Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Stretching is good for you. It keeps your body supple and flexible and you young at heart. It also reduces the risk of injury, right?

Wrong, says Dr Phil Maffetone, a US specialist in human biology, physiotherapy, Chinese medicine and kinesiology — the study of the principles of mechanics and anatomy in relation to human movement. His mantra is that "everyone is an athlete".

He works with professional and Olympic athletes, but also more ordinary mortals.

In a recent article on his blog, Maffetone says that most athletes stretch out of habit rather than any scientific rationale. In other words, they do so "religiously". They believe that it is doing them good.

Stretching is as ritualistic as "reading the new running shoe reviews", Maffetone says.

It often starts with young athletes. Their coaches encourage them to stretch to reduce injuries, he says. They mean well but may not be on the right track.

Opponents of stretching have based their criticism on two different perspectives, he says. One is clinical and includes physical findings, which show that muscle function diminishes after stretching. Other observations show that when researchers divide a group of athletes into stretchers and nonstretchers, they often find more injuries in the first group.

Maffetone says that the tradition of stretching is a difficult one to break. He hasn’t come up with his views overnight — he first learned about the dangers of stretching in the mid-1970s.

Over the years, research has shown again and again that stretching does not prevent injury, he says. Research also shows that it won’t help endurance performance and can cause harm.

With increased awareness and evidence, more athletes, sports medicine professionals and coaches are "quietly changing sides in the stretching vs nonstretching debate", Maffetone says.

His recommendation has always been to "include an active, aerobic warm-up as part of each workout or race".

Scientific study does not support the belief that regular stretching prevents overall injury rates, certainly not in a pre-exercise setting
Dr Austin Jeans

This can be slow running, cycling, swimming or any aerobic activity that lasts at least 12 to 15 minutes. It will improve lung capacity, he says, and fat-burning. It will also increase flexibility safely. Stretching simply "cannot do the same."

Is he throwing the stretching baby out with the scientific bath water? Yes and no, says Zimbabwe sports and lifestyle medicine physician Dr Austin Jeans, who started his medical career in the military and emergency medicine. He then did a postgraduate degree in sports medicine at the University of Cape Town.

He has been Zimbabwe’s chief medical officer to four Olympic teams, three Africa Games teams and the national cricket, rugby, judo and hockey teams. He is a member of the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee’s medical commission and sits on World Rugby’s developing nations medical subcommittee.

Jeans also consults to several national sports federations and is medical director of the Rolf Valley Sports Medicine Centre.

He says that many beliefs and myths underscore stretching (flexibility training) for active individuals or older persons. Few are based on solid evidence. There are many different types of flexibility training, each with their own technique variations and different effects on different people, Jeans says.

The main reason most people are cited for flexibility training is to prevent injury.

"Scientific study does not support the belief that regular stretching prevents overall injury rates, certainly not in a pre-exercise setting," he says.

There is some evidence that regular stretching after exercise may be associated with up to 32% of injury reduction.

"The main challenge is to provide broad-based generalised advice regarding stretching," Jeans says.

Different types of stretching affect musculoskeletal structures (muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascial connective tissue) in different ways. "Static stretching" [holding a stretch in a challenging but comfortable position for a short period, usually 10 to 30 seconds] is probably the most widely practised form, Jeans says.

If you hold these stretches for a short period — up to 30 seconds — and do them regularly, they may improve flexibility. In the short term the muscle-tendon gains in flexibility are minimal and short-lived: a few millimetres at a time and they last just a couple of hours.

Long-hold static stretches beyond 60 seconds do not appear to produce any greater flexibility benefit. They may actually reduce muscle "eccentric" strength for up to an hour. Eccentric in this case refers to the strength of a muscle-tendon when loaded while on stretch, such as the Achilles tendon when the
foot lands during running.

"This performance decrement would not be a
good thing for a sportsperson about to run, skip, hop or jump," Jeans says.

He describes other forms of stretching, such as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation contract-hold-relax type. It has similar limitations to static stretching in short term benefits and muscle strength dysfunction immediately after stretching, he says.

There is also myofascial flexibility training. It activates neuromyofascial (connective) tissues and produces more profound flexibility gains for longer periods — up to 48 to
72 hours.

Flexibility gains may be advantageous for activities that demand maximal ranges of joint movement, such as
ballet, gymnastics and diving, Jeans says.

However, like all good things in life, too much flexibility can be a bad thing. He identifies "potential drawbacks to excessive flexibility".

Repetitive movements at extreme ranges of motion predispose dancers to overuse joint injuries especially in the hip. People with "natural" ligament hyper-laxity (double-jointed) are capable of greater than normal joint ranges of movement. They are also already at a higher risk of joint instability and dislocation.

Female swimmers with hyper-laxity risk shoulder injury to their rotator cuff tendons. "These type of folk shouldn’t be doing flexibility training," Jeans says.

In essence, he says there is little evidence to support stretching as a pre-exercise routine. Rather, it should be an activity done after exercise by those who may benefit.

Myofascial stretching may be more functionally useful for flexibility gain than static or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation type stretches, Jeans says. "The best exercises to do before activity are dynamic movement pattern exercises."

These should be specific to the sport as these warm up the muscles and switch on the nerve pathways for optimal muscle-tendon performance.

And, of course, the body and mind are inextricably linked. The ancient Greeks spoke of a sound mind in a sound body. The same applies to the flexible mind.

Vanda Scaravelli was a renowned yoga teacher who came to the discipline relatively late in life.

She died in fine flexible form aged 91 in 1999. One favourite of mine among her quotes is on the holistic benefits of flexibility training: "A rigid mind is very sure but often wrong. A flexible mind is generally unsure but often right."

• Sboros is editor and publisher of Foodmed.net

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