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Home » Sports Massage

Stretching an Athlete Before Competition

Submitted by on April 3, 2009 – 8:01 pmOne Comment

Athletes are commonly seen on TV being stretched by a therapist or coach in preparation for competition.  When working an event as a sports massage therapist, we are often asked to “stretch someone out.”  However, we should be cautious as to how intense our stretching is performed for two main reasons.

First, and most importantly, we do not want to create any significant improvements in our athlete’s flexibility right before they are due to compete.  Why?  Because they may not have the associated muscle strength within this new range of motion to support their body, leading to an increased potential for injury.   Also, the proprioceptors within the muscles and joints are not used to firing at the new joint angles, and may lead to problems in balance or coordination.  Any increases in flexibility must be done during training, so the body can adapt to the changes.

Second, quite a few (but interestingly not all) studies that have shown a decrease in muscular power and strength immediately following prolonged static stretching.  This is believed to be from an inhibition of the myostatic stretch reflex that leads to a reduced neural activation of the stretched muscle.  That is, holding a stretch for a long period causes a reduction in the nervous system signals telling a muscle to contract.

So, what should we do to prepare our athlete without harming their performance?  The current recommendations are to utilize dynamic-type stretching before strenuous activity, such as Muscle Energy Techniques (MET) also known as “contract-relax” stretching, or Active Isolated Stretching, because these forms utilize muscle contractions and are thought to therefore reduce the inhibition to the nervous system’s control of the muscle activity.

This stretching should not be done with the goal to drastically improve flexibility, but rather to improve muscle tone and improve the end-range feel of the existing range of motion (reduce stiffness at the end of the ROM).  Post-competition, static stretching is still strongly recommended as a way to improve flexibility and reduce adhesions caused by the activity.

For more information:
Robbins, Jason, Barry Scheuermann.  “Varying Amounts of Acute Static Stretching and Its Effect on Vertical Jump Performance.”  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.  May 2008:  781-786.
Herda, Trent, et al.  “Acute Effects of Static versus Dynamic Stretching on Isometric Peak Torque, Electromyography, and Mechanomyography of the Biceps Femoris Muscle.”  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.   May 2008:  809-818.

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