I hate stretching.
There, I said it. And it feels a bit empowering. But after my last post about being sore and feeling some weird pains, I started wondering if stretching was a piece of the exercise puzzle I have been missing for the last 15 years.
First, a brief history of me and stretching:
My favorite kind of stretching as a little kid playing soccer was when you pulled your leg up behind you because then you looked like either a pirate without a wooden leg or like a flamingo at rest. I liked to lead stretching during marching band practice because it meant I got to say silly things out loud. One time, I got everyone in the mellophone section to sit with their feet pulled in doing a butterfly stretch, and then roll around on the ground (this is really hard to describe accurately). Stretching rarely feels good to me, and I always have hated doing downward dog because I never do it right.
But, as it’s been awhile since I’ve done some online research, I thought I might want to check out if I’m just being a stretching pansy and should be limbering up before working out.
At first Google, it was easy to find an article posted within the hour in USA Today about new findings from the USA Track and Field hepcats. Between runners who normally stretched and those who did not, the rate of injury was the same; the only finding that suggested you should stretch is if you already do. Otherwise…”do what you do.” This article seemed too easy, so I dug a little deeper.
According to the USATF’s own website, the study had more to it than that (thank God. And let this be a lesson to you kids not to trust every news source out there). Except, the only other piece of information was this: “Two of the variables recorded were found to strongly influence injury rates; people with a higher body-mass-index were more likely to be injured as were people with a recent or chronic injury prior to participating in the study.” Time to stop fooling around and go to my favorite source (besides Dr. Dad) for running news: Runner’s World.
A quick flash of typing “stretching” into the Runner’s World search bar got me pages and pages of essays, thoughts, and tips about stretching. Ahhh. The good stuff. I knew I wasn’t the only runner who was curious about stretching. There’s Amby Burfoot, whose article “Does Stretching Prevent Injuries?” appeared in the August 2004 issue, and who found out a lot about stretching from a paper presented and published by the Center of Disease Control. According to the CDC:
“Their key conclusions: stretching does increase flexibility; the highest-quality studies indicate that this increased flexibility doesn’t prevent injuries; few athletes need extreme flexibility to perform their best (perhaps just gymnasts and figure skaters); and more injuries would be prevented by better warmups, by strength training, and by balance exercises, than by stretching.”
So basically, I should be hitting the gym down the block or pretending the curb is a balance beam or swinging my hips around rather than stretching. In fact, stretching may actually be hindering people from getting around to lifting weights, doing crunches, or engaging in a few high-knees.
Curiouser still, it appears that stretching might do more harm that good (which I do vaguely recall Dr. Dad telling me, and why I was never allowed to do the hurdler stretch as a child). Burfoot notes the CDC as stating, “…stretching won’t change eccentric muscle activity (when a muscle simultaneously contracts and lengthens, as in downhill running), which is believed to cause most injuries; stretching can produce damage at the skeletal level; and stretching appears to mask muscle pain, which could cause the exerciser to ignore this key pre-injury signal.” Ah-ha.
It occurs to me that years ago, when my favorite part of stretching was emulating a flamingo, I might not have been too off base in terms of setting myself up for a healthy active lifestyle. Time to get my balancing exercises on.