Stretching before or after hitting the squash court might be a waste of time. It does little to reduce injuries or muscle soreness, say researchers. Warning up and cooling down by stretching was thought to reduce the risk of unused muscles going into painful spasm. The spasm theory turned out to be wrong, but the stretching habit stuck. It is one of the "many superstitions about how to prevent injury and improve performance", comments physiotherapist Rob Herbert of the University of Sydney, Australia. Herbert and his colleagues Michael Gabriel have reviewed the evidence on stretching.'
They found five published studies with sample large enough and controls good enough to be considered reliable. All measured the effects of stretching on muscle soreness; two also looked at injury risk. There's no conclusive evidence that stretching protects muscles, agrees London-based physiotherapist Mark Todman.
"In fact, you can make your joints more vulnerable by overstretching," he says. Experiments on rabbits give the same result, says Thomas Best of the University of Wilsconsin, Madison. "We think that when we stretch we're changing the tissues in some way that'll prevent injury," he says. "But in an animal model, stretching doesn't seem to affect muscle damage. "Stretching may be good for some groups, says Best, including the elderly.
All the reviewed studies were always on healthy young adults, such as students, army recruits and others.
If the benefits of stretching are a myth along with having cold showers and abstaining from sex before a game is there anything people can do to improve their performance and reduce the after effects of sport.
Todman recommends a gentle jog before strenuous exercise. This "may prevent injury, but the evidence is very sparse," says Herbert. He thinks that repeated brisk, good exercise alone builds up resistance to muscle damage: "The only best way to prevent soreness is to get soreness."