If you’re like me, when you were young, you were probably told to stretch before your workout. No matter what the activity was, I was always told that it was crucial to stretch during a pre-sport warm-up and afterward to cool down. After all, stretching can help prevent injuries, right?
Actually, research has shown that stretching before a workout can negatively impact performance. Static stretching—where you stretch to the point of light tension and hold it there for several seconds—can also make you more prone to injury because your muscles loosen during the movement, causing them to be more flexible but also making them less able to spring into action quickly. This isn’t what you want just before a workout, whatever the effort might be.
Researchers from the University of Zagreb picked apart 104 former studies concerning pre-exercise static stretching. Their findings were shocking. The researchers found that muscle strength is reduced by 5.5% after static stretching; because of this, they concluded that stretched muscles are, generally, less powerful than unstretched muscles. In an interview with The New York Times, Goran Markovic, PhD, the study’s senior author and professor of kinesiology at the University of Zagreb, said: “We can now say for sure that static stretching alone is not recommended as an appropriate form of warm-up.”
3 Static-Stretching Myths
Despite the growing amount of research that’s not in favor of stretching before a workout, there are still a lot of myths floating around in fitness and endurance-sports circles.
Myth 1: You should stretch before running to prevent injury. Research published in the journal Sports Medicine states that stretching before jogging, cycling or swimming has no beneficial impact on injury prevention.
Myth 2: Stretching reduces soreness. In a review of 12 different studies, researchers concluded that stretching after exercise does not reduce muscle soreness.
Myth 3: A pre- or post-run stretch will keep you injury-free. While it may make you more flexible, stretching before and after a workout has not been clearly linked to preventing injury, according to the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. However, study authors conclude that additional research and well-conducted trials need to be done before they can recommend discontinuing, or endorsing, stretching in sports.
Although static stretching has been the norm for decades, there are a variety of alternative pre- and post-workout activities that can benefit athletes.
Stretch-Free Ways to Warm Up
1. Active Isolated Flexibility
Active Isolated Flexibility (AIF), which is unlike static stretching, has been popularized in the running world by Phil Wharton. AIF works one muscle group while the opposite is relaxed and lengthened. This does not occur during static stretching, where a stretch is held in one position. When AIF is performed before exercise, it can help to reduce injury risk and allow for a greater range of motion. After a workout, AIF can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and inflammation by increasing blood circulation and the flow of oxygen to myofascial structures, in addition to providing a metabolic flush.
Wharton, who’s worked with elite runners for over 15 years, is a runner himself and uses the AIF technique during his training and recovery. According to Wharton, AIF can be the best option for replacing static stretching both pre- and post-run for athletes of all levels.
Another bonus of AIF: The constant motion of the method provides a built-in safeguard against stretching too far. “Static stretching and static hold positions violate the body’s own defense mechanisms against overstretching,” says Wharton.
The following video provides a great introduction to AIF and demonstrates how to perform warm-up moves effectively.
2. Mobility Exercises
To warm up properly before a workout, Matt Fitzgerald, running coach and author, recommends a 10-minute (very easy) jog followed by a series of movements that take your body’s major joints through a full range of motion. Each of these movements should be done for 20 seconds:
Forward/backward arm swings
1. Use a stable surface for support and lean over, placing your right arm on the surface.
2. Gently swing your arm back and forth along the side of your body for 20 seconds.
3. Switch sides and repeat.
Side-to-side trunk rotations
1. Lie on your back with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
2. Keep your neck, back and shoulders flat on the floor. Slowly rotate your bent legs to the left then the right (back and forth) for 20 seconds.
1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
2. Step forward with your right leg and descend until your left knee almost touches the ground, keeping your posture upright and your right knee above your right foot.
3. Raise yourself back to the upright position, driving through the heel of your right foot.
4. Step forward with your left foot, and repeat the lunge on the other side. Keep repeating for 20 seconds.
Forward/backward leg swings
1. Stand in an upright position with hands on hips. Lift one leg forward as high as possible, while keeping it straight. Swing your leg forward.
2. Reverse the movement, swinging it back as high as possible.
3. Repeat for 10 seconds. Return to the start position, switch legs and swing for 10 seconds.
Side-to-side leg swings
1. Using the support of a wall or stable surface, swing the right leg to the side of the body, extending as high as possible, in a fluid motion.
2. Swing the right leg back in front of the body.
3. Comfortably increase the range of motion, repeating for 10 seconds, then switch to the left leg and repeat for 10 seconds.
Hops in place with locked knees
1. Stand with both feet a few inches apart.
2. Use the ankles to spring off the ground, keeping your knees as straight as possible.
3. Lower to the ground onto your toes at the end of each hop.
High knees in place
1. Stand with feet hip-width apart with your arms at your sides.
2. Jump from the left foot to the right foot, pulling the knees up as high as possible.
3. Repeat for 20 seconds.
Butt kicks in place
1. Stand with your knees close and arms at sides.
2. Kick your left foot, then right, backward toward your backside.
3. Repeat for 20 seconds.
Next, Fitzgerald recommends strides. For example, run for 20 seconds at a quick pace, walk for 20 seconds to recover, then repeat 3 more times. This pre-run warm-up will get your heart beating and your muscles ready for a race or a workout. If you’re looking for a simpler pre-run warm-up before a recovery or an easy effort, nix the 10-minute jog and strides and perform the mobility exercises.