Call it the stretching myth: the idea that stretching before a workout in the gym or a run in the park is essential to your performance and well-being. That truism, we are told, is no longer valid.

Sports medicine specialists have been telling us for several years now that the traditional so-called “static” stretches that pervaded many of our childhood gym classes are a big no-no. Yet, check out any gym, track or sports field and you’re likely to see several people still dutifully conducting a series of this style of stretching before they begin their activities.

These people are putting their bodies at risk, says Dr. Grant Lum, a medical doctor specializing in sports medicine and founder of the Athletic Edge Sports Medicine Clinic in Toronto. “Cold stretching can actually increase your risk of injury,” Lum says.

Although stretching your ligaments and joints through held poses might feel pretty good, the micro-tears these stretches cause can translate into pain and reduced range of motion.

That’s why the advice these days revolves around warming up rather than stretching before an activity, Lum says. An ideal warm-up factors in the activity about to be undertaken and gently accustoms your body to some of its movements. “Use the muscles you’re going to use,” Lum says, “but not at the intensity at which you’ll use them.”

For example, a tennis player might jog around the court, shuffle from side-to-side and lob a few balls over the net to prep the muscles that are about to be engaged. Golfers could take practice swings. If you’re about to go for a run, meanwhile, simply start with a light jog.

Warming up your body primes it for injury-free movement.

Detrimental effect

There is evidence that cold stretching before an activity not only can cause injury, but can detrimentally affect performance, according to Dr. Margaret Burghardt, a medical doctor specializing in sports medicine with Rebound Physiotherapy & Sports Medicine in Barrie, Ont. Burghardt, who also is on the board of the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine, says that stretching lengthens some of the body’s tissues – tendons, muscles and ligaments – which can decrease their “spring,” thus reducing the force and power within those structures.

In other words, Burghardt says, runners who stretch beforehand may find they can’t run as fast or for as long as they would without stretching. Research indicates that their muscles tire faster than those of their non-stretching counterparts.

That’s not to say that all stretching is a waste of time. Working on general flexibility after a workout, when your body is nicely warmed up, is a good idea – especially for people over 40, Lum says. Targeting the big muscles (calves, hamstrings, quads, lower and upper back, and shoulders) through flowing stretches, held for no longer than 20 seconds each, will help with declining flexibility. Stretching also is a good therapeutic practice for people suffering from certain conditions, such as osteoarthritis, according to Burghardt.

But the theories behind the best stretches also have evolved. Every stretch can be placed in one of two categories. The first category is the static (or passive) stretch. This is the more traditional type of stretch, which uses your body weight or a device (such as a barre or strap) to force a stretch and hold it in place.

The second type is the dynamic (or active) stretch, which engages the muscle group opposite the muscle you’re stretching and moves the engaged muscle through its range of motion. This method, Lum says, is all about smooth, self-generated movements that are repeated several times rather than pushing the body into a “hold” position.

The trend in stretching these days is toward those dynamic stretches. “It’s a lot more effective to stretch actively,” Lum says.

Gently swinging

For example, the traditional way to stretch your upper hamstring was to use a ballet barre stretch, in which you would place one leg on a barre (or any ledge about waist-high) and try to bend toward it, holding the position for up to two minutes before releasing and repeating. Now, science says you’ll get a better stretch of your hamstring by gently swinging your leg into kicks, gradually swinging higher each time. Repeating this flowing movement 10 to 15 times will result in a marked improvement in flexibility.

This style of stretching – with its emphasis on working the antagonist muscle (the one opposing the one you want stretched) while using your own strength – tends to be a bit more challenging.

You need to know your body pretty well to co-ordinate such a stretch, and you need the muscular force and focus to generate this type of stretch.

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