Should Massage Therapists Stretch Athletes Pre-Performance?
Hey, can you stretch me out a little before the game?
Well, no but we can after the game, it’s best to not stretch before the game but I can help you with your warm up.
Teachers had told me that doing any kind of stretching on athletes pre-event can actually mess up their stride and make things worse (if you’re stretching out the lower body).
Recent research has shown that stretching doesn’t really do what we thought it did and has been argued that it may be a feel good thing as opposed to a therapeutic intervention.
So what about when your athletes want you to stretch them out, especially pre-event?
What Actually Happens During A Stretch
As new research develops we have come to learn that stretches aren’t actually lengthening a muscle, but rather it is the nervous system reacting to the tension placed on the muscle that causes the change.
I always thought that doing a stretch actually elongated a muscle but upon further reading, have come to understand things a little differently.
When we do a stretch and reach that point of feeling tension in the muscle, the GTO (Golgi Tendon Organ) monitors what’s happening and reports back to the central nervous system which then affect’s the muscles response to a stretch.
The nervous system feels the tension and then regulates how far it will allow the stretch to go.
While I used to believe that we were actually lengthening muscle fiber, I’ve come to learn it’s all up to the nervous system.
So then, if I stretch an athlete out before competition, am I actually messing up their stride?
Static stretches are probably the most commonly used stretch, especially among amateur athletes and weekend warriors.
It’s the type where you place tension on the muscle for 10-30 seconds without much movement involved.
When it comes to athletes and their performance a few studies have shown whether this is helpful to do before competition.
One study compared 12 college baseball players having stretching done as part of a warm up before throwing pitches. The results showed that doing static stretches as part of the warmup made no difference whatsoever.(1)
Another study done on 16 NCAA track athletes over four weeks showed that static stretching before doing 20 m sprints actually added time to their sprint, showing that stretching had a negative impact on performance. (2)
In an effort to mix things up, thirty teenage athletes were tested on doing dynamic exercise combined with static stretching as a pre-event routine. They were tested on vertical jump, medicine ball toss, 10 yard sprint and an agility shuttle run. The test showed that it might be more beneficial to combine the dynamic exercise with the static stretch in athletes performing power activities.(3)
It’s interesting to see that between the three studies there is a combination of upper body and lower body tests as well as a difference in muscle groups being tested.
Also, the tests were done on very different activities but all came back with either no effect or a negative effect.
So maybe my sport massage teacher was right!?
Not so fast.
Dynamic stretching is when there is movement and resistance applied during the stretch.
Commonly known as PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) which has a few other titles under it like:
- Contract Relax
- Antagonist Contraction
- Hold Relax with Agonist Contraction
Essentially you passively stretch the patient, then they contract the muscle against your resistance for a short count and you’re able to passively move the limb or joint into a greater range of motion after they resist.
This is where things change up a little bit with your athletes.
A study on 12 track athletes (yes I know these are small numbers) who train for explosive power, showed that dynamic stretching of the hamstrings increased jump height, yet decreased after static stretching.(4)
It doesn’t just have an effect on explosive power either.
A study was done to see how it would effect balance, agility and reaction times on the upper limbs. 31 female high school athletes were tested by doing 3 min jogging, then either dynamic stretching, static stretching or rest. Again dynamic stretching won. (5)
Two more studies show that dynamic stretches are a benefit.
One was on female basketball players and their bicep brachii muscle, which recommended dynamic stretches for explosive maximal exercise. (6) The other showed that dynamic stretches for 20 seconds prior to a vertical jump improved not only height, but hip and knee range of motion. (7)
So apparently not all stretching is created equal.
However, the question is why?
There was a study done where heart rate and electromyography (EMG) data were collected and it showed via the EMG that a fast dynamic stretch is linked to greater nervous system activation and prepares an athlete better. (8)
It always goes back to the nervous system.
However now that I have written this post I also have a caveat to the whole thing. After years of working in hockey, one thing I know for sure is: athletes know what they like. They also know their bodies and performance routines better than your average weekend warrior. Before every game or competition athletes like routine, don’t mess it up. If they regularly have you stretch them before a game and want it, then explain why a dynamic stretch is better and ease them into it if they’re not used to it. Also important is to know your sport. Most of the studies listed in this post were very specific for certain movement. Warming up Usian Bolt before a 400m sprint is vastly different than taking care of Sidney Crosby. A sprinter has under 10 seconds to perform, whereas you can help a hockey player warm up, then he goes out for a 10 minute pre-game skate and warm up before the actual game. Your warm up is not going to have the same effect in two drastically different sports. Either way, try to educate and don’t screw with their routine, they really don’t like that.
- Haag S, Wright G, Gillette C, Greany J. Effects of acute static stretching of the throwing shoulder on pitching performance of national collegiate athletic association division III baseball players. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association [serial on the Internet]. (2010, Feb), [cited July 18, 2016]; 24(2): 452-457. Available from: MEDLINE with Full Text.
- Nelson A, Driscoll N, Landin D, Young M, Schexnayder I. Acute effects of passive muscle stretching on sprint performance. Journal Of Sports Sciences [serial on the Internet]. (2005, May), [cited July 18, 2016]; 23(5): 449-454. Available from: MEDLINE with Full Text.
- Faigenbaum A, Kang J, McFarland J, Bloom J, Magnatta J, Hoffman J, et al. Acute Effects of Different Warm-Up Protocols on Anaerobic Performance in Teenage Athletes. Pediatric Exercise Science [serial on the Internet]. (2006, Mar), [cited July 18, 2016]; 18(1): 64. Available from: SPORTDiscus with Full Text.
- MEERITS T, BACCHIERI S, PÄÄSUKE M, ERELINE J, CICCHELLA A, GAPEYEVA H. ACUTE EFFECT OF STATIC AND DYNAMIC STRETCHING ON TONE AND ELASTICITY OF HAMSTRING MUSCLES AND ON VERTICAL JUMP PERFORMANCE IN TRACK-AND-FIELD ATHLETES. Acta Kinesiologiae Universitatis Tartuensis [serial on the Internet]. (2014, May), [cited July 18, 2016]; 2048-59. Available from: SPORTDiscus with Full Text.
- Chatzopoulos D, Galazoulas C, Patikas D, Kotzamanidis C. Acute Effects of Static and Dynamic Stretching on Balance, Agility, Reaction Time and Movement Time. Journal Of Sports Science & Medicine [serial on the Internet]. (2014, June), [cited July 18, 2016]; 13(2): 403-409. Available from: SPORTDiscus with Full Text
- VEEVO M, ERELINE J, RISO E, GAPEYEVA H, PÄÄSUKE M. THE ACUTE EFFECTS OF WARM-UP, STATIC AND DYNAMIC STRETCHING EXERCISES ON BICEPS BRACHII MUSCLE FUNCTION IN FEMALE BASKETBALL PLAYERS. Acta Kinesiologiae Universitatis Tartuensis [serial on the Internet]. (2012, Dec), [cited July 18, 2016]; 1839-46. Available from: SPORTDiscus with Full Text.
- Murphy J, Nagle E, Robertson R, McCrory J. Effect of Single Set Dynamic and Static Stretching Exercise on Jump Height in College Age Recreational Athletes. International Journal Of Exercise Science [serial on the Internet]. (2010, Oct), [cited July 18, 2016]; 3(4): 214-224. Available from: SPORTDiscus with Full Text.
- Fletcher I. The effect of different dynamic stretch velocities on jump performance. European Journal Of Applied Physiology [serial on the Internet]. (2010, June), [cited July 18, 2016]; 109(3): 491-498. Available from: MEDLINE with Full Text.
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