The Stretching Dilemna

September 4, 2008 11:14 AM

By Dr. Robert Heller

As a psychologist and sport psychology consultant, I often work with athletes and non-athletes who are recovering from an injury, trying to manage pain and discomfort or just looking for a tool or method to provide them with a winning edge in competition.

Stretching has been popularly promoted as a way to reduce the risk of injuries, increase flexibility and decrease muscle soreness following vigorous exercise. In my experience, there is much confusion on the subject. Let me touch on a few points.

  1. Many individuals start their warm up by static stretching, that is, holding a muscle in a particular position or pose for a period of time, usually 30 seconds. The problem with this is stretching a “cold” muscle may actually do more harm then good, actually increasing the chances for injury and impeding rather than enhancing performance. It is now recommended that athletes engage in a light aerobic activity such as jogging for a couple of minutes until they develop a light sweat and begin a dynamic stretch (stretching while moving) once the muscle is warm.
  2. An alternative to pre-game stretching is to lightly simulate the movements you are going to make during the athletic event as the warm up. For example, a tennis player might start out with easy serves or rallying at 50% of their match pace.
  3. Athletes often mistakenly skip the “cool down” period following a game or match. Abruptly stopping without gradually decreasing the intensity can cause excessive muscle soreness and even risk developing a dangerous condition known as “blood pooling.” A safe and healthy cool down might include a few minutes of slow jogging/walking routine followed by a static stretch of muscles held for a few seconds, then released and repeated several times. For details on an effective stretching method and routine I would recommend the book by Aaron Mattes, “Active Isolated Stretching.”
  4. While proper stretching will reduce muscle soreness and increase range of motion, there is no good evidence to suggest it will reduce the risk of injuries in the average athlete. However, if an athlete is particularly stiff, tight or inflexible, depending on the sport and the movements required, he may be at a heightened risk for injury. For example, because of my extremely tight hip flexors and back muscles, I was frequently injured while studying karate. In spite of doing proper warm-ups, my tight muscles would often tear under the sudden strain of rapid, intense kicks.
  5. Finally, there are a number of commonly used stretches and exercises used in yoga, pilates, running, weight training and other physical activities that are risky and pose a risk of injury and should these be modified or avoided. Most athletes would be wise to review their stretching and exercise routines with a highly trained fitness professional that can develop a personal program which best fits their needs, based on the demands of their sport and the strengths and limitations of their particular body type and condition.

Dr. Robert Heller is a psychologist and sport psychology consultant based in Boca Raton, Fla. He is the author of “Tennis Mind,” “Managing Your Stress” and works with individuals on issues of handling pressure and peak performance. E-mail your comments and questions to For more information visit