By Jake Francis
Growing up, in PE and playing football, the importance of stretching has always been emphasised to me (and the majority of people) as an essential in injury prevention. The theory behind this is that during exercise we are constantly shortening our muscles, so we have to return them to their original length after by stretching. Kinda, sorta makes sense... Just the same as it kinda, sorta makes sense to put the tomatoes with the vegetables even though it's a fruit. Controversial I know, but this idea that stretching is essential is outdated. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of benefits to stretching. Perhaps the most important benefit is increasing flexibility, for those that need flexibility (gymnasts, dancers, etc.) and those that have lost flexibility through injury.
However, suggesting it is essential to injury prevention is very questionable. Research has shown that stretching only decreases injury risk by about 4%... This is nothing when we compare that to strength and conditioning, which decreases injury risk by 69%! There is also evidence that stretching before exercise decreases muscle strength... not something you want to do if you are looking to prevent injury. Yes, this research is limited... it hasn't included the very dynamic warm-ups alongside stretching that seems to be common practice, which do seem to prevent injury.
So, us normal everyday people, let's stop putting such a great emphasis on stretching. If you don't feel much (if any) benefit then don't worry. If you feel it is helping you, then by all means carry on - it's not going to hurt either. However, for you athletes out there, let's start taking a serious look at the research.. will it benefit you in your sport? If there is a benefit of any kind and negligible risks, then it is probably worth you stretching (from a competitive perspective).
It is also worth noting that when we do get injured, we often lose a lot of range of movement. This means stretching to increase that range is important in the rehabilitation process - it can also help muscle fibres heel in a less haphazard way.
Stretching: Not a big deal, don't focus on it unless you're an athlete or injured!