When is the best time to stretch? It might not be when you think.
Posted on October 6, 2021 by James Slauterbeck, M.D.
Stretching is an important part of athletic activity. Stretching increases flexibility and decreases risk of injury. Certain athletic activities like karate, gymnastics, volleyball and ballet require significant flexibility. Baseball, volleyball players and swimmers need to obtain maximum flexibility to hit or strike the ball and improve reach in the water. However, the timing of when to stretch is a very important part of athletic performance and injury prevention.
Stretching was once thought of as the important exercise to do before practice. Coaches lined up athletes and had them perform static stretching like the “hurdler stretch” to increase flexibility of the legs. Athletes often spend lots of time before practice static stretching to loosen up and prevent injury.
Unfortunately, static stretching causes a reflex inhibition of muscle strength and a decrease in muscle performance. This actually means that the muscle is not able to produce the same power after static stretching compared to before stretching. Therefore, athletic performance will temporarily decrease after static stretching.
There’s more. Athletes must increase joint flexibility to increase their performance and decrease the chance of injury. For example, when baseball and volleyball players increase the shoulder arc of motion and increase their external rotation, they actually increase the angular velocity to throw or strike a ball. On the other hand, when throwers and outside hitters decrease shoulder flexibility in their throwing/striking arm, they are at greater risk of injury and shoulder pain. Additionally, when a thrower/striker regains the loss of shoulder internal rotation - often by using a stretch called the sleeper stretch - the pain decreases and function improves. The increased joint motion and flexibility can greatly improve athletic performance.
So, how do we balance this information? Dynamic stretching and light-bounding exercises do not decrease muscle performance. Other activities like jogging build up body heat and create sweating. When the body is lightly sweating, the athlete is best able to maximize function, performance and decrease injury.
The best time to stretch is probably on an off day, after practice or after a work out. These are time points when a decrease on muscle power is probably okay.
If you or your team want the competitive edge, then warm up with a light jog and perform dynamic pre-practice activities. The PEP or FIFA 11+ program is an excellent dynamic warm-up program to decrease injury and increase performance. After the game or practice, circle up and finish the day with static stretching.