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To stretch or not to stretch before an event?

Stretching before a sporting event is a controversial topic amongst athletes and sports science experts. Some experts advocate stretching. Others claim that it causes more harm than good. Putting aside the various types of stretches that one can do, should one stretch or warm-up before a sporting event? The short answer is always warm-up but stretch selectively depending on the sport you play and your body’s limits.

Always warm-up

We should always warm-up before a sporting event. There is no ambiguity on this. Warming up helps prepare the muscles and joints for dynamic activity to follow. If unprepared, the muscles and joints are prone to injury such as hamstring tears in sprinters.

Warm-up doesn’t mean stretching

Unfortunately, most people equate stretching with warming-up. While stretching warms you up, it is not the only way to warm up. You can warm up for 5-15 minutes to raise your body temperature without stretching. You could do gentle cardio-vascular work such as slow-paced running, sideways and backwards skipping-running and high knee lifts. So always warm up before a sporting event.

The controversy on stretching before an event

The advocates for “no-stretching” before a sporting event do so for two reasons – loose joints and power loss.

  1. Loose Joints – They believe that stretching loosens the joints too much. Lax joints do not hold up as well under rapid vigorous movement, leading to potential injury.

  1. Power Loss – Muscles that are over-stretched lose their ability to contract forcefully to generate explosive power.

On the other hand, those who advocate ‘stretching’ do not see any conclusive evidence that suggest it loosens joints excessively or that significant muscle power is lost.

These two reasons are only applicable where explosive power is required by the sport. Sports that fall into this category include track & field event such as sprinting, javelin, weight-lifting and golf. (See chart).

It also matters which body part you are stretching. In the 100m sprint, stretching your wrist for 100m sprint event is not a concern but over-stretching your hamstring is. For tennis, over-stretching your playing wrist is a concern but not for your non-playing wrist.

Why can't we find out once and for all?

To gather evidence conclusively either way, to stretch or not to stretch is difficult. Each person reacts differently to varying amounts of stretching in terms of how long you hold the stretch for, how far do you stretch and the number of sets you do. What is enough for someone may be excessive or insufficient for someone else.

As it is unlikely we will ever know which method works best any time soon, the best approach for your particular sports is through trial and error. If your sport is sprinting, stretch you hamstrings progressively and keep track of the outcomes after each event. Was it too much and you lost some power? Was it too little and you strained your muscle? Science can only give us guidelines. Listening to your own body and fine tuning your routine is an art only you can practice.

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