Can stretching prevent injury?

What about stretching?
 A common belief is that proper warm-ups and cool-downs and appropriate stretching exercises all help to reduce injury risk, but research is very equivocal on this point. In a recent study, 159 Dutch runners were taught how to warm up, cool down, and stretch effectively, while a second group of 167 similar runners received no ‘injury-prevention’ instruction at all. The warm-up and cool-down consisted of six minutes of very light running and three minutes of muscle-relaxing exercises, and the stretching, carried out twice a day for 10 minutes at a time, loosened up the runners’ hamstrings, quadriceps, and calf muscles.

However, over a four-month period, the injury rates were identical in the two groups, averaging about one injury per 200 hours of running, so the stretching, warm-ups, and cool-downs had no protective effect at all (‘Prevention of Running Injuries by Warm-Up, Cool-Down, and Stretching Exercises,’ The American Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 21(5), pp. 711-719, 1993). This study was carried out with endurance runners; in sprint performers the results might be quite different.

Interestingly enough, a second study showed that stretching could actually be associated with a higher risk of injury. In research carried out at the University of Hawaii, runners who stretched regularly were about 33-per cent more likely to be injured compared to those who never stretched (see Peak Performance, issue 46, July 1994). However, this same investigation determined that stretching carried out AFTER workouts actually lowered injury risk, while pre-workout stretching increased it.

To be protective, stretching apparently must be conducted when muscles are warm and less viscous – and therefore less resistant to being stretched out.

Aside from stretching after workouts, what other steps can be taken to tone down injury rates? Well, remember that any sport has an injury rate per hour of activity which is specific to that sport. In the case of running, for example, the rate is about one per 100 hours of participation. Of course, that means that total time spent training per week can be a pretty good predictor of injury. The runner who trains three hours a week will take about 33 weeks to get injured, for example, while the individual who works out five hours per week will limp to the sidelines about once every 20 weeks.

More training simply means more repetitive stress to the ‘weak link’ in the body which is prone to injury. It’s not surprising that studies carried out with runners uncover the highest injury rates in individuals who run more than 40 miles per week.




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