Athletes and exercisers for years have believed that stretching is the first thing to do before competing or working out.
Increasingly, it appears that a brief warmup -- a short walk before a jog, a short jog before a tennis workout, some easy runs before an all-out sprint -- may be more vital than stretching. Warming up gets the nervous system, which controls coordination, dialed in and sends blood to muscles, making them pliable and ready for action.
“It's important to spend a few minutes warming up,” said Dawn Obermiller, wellness coordinator at Creighton University. “You want more blood flowing to the areas that you're about to work.”
As awareness of the importance of warming up has grown, the notion that stretching is crucial has come into question. Some studies have found that stretching doesn't necessarily diminish soreness, decrease the risk of injury or improve performance. That said, most exercise experts say a person's warmup and stretching regimen must fit the individual and the activity.
“One size does not fit all,” said Gib Willett, associate professor in physical therapy education at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “But definitely, the warmup is hugely important.”
Warm up gently to the point of breaking a sweat and feeling comfortable carrying out the activity required, he said.
Willett said the real question is whether stretching benefits a workout or a performance. “That's the debate out there,” he said.
As Karen Jankevicius lifted weights last week at the downtown YMCA, her banter with other exercisers showed she's a regular. She works out one way or another six days a week and sometimes seven. She uses the stair climber, rides bicycles, walks, hikes and lifts weights. Jankevicius, 53, gave up running three years ago after undergoing hip surgery.
She's a believer in stretching first, then perhaps doing a bit of walking, then getting after the day's workout.
“I definitely do believe it helps your flexibility and prevents injury,” she said of stretching. “I think it's important.”
But as with so many topics involving health, medicine and exercise, each individual and every expert has a slightly or considerably different view of the matter.
The British Medical Journal eight years ago reviewed several studies and concluded that stretching doesn't reduce injury or soreness. The study said insufficient research had been done on how stretching affects athletic performance.
University of Nevada-Las Vegas researchers two years ago found that stretching before competition decreases performance in sports requiring explosive movements, such as jumping.
Mike Bracko of the Canada-based Institute for Hockey Research said many athletes, such as baseball players and hockey players, have the importance of stretching ingrained in them and hate to do without it. Bracko said he'll let his players stretch at the end of a workout because he feels it might provide temporary relief from soreness.
Bracko said the best way to warm up for soccer, bicycling, tennis or other sports is by doing those sports at a low-intensity level. That gears up the muscles the athlete will use.
But Bracko also said stretching at some point during the day – not before the workout – can help make a person stronger.
Lynn Millar, an expert with the American College of Sports Medicine, said there have been flaws in research on stretching. For instance, with regard to performance, it's hard to find sprinters who will serve as guinea pigs, she said. They want to stretch and don't want to risk getting hurt.
“I am an advocate of stretching,” said Millar, a professor of physical therapy at Andrews University in Michigan. The more vigorous the activity, the more warmup and stretching required, Millar said. Like Bracko, Millar said stretching regularly at some point in the day is advisable. A person should focus on areas of tightness, such as hamstrings and calves.
For those in cubicles, she said, standing every hour and rolling one's shoulders, reaching for the ceiling or walking help the workers avoid getting terribly tight, she said.
Creighton's Obermiller said as far as she's concerned, stretching continues to be important. It's wise to warm up first and get blood flowing, she said, so the stretching will be productive. Stretching cold muscles, she said, isn't advisable.
UNMC's Willett said that for older exercisers with limited range of motion, some stretching before and after a workout may help them overcome tight calves and hamstrings. And for gymnasts, who must be flexible, stretching is important, Willett said.
Millar said experts have different theories, just as exercisers have different needs. “Everybody interprets things just a little bit differently,” Millar said. “You find what you feel comfortable with.”
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