Heard around a Tulsa track: 'Why don't we do any normal stretching?'

Beneficial is better than normal

The second-worst thing about static stretching is that even young athletes think of it as “normal.”

The worst thing about it is how detrimental it is to athletic performance, from an immediate degradation of an athlete’s ability to produce power to the short-, medium- and long-term effects of increasing muscle slack, disrupting the coordination between muscles working together towards a given movement, physically damaging the muscle tissue and severing the relationship between range of motion and the athlete’s ability to move through that range of motion.

Static stretching holds a unique place in exercise physiology research. First, there is a remarkable consensus around the negative effects of static stretching. At best, some studies note no detectable impact. Congratulations, you’re not making anything worse! But why should we do something that doesn’t make athletic performance better? What’s the point of any of this if it’s going to keep you right where you are?

Second, static stretching is one of the few cases where peer-reviewed research convincingly reverses long-standing practices. By far the more common scenario is when research elaborates the “why” and the “how” of something coaches and athletes have done for a long time.

Blinded studies can offer sharp evidence for whether something actually works. Controlled studies can surface the mechanisms by which something works.

To the extent any scientific research is truly de novo prospective (shoulders of giants, and all that), exercise science rarely is. Efforts “to science” your way to a performance edge usually comes from studying why something that we know works, works, and then taking that specific agent of improved athletic performance (or, as is sometimes the case, performance enhanced, IYKWIMAITYD) and removing the noise around it, or combining it with some other known agent. Researchers will not attract grants, subjects or institutional approval for saying “Let’s just try something completely new” - assuming they could even come up with something completely new - “and see if it works.”

Unlike many other well-established and widely practiced components of sports training, static stretching went into the lab and never came out.

Proponents of static stretching (or stretching in general) point to increased flexibility and range of motion as the two main benefits. That argument assumes that being more flexible / having a larger ROM is intrinsically good.

And there we have an even more fundamental disagreement with static stretchers than just the empirical research. Flexibility and range of motion are not necessarily good, so something that increases the, is not necessarily good. And even if they were, stretching - static or otherwise - is not the best way to achieve them.

The only situation where static stretching could have a place is after a truly exhausting long run. But even then, it’s only one option among many, and hardly the best. It’s not as detrimental post-exhaustive run as it otherwise is. Hardly a ringing endorsement. And there are many other things distance runners can do after their long runs that not only are “not as detrimental” but are truly beneficial and performance enhancing.

That’s why we don’t do “any normal stretching.” Our emphasis on mobility over flexibility, and athletic skills above all else, keeps our athletes loose when and where they need to be loose, tense and stuff when and where they need to be tense and stiff, and hopefully recognizing a better way to decide what’s normal.