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The "Secret Sauce" in Preventing Sports Injuries

Novak Djokovic is without question one of the most talented athletes in world. He is also one of the most flexible. Yep, he’s an everyday human “Gumby”.  As a professional athlete, his training regime incorporates a lot of stretching. Far more than most of us “mere mortals” will ever do. Yet, he has his fair share of sports injuries, as does many other professional athletes.  STRETCHING DOES NOT PREVENT SPORTS INJURIES! The evidence about this has been quite clear for at least 20 years, yet we continue to do so thinking it’s true.

For those of us that are passionate about stretching, this statement is not only shocking, but borders on outright “blasphemy”! After all, when growing up, weren’t we told that stretching is good for you and it prevents injury? I’m sure that many of us have heard (or said it to yourself), “Dang, I’ve pulled in a muscle in my ________ ! (you fill in the blank). I didn’t stretch enough.” Yeah, it’s a known “fact” that stretching prevents injury and muscle soreness. Right?! Well, no….wrong!  This is not a fact. Despite beliefs to the contrary, research has shown that stretching isn’t a good way to prevent injuries.

Dr. Stephen Thacker, the CDC’s head author of the study, “The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk”, pored over more than one hundred published papers on the subject and concluded, “Stretching does increase flexibility. However, the highest quality studies indicate that this DOES NOT prevent sports injuries. Few athletes need this increased flexibility to perform their best. Unless you’re doing an activity like gymnastics, figure skating or ballet that requires a specific type of flexibility (like doing splits), stretching probably won’t enhance your performance. Stretches held for long periods of time might decrease muscle power output.” Studies from the Mayo Clinic indicate that even if stretching is done properly, there are 3 potential hazards that can occur:

  1. Mild impairment of performance
  2. Traumatic injury (sprains and strains) from over-stretching
  3. Traumatic injury due to pathological vulnerabilities (mainly the hypermobility disorders, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome etc.)

They have concluded that stretching is not an important part of fitness and wellness. The Institute of Medicine has conducted their own studies and are now recommending that tests of flexibility be removed from Youth Fitness Testing because of “a lack of evidence for an association between flexibility and health outcomes.”

Dr. Ian Shrier, an internationally recognized expert in Sports Science Epidemiology and past president of The Canadian Society of Sports Medicine, emphatically states that stretching will not prevent sports injuries. He states, “One of the main reasons it will not is because stretching won’t change eccentric muscle contraction.” He further states, “The basic science and clinical evidence today suggests that stretching before exercise is more likely to cause injury than prevent it, because it can weaken the muscle tendon connection.” You mean to say that the very thing that I’ve been extolling my patients to do during most of my professional career, is useless? Stretching was part of my treatment protocol for not only the athletes in my practice, but for all my patients as well.  When patients experienced a sports injury, I would point my finger at the “lack of proper stretching” as the culprit. I couldn’t be wrong! So, I read hundreds of journals and articles on stretching. Surprise, surprise! There was not one single study that could scientifically verify the benefits of stretching in the prevention of sports injuries. If you can find one, please contact me and I’ll gladly include it in my next article.

Okay, okay, I will concede (albeit, reluctantly) that stretching doesn’t prevent injury, but I do know that stretching prevents post-exercise soreness. I know this from my own personal experience as an athlete and from the experience of others. Well, wrong again! This, I am now being told is merely anecdotal!  There is no science to substantiate that stretching eliminates or reduces DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Dr. Gary Liquori, PHD, dean of the College of Health Science at the University of Rhode Island and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine concluded, after analyzing data on stretching from 12 studies with more than 2,300 participants, that muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in DOMS in healthy individuals.

With all this being said (and studied), lots of people will probably still tell you their stories of how stretching has absolutely helped them in preventing injury and soreness… but the case against stretching has science on its side.

By Dennis P. Harkins, DC, CCSP This is part one of a two part series from Dennis. Stay tuned for Part Two coming soon.


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