All you need to know about stretching


Longer duration stretches have more prolonged effects. (Credits: Pixabay)

Coaches always tell skaters to stretch, but what does science say about the role of stretching in improving the performance and preventing injuries? Martina Ricci, doctor, synchro skater for 18 years, and editor for Jura Synchro reviewed the scientific literature.

Warm-up routines before skating are a widely accepted practice by coaches and athletes, but there is little scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness. Moreover, the efficacy of warm-up routine is dependent upon the procedures and techniques used.

The main goal of any warm-up routine should include injury prevention, performance enhancement, and, last but not least, a "potentiation" of psychological values, especially before a competition [1]. 

Figure skating requires both strength, flexibility and movement precision. For this reason, the purpose of stretching is to ensure the skater achieves a sufficient range of motion in his or her joints to perform the athletic activity optimally, also allowing a freer movement pattern and [2] to increase muscle compliance reducing stiffness thereby theoretically decreasing injury risk. 

Stretching is therefore intended to affect both performance and injury risk. While there is a good rationale for why stretching could impact the risk of sustaining a muscle strain injury, its real effect on muscle strain rate has not been adequately researched in sports with a high incidence of these lesions. Moreover, current evidence suggests that stretching alone is not able to provide an injury prevention benefit. 

More recently, researchers and sports medicine practitioners have underlined the importance of a more complex and complete Neuromuscular Training that could reduce lower limb, acute knee and ankle injuries.

However, the practicality of these findings for many individuals, teams and clubs may be limited due to the need for some particular equipment (for example, balance boards) and the requirement of additional training sessions to normal practice and competition. In these cases, a more practical solution could be to incorporate neuromuscular training programs which do not require additional equipment into current warm-up routines. [2]

What about stretching duration?
Static stretching (SS) seems to decrease the risk of injury by 5% in a typical 12-week muscle stretching program and reduce soreness by 2% over the first 72 hours after exercise. Despite these findings, some studies established that acute static stretching had an adverse effect on various different maximal performances.

Some researchers [3] showed that a SS of short duration (30 seconds) increased flexibility and did not have a negative effect on the muscle force. On the contrary, gymnasts (athletes evaluated in the study) who performed SS more than 15 minutes had worse jumping performances, so a longer duration could be detrimental. 

Anyway, it is well known that after 5-6 minutes of interval between stretching and the beginning of the performance, the impairment due to SS goes away: so by the time we wear our skates the “bad” side of stretching has already disappeared [1].

On the contrary, longer duration stretches clearly have more prolonged effects. Different studies together provide some insight into the total duration of stretches required to get a prolonged decrease in passive resistance; 4 × 30 seconds (2min) and 2 × 45 seconds (1.5min) appear to be insufficient while 5 × 60s (5min) and 4 × 90s (6min) appear to be effective.

The effects of a 4 min stretching of a muscle is still apparent after 10 min (Ryan et al., 2008) and this may be the minimal static stretch duration required to provide a prolonged effect in that single muscle passive resistance. That means it would take about 20 min to effectively stretch both the agonist and antagonist muscle groups bilaterally.

If two or three sets of agonists and antagonists are to be stretched, as would be typical in preparation for a sports activity involving numerous joints and body parts as figure skating, total stretching duration should be 40–60min, if the goal is to decrease passive resistance in those target muscle groups. This amount of time is often too long in typical pre-skating stretching practices.

Stretching protocols that include exercises involving more than one muscle group can reduce the total time for an effective warm-up. For example, performing a straight leg raise hamstring stretch (for example a 135° spiral position) with the non stretched leg held in neutral hip flexion (that means “while standing up”) means that the hip flexors of the non stretched leg are being stretched at the same time as the contralateral hamstrings.

Intermittent or continuous stretching: what is the best?
Intermittent stretching seems to be more effective than continuous, for both long-term and acute range of motion enhancement in a study on preadolescent female athletes. Intermittent stretching conferred a larger improvement in range of movement (ROM) compared to both continuous stretching and no-stretching from the third week of a stretching program until the end of the analyzed training period [4].

Try to choose exercises involving more than one muscle group. (Credits: Pixabay)

In practical terms, skaters must have a sufficient range of motion in their joints in order to perform our particular sport adequately. With or without stretching, a period of warm-up will generally be required to achieve this range of motion. Whether this can be achieved by stretching alone, warm-up alone, or by a combination of warm-up and stretching has not been established in the literature. 

From the existing literature, the following stretching recommendations for injury prevention seem reasonable:

- Target stretching to muscle groups known to be at risk for a particular sport, e.g., hip flexor and extensor in figure skating

- Apply at least four to five 60 sec stretches to pain tolerance to the target muscle groups and perform bilaterally in order to be confident of decreasing passive resistance to stretch

- Include neuromuscular training in your practice [5].

- Don’t also forget to stretch after practice to relax the tired muscles.

Hopefully, future experimental and epidemiological studies will provide more substantial data to guide such recommendations.

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Scientific resources
[1] L. Guidetti, A. Di Cagno, M. C. Gallotta, C. Battaglia, M. Piazza, and C. Baldari, “Precompetition warm-up in elite and subelite rhythmic Gymnastics,” J. Strength Cond. Res., vol. 23, no. 6, pp. 1877–1882, Sep. 2009.

[2] K. Herman, C. Barton, P. Malliaras, and D. Morrissey, “The effectiveness of neuromuscular warm-up strategies, that require no additional equipment, for preventing lower limb injuries during sports participation: a systematic review,” BMC Med., vol. 10, p. 75, Jul. 2012.

[3] Y. Ogura, Y. Miyahara, H. Naito, S. Katamoto, and J. Aoki, “Duration of static stretching influences muscle force production in hamstring muscles,” J. Strength Cond. Res., vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 788–792, Aug. 2007.

[4] O. Donti, K. Papia, A. Toubekis, A. Donti, W. A. Sands, and G. C. Bogdanis, “Flexibility training in preadolescent female athletes: Acute and long-term effects of intermittent and continuous static stretching,” J. Sports Sci., vol. 36, no. 13, pp. 1453–1460, Jul. 2018

[5] M. P. McHugh and C. H. Cosgrave, “To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance,” Scand. J. Med. Sci. Sports, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 169–181, Dec. 2009.