Stretching and Injury Prevention: An Obscure Relationship
It is generally accepted that increasing the flexibility of a muscle-tendon unit promotes better performances and decreases the number of injuries. Stretching exercises are regularly included in warm-up and cooling-down exercises; however, contradictory findings have been reported in the literature. Several authors have suggested that stretching has a beneficial effect on injury prevention. In contrast, clinical evidence suggesting that stretching before exercise does not prevent injuries has also been reported. Apparently, no scientifically based prescription for stretching exercises exists and no conclusive statements can be made about the relationship of stretching and athletic injuries. Stretching recommendations are clouded by misconceptions and conflicting research reports. We believe that part of these contradictions can be explained by considering the type of sports activity in which an individual is participating. Sports involving bouncing and jumping activities with a high intensity of stretch-shortening cycles (SSCs) [e.g. soccer and football] require a muscle-tendon unit that is compliant enough to store and release the high amount of elastic energy that benefits performance in such sports. If the participants of these sports have an insufficient compliant muscle-tendon unit, the demands in energy absorption and release may rapidly exceed the capacity of the muscle-tendon unit. This may lead to an increased risk for injury of this structure. Consequently, the rationale for injury prevention in these sports is to increase the compliance of the muscle-tendon unit.
Recent studies have shown that stretching programmes can significantly influence the viscosity of the tendon and make it significantly more compliant, and when a sport demands SSCs of high intensity, stretching may be important for injury prevention. This conjecture is in agreement with the available scientific clinical evidence from these types of sports activities. In contrast, when the type of sports activity contains low-intensity, or limited SSCs (e.g. jogging, cycling and swimming) there is no need for a very compliant muscle-tendon unit since most of its power generation is a consequence of active (contractile) muscle work that needs to be directly transferred (by the tendon) to the articular system to generate motion. Therefore, stretching (and thus making the tendon more compliant) may not be advantageous. This conjecture is supported by the literature, where strong evidence exists that stretching has no beneficial effect on injury prevention in these sports. If this point of view is used when examining research findings concerning stretching and injuries, the reasons for the contrasting findings in the literature are in many instances resolved.