For years, stretching was considered a fundamental part of safe practice. It was carried out to:
* prepare for and recover from activity, improving performance and reducing the risk of injury
* improve flexibility and thereby contribute to better posture, allowing everyday activities to be carried out more easily.
However, there has been growing confusion recently over stretching, and as a physical educator and researcher I have faced an increasing number of questions on the topic. These have included: is stretching a waste of time? does stretching do children more harm than good? Further, some sports and training organisations have considered dropping stretching from their programmes or have advocated radical changes to stretching practice. Why? Where has the confusion come from?
It seems it was triggered by a single article published during 2002 in the British Medical Journal. The article was a review of the effects of stretching before and after exercise on muscle soreness and the risk of injury. It concluded that stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of muscle soreness or reduce the risk of injury.
The review, though, was limited and its conclusions were misinterpreted, and misconstrued. For example, it was based on just eight pieces of research, all conducted on adults. This makes their applicability to children questionable. Indeed, two studies looked at injury prevention and were conducted on army recruits undergoing intensive basic training. Not surprisingly, injuries were unusually frequent and common sense would suggest that no amount of stretching in these cases would limit injuries.
Also, in all studies limited detail was provided about the conditions under which the stretching was performed. Further, the review itself revealed mixed results, which led the researchers to admit that insufficient research had been done. Some studies reviewed elsewhere have found stretching to be beneficial.
Before advocating or implementing changes to practice then, we need to consider what the research actually says. The research is limited, inconclusive and certainly not saying "that stretching is a waste of time" or that "it does children more harm than good". Therefore, changing current practice on the basis of such evidence seems inappropriate. Until more convincing evidence is provided, we should continue to teach good, safe and common sense practice to young people to prepare them for activity.
* R D Herbert and M Gabriel "Effects of stretching before or after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: systematic review", British Medical Journal, 325: 468-470 (2002)
Lorraine Cale is director of PE teacher education at Loughborough University