Static stretching is a type of stretching in which a position is held near the individual’s end range of motion or at the point of discomfort for a period of time. Static stretching, when done appropriately, regularly, and for an adequate length of time, can improve flexibility. However, static stretching has also been frequently claimed to reduce the risk of injury in athletes. Some coaches advocate for their athletes to do static stretching as part of a warm-up routine in order to reduce the likelihood of acute injuries (although the use of static stretching during a warm-up routine is a bit old school nowadays). Some coaches also claim that doing static stretching, regardless of when it is done, can prevent or reduce the likelihood of chronic overuse injuries (a type of injury that plagues endurance athletes). But can static stretching really prevent injuries in athletes? Let’s take a look at the research to see what it suggests.
Can static stretching prevent injury?
A comprehensive meta-analysis published by Lauersen and colleagues in 2014 (1) aimed to determine which types of exercise interventions could reduce the incidence of injury in athletes across various sports. They analyzed data from 25 studies, including 26,610 individuals and 3,464 injuries. In each of these studies, researchers enrolled healthy, non-injured athletes or individuals into an intervention program consisting of strength training, proprioception training (sort of like balance exercises), static stretching, or a multi-component intervention (a mix of strength, proprioception, and/or stretching) for a pre-determined period of time. Researchers then tracked the number of injuries that occurred over the course of the study. This meta-analysis was able to summarize all of these studies and statistically quantify which type of intervention was most effective in preventing acute and chronic injuries.
Static stretching was demonstrated to NOT be effective in reducing the likelihood of injury occurrence. In fact, static stretching was the only type of intervention that was shown to be ineffective when compared to strength training, proprioception training, or doing multiple interventions. The authors from this meta-analysis concluded that static stretching was not an effective type of exercise intervention to reduce the incidence of both acute and chronic injuries in sport.
What does prevent injury?
This meta-analysis did, however, demonstrate that strength training, proprioception training, and multi-component interventions were all effective in reducing injuries (1). Most notably, strength training had the greatest effects, nearly cutting injury risk down to one third of the risk if there was no strength training intervention at all! Proprioception training and multi-component interventions seemed to cut injury risk in half and were slightly less effective compared to strength training alone; however, this certainly doesn’t discount the potential utility of proprioception exercises or a combination of strength training and proprioception exercises for primary injury prevention.
Additionally, it seems that both acute and chronic overuse injury risk was improved, with chronic overuse injury risk faring slightly better and being cut in half compared to no intervention! This is all good news for endurance athletes looking to stay healthy and suggests that incorporating strength training or proprioception exercises into one’s routine can help prevent the risk of an acute, traumatic injury (e.g., tearing a muscle on a run) as well as reduce the risk of developing an overuse injury over time (e.g., stress fracture, IT band tendinitis, patellofemoral pain syndrome, plantar fasciitis, etc.).
In conclusion, static stretching is great for improving flexibility, but not for directly reducing the risk of injury. Strength training and proprioception training are, however, beneficial for an athlete looking to prevent injury or at least reduce their likelihood. It is important to note that completely eliminating injury in athletes is likely impossible, and anyone that has been an athlete and competed in sport for a long time knows that injuries can still happen even if preventive measures are taken and caution is taken with training. However, reducing the risk is always a win and helps improve the chances that an athlete will stay healthy and consistent with their training. Besides, strength training has other benefits for endurance athletes as it relates to performance as well! To learn about those benefits, check out a VO2 Max Forum post from January 2020 in which I discussed the science of strength training for endurance athletes by clicking here.
1.Lauersen, J. B., Bertelsen, D. M., & Andersen, L. B. (2014). The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British journal of sports medicine, 48(11), 871-877.
Happy training and racing!
-Ryan Eckert, MS, CSCS
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