Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 22 Sep 2002 19:42:12 -0400

The End of Stretching?

RUNNING COMMENTARY 432

As is my habit, I ran, then stretched for a few minutes last Saturday morning, then climbed into my car for a drive home. As is another habit, I tuned the radio to the local public station broadcasting NPR's morning news.

Host Scott Simon talked in mid-interview to someone with an Aussie-accented voice. Simon referred to him as "Mr. Herbert," and I caught only enough of the exchange to hear him speak against stretching exercises.

Back home, the morning's e-mail brought a comment and question from longtime RC reader Ron Marianetti. He wrote, "A recent study out of Australia indicates that stretching does very little to prevent muscle injury. What are your thoughts?"

Many of them had appeared in these pages earlier this year, in a piece titled, "Stretching a Point" (RC 400). I told there of being a stretcher whose faith in this practice isn't absolute, then listed my beliefs on what it does and doesn't do for a runner.

Now research seemed to be saying that it does little or no good. Tell me more.

Ron Marianetti pointed me to a newspaper reprint on the Australian study. Knowing that such stories are often sketchy or sensationalized, I dug up the original report.

The British Medical Journal carried the article, "Effects of Stretching Before and After Exercise on Muscle Soreness and Risk of Injury." Ron Herbert, a physiotherapist at the University of Sydney, headed this study co-authored by Michael Gabriel. You can read it in all its statistical glory at http://bmj.com/cgi/reprint/325/7362/468.pdf

The Australians didn't conduct a study directly. Instead they carefully reviewed earlier research on the subject. They stopped short of saying that runners waste our time by stretching, but couldn't uncover solid scientific support for it either.

Herbert and Gabriel concluded, "Stretching before or after exercising does not confer protection from muscle soreness. Stretching before exercising does not seem to confer a practically useful reduction in the risk of injury, but the generality of this finding needs testing."

They also looked into whether or not these exercises improve athletic ability by increasing range of motion. Evidence was insufficient to draw a conclusion one way or the other.

The Australians added that "most athletes will consider effects too small to make stretching to prevent later muscle soreness worthwhile." Also, "the average subject would need to stretch for 23 years to prevent one injury."

So do these findings signal the end of stretching as we've known it? Doubtful. The practice would have faded away long ago if it had no perceived benefit, yet it has been a mainstay of training for the past 30 years. Runners won't suddenly stop stretching now, any more than they'd stop running on hearing one negative report of its effects.

The evidence offered here is rather flimsy, raising more questions than it answers. Such as:

-- How specific are these studies to runners? They address "exercise," not running as such.

-- If running is involved, how much, how often and how fast? Misuse of any of these factors -- along with poor shoe and surface/terrain choices -- can override the alleged benefits of stretching.

-- If runners are involved, who are they? The centerpiece study reviewed here dealt with 2600 military recruits, divided equally into stretching and stretchless groups. The recruits probably went into the program relatively untrained, which meant that some were likely to get hurt whether they stretched or not. They probably all trained the same way -- which meant the type, amount and intensity didn't suit most of them.

-- How old were the test subjects, and how long had they been running? The military recruits surely were young and inexperienced as runners, and the youthful new runner is naturally more flexible than the older longtime one. Put another way, the more years you have in life and in running, the more that stretching might help you.

-- When did they stretch? The group of soldier-stretchers did so only before they exercised. But we're usually told now that it helps more when done afterward.

-- How did they stretch? As with the various types of running and degrees of effort, there are safe and risky ways to stretch. Before drawing solid conclusions about the worth of this practice, researchers need to control and explain more precisely what the stretching routine is.

Meanwhile it's much to soon to write the obituary of this practice. This one report hasn't ended my longtime habit of post-run stretching or changed my longstanding advice on this subject.

That is, if you think stretching helps, do it. If not, don't.

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