Stretching: No sports panacea

USA Today—October 29, 2009

If you stretch before or after exercising because it feels good, go for it, health experts say.

But if you try to loosen up that way because you think you might prevent an injury, you should reconsider. Stretching can cause injuries and reduce muscle effectiveness, studies show.

"For the average person, stretching doesn't represent the panacea it's being billed as," says Dr. Jordan Metzl, a physician and avid runner who is preparing for his 27th marathon.

Metzl, 43, competes Sunday in the ING New York City Marathon and has raced in seven Ironman competitions. He specializes in non-operative sports medicine at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

Metzl does not rule out stretching, which has traditionally been drilled into athletes as a method to improve circulation and flexibility and prevent injuries. But he downplays its importance, saying a good warm-up can be sufficient for most people, unless they're dancers "who need to get their foot near their head."

"Stretching has received a fantastic publicity campaign," he says. "If I were given a choice and could go live on one island where they stretched all the time or one island where they do strength training, I'd go to the strength-training island."

For certain injuries, he agrees stretching can be beneficial. If he starts to cramp up in a race, he'll stop and gently stretch the muscle to prevent it from tearing.

Metzl re-emphasizes that "strength training is so much more important than stretching" for protecting muscle.

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