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Carl Foulstone and Dr Kevin Till
35
All People

To Stretch or Not to Stretch? That is the Question

This blog aims to clarify the often conflicting research around stretching. It includes practical guidance for coaches, describing how to understand stretching, and how to incorporate it appropriately into warm-ups

Flexibility and the full range of motion around a joint is seen as a key aspect of physical ability, especially within young and developing athletes.

Stretching aims to improve the range-of-motion (ROM) around a joint, and thus the flexibility of the individual. Static stretching has traditionally been used as part of a warm up, with coaches using it to avoid injury and prepare the athlete for the physical demands of training or competition. 

Recently there have been concerns raised over the use of static stretching due to limited evidence that static stretching prevents injury or muscle soreness with some suggesting that static stretching may actually cause performance decrements to power, running speed, and reaction time.

This raises the question for a coach as to whether we should stretch or not?

When coaches think of stretching they often assume this is static stretching. However, there are a number of types that can be performed to increase ROM and flexibility.

The table below summarises the different types of stretching.

Dynamic stretching versus different stretching types

Research suggests that for sports that require high intensity efforts, (e.g. football), dynamic stretching has been found to improve sprint performance over 10-20 metres. This was when compared to general sprint specific warm ups that included static, dynamic or combined static-dynamic stretches in a group of young sprinters. 

Dynamic stretches were found to evoke the best sprint performances and the quickest reaction times compared to the static and combined protocols. Therefore dynamic stretches seem to be the most effective stretching protocol prior to exercise.

All of the above research has been done on dry-land sports, but what if you’re a swimming coach, do you use static or dynamic stretches along with your usual swimming warm up?

Moran (2014) revealed that a typical pool-based warm up of 20 minutes in duration, reduced any expected performance deficits from the static stretching.

This suggests that swimmers can perform similar land-based warm ups to other sports in order to assist with the preparation for performance, as long as there is the sport specific component of a pool based warm up within the session.

Unlike other sports that require the competitor to be strong and powerful, aesthetic sports (e.g. gymnastics) require athletes to have a large ROM in most of the joints, but they also require the athlete to still be strong and powerful throughout the range of movement (e.g. the vault and floor routines).  

Therefore a static stretching flexibility programme cannot be overlooked as part of a gymnasts overall training, so that they can develop their ROM alongside their strength and power capabilities.

Volume and duration

It appears that holding a stretch for longer, or holding a stretch at an uncomfortable range, causes greater negative effects on performance.

A review found that when a static stretch was held for 2-3 sets of 15 seconds it had no negative effect on performance, however in the studies which used >2 sets of >30s stretching, detrimental effects to physiological performance were caused (Pratt, 2014).

Pratt (2014) provides some practical guidance on stretching suggesting that 1-2 sets of 10-25s of static, ballistic, or PNF stretching may be beneficial to performance and ROM.

He also states that static stretching of this manner is not detrimental to performance and may actually increase ROM.

Practical recommendations

Stretching is an important part of the physical development of an athlete and should be considered by all coaches within their coaching practice. The following guidance provided the recommendations:

  • Dynamic stretches that follow the movement patterns of your specific sport, such as, walking lunges and leg swings should be applied at the start of a session, as part of a 10-15 minute RAMP warm up, to ensure optimal performance.
  • Static, ballistic or PNF stretching may be beneficial to range of motion and should be performed post training or as a separate flexibility session (as a recovery session the day after competition to increase ROM and alleviate DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness). 

Related Content

If you found this blog helpful there is also some great advice shared in this ConnectedCoaches - our free online community for coaches of all sports and activities - conversation thread: Pre-match warm ups - the science of stretching.

  • How to RAMP it up as a Talented Athlete

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  • Youth Physical Development Model

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  • How to Coach the Fundamentals of Movement

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Carl Foulstone and Dr Kevin Till