it is based on current scientific knowledge borne out of carefully conducted experiments. I won’t disagree that stretching feels good. So if you like doing it, carry on. Just don’t hurt yourself.

References:

About The Author:


Matt is a certified personal trainer and has a degree in Environmental Science. He calls himself an evidence-based trainer, because training is a field which is littered with well-disguised pseudoscience – his emphasis is always on teaching the biology behind exercise. He lives at the edge of the beautiful and expansive Gatineau Park in Quebec and works across the water in Ottawa, Ontario. If he’s not out walking his two pit bulls, you’ll find him doing press ups with insanely large weights on his back. Follow Matt on Twitter at @smartfitmatt.

Discussion

12 Responses to “Olympians Don’t Stretch: the athlete’s best kept secret”

  1. This article is based on a completely false premise: That Olympic athletes don’t stretch.

    Though a few (older and clearly cherry-picked) sources are cited, the author is clearly unaware that most Olympic and professional sports teams rely on stretching as a key aspect of athlete preparation. This simple fact calls into question the credibility of the author and suggests that the entire article is best ignored.

    I know two of the people who are in London providing stretching expertise for members of the USA Olympic Team right now. (I also have photographic evidence showing current Olympic team athletes being stretched.)

    I know a man who has spent decades teaching stretching to many coaches and trainers who work with Olympic and other elite/professional athletes, and who has worked with those athletes himself for many years.

    I know therapists who work with professional and elite sports teams and athletes all over America, mainly providing stretching services. The testimonials provided by their clients are staggering in number and quality.

    I have personally provided stretching services to Olympians, world champions, and professional athletes competing in a variety of sports. My job is to facilitate performance and recovery, and flexibility training is a key part of that process. At the 2012 USA Half Marathon National Championships, stretching assistance was the primary service that I provided to the elite international and American runners. Some have written testimonials about their results, citing new PRs, less pain, etcetera.

    The author of this article is so intent on dismissing the potential usefulness of stretching that he fails to examine why different types of stretching techniques exist or why some may be more applicable than others for various applications. Volumes have been written on this topic, and many more will be written in the future as science advances.

    Stretching remains a contentious subject primarily because of how studies have been conducted in the past. Most studies were poorly designed/executed, or focused solely upon a single stretching method. As the neurological mechanisms involved in stretching become better understood, we are likely to see a much stronger evidential foundation for the broad popularity and application of stretching in elite and professional athletics.

    Posted by Jason Erickson, NCTMB, ACE-CPT, etc. | August 8, 2012, 8:07 am
    • Thanks for all the anecdotes Jason Erickson. Also for the personal attack. They don’t support your statements though.

      I am not for or against stretching. I simply state what science knows about it based on the current data. If you have real evidence to contribute then please do.

      Write to Dr Stu at GURU and he will be happy to let you submit a counter article. Please provide lots of high quality references so we can all learn how wrong my cherry-picked sources are.

      Posted by Matthew Linsdell | August 8, 2012, 6:19 pm
  2. good article Matthew (good reply too!)

    Posted by Jon Robinson | August 8, 2012, 9:29 pm
  3. picutes of bolt stretching, But I thought you said they don’t stretch. Oh wait they do. fastest man in world stretches. say it ain’t so. There are 100s of pictures of top Olympians stretching and some how you say they don’t or should not?

    here are just 3 pictures.
    http://backontrackseminars.com/?attachment_id=241

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/olympics/article-2178998/London-2012-Training-real-stretch-Usain-Bolt-fitness-questions-grow-sprint-king.html

    or the blade runner.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/olympics/article-2181795/London-Olympics-2012-Oscar-Pistorius-set-explode-action.html

    Posted by Paul Turner. | August 10, 2012, 3:43 am
    • Paul, did you read the article? It is about why most athletes don’t stretch before they compete in a big event. It is about the science behind what stretching does and doesn’t do. The pictures you provided are not of the athletes stretching right before they compete. But I’m sure if you look long enough you’ll find one somewhere. I don’t think that will change what the science says about stretching though.

      Posted by Matthew Linsdell | August 10, 2012, 7:06 pm
  4. You will enjoy the work of Malachy McHugh, Peter Magnusson. I think it is important to discuss the neurologic aspects of stretching, the viscolelastic properties of muscles and tendons, neural mobility, how the length tension curve is affected by stretching at various points during the stretch as well as post stretch. Most of the effects of stretching return to baseline by 45 min after the stretching bout has occurred. This is an incredibly complex topic that must be discussed in a very specific context. I do think that people spend way too much time stretching and the only article that warrants stretching to prevent muscle strains was done by Ekstrom et al in soccer players who were closely supervised

    Posted by Chris Johnson | August 10, 2012, 5:54 pm
  5. This comment has been removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our commenting guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

    Posted by Pawel | August 11, 2012, 2:39 pm
  6. For me it is true that stretching prevents injury, I tried playing ones without stretching and it caused me a lot of pain the following day. Nice post Matthew.

    Posted by Peter | May 21, 2013, 10:49 am
  7. The author of this article is obviously not an athlete. It takes any one with the slightest amount of common sense to know you should stretch before lifting, running, swimming, etc. I have always been the kid that was better taught by pain than word of mouth. I might have even touched the stove twice as a kid before I learned the basic principle “Red is hot,” but as a devoted athlete it only takes one major injury before you learn that stretching IS a must. My advice to new and aspiring athletes is to completely forget about this bogus article because he is willing to jeaporidze your body’s well-being for his self-proclaimed ‘revolutionary discovery’. But all of this is just advice.

    Posted by J | May 29, 2013, 9:55 pm
  8. Incorrect article.

    “It’s so, so important to stretch before and after a race. I have a physio who stretches me – before I run I always do at least 40-45 minutes warm-up”

    Source:
    http://fhm.co.za/get-fitter-and-run-faster-with-usain-bolts-top-tips/

    Why would you try and falsely inform people?

    Posted by Zack | November 6, 2013, 5:41 pm

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