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To stretch or not to stretch?

Experts continue to struggle with this question, and the latest answer appears to be a resounding “it depends.”

Bottom line: If you stretch immediately before sports or exercising, it might hurt your performance. However — and this is a pretty big however — a regular program of stretching appears to improve overall sports performance. Those findings are the result of a review of research that was published in the September/October issue of the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine.

What does this mean for the regular exerciser? First, if you are healthy and have no injuries, you likely are safe to skip pre-workout stretches (but don't forget to warm up before your workout or sports event with light to moderate cardiovascular exercise first). Second, you should schedule a couple of stretching workouts every week, either done on their own or after you finish a regular strength-training or cardiovascular workout. The stretching sessions needn’t be long, but make sure they hit every part of your body.

The research review, conducted by Dr. Ian Shrier of SMBD-Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, analyzed 23 previous studies of what he called “acute” stretching, or stretching immediately before an activity. A consistent finding was that stretching hurt performance on a variety of tests that included muscle force, power and jumping height. Studies on the effect of acute stretching on running speed were mixed, and the only positive finding on acute stretching showed that it improved running economy, or how efficient the body is while running.

Meanwhile, nine studies included in the review looked into the effects of regular stretching programs. Seven studies showed that regular programs, extending over the course of several weeks, improved sports performance, including strength, power and speed. And here’s something to keep in mind: No study included in the review found that a regular program of stretching hurt performance.

Shrier theorized that stretching immediately before exercising might cause muscle damage, and therefore hurt performance.

“If one stretches, one should stretch after exercise, or at a time not related to exercise.”

Stretch videos

If you’re considering adding separate stretching workouts into your regimen, a fitness video can add a fun factor. Here are a few I particularly like, and why I think they’re good. If none of these appeals to you, check out the “smart search” function at www.collagevideo.com to help find a video that meets your needs.

• “Classical Stretch: Athlete’s Intense Stretch,” by Miranda Esmonde-White (35 minutes, www.classicalstretch.com). This video attacks the whole body but pays particular attention to the hip joint, which is notoriously tight in most active people. The instructor, who has her own PBS exercise show, is a little bit chatty, but this workout gets serious results.

• “Pure & Simple Stretch,” by Karen Voight (38 minutes, www.karenvoight.com). The name of video says it all — it’s a simple stretch program. There are no fancy moves, but this workout from the well-regarded Voight will stretch your body from your neck down to your toes.

• “Angles, Lines, and Curves,” by Kari Anderson (46 minutes, www.collagevideo.com). This is a relaxing workout that is a little bit dance, a little Pilates, a little old-school stretching, all with a very Zen vibe. It doesn’t feel like you’re stretching while you’re doing some of the exercises, but believe me, you are. It’s a nice change of pace.

—Wendy Watkins is a writer and personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise. Send your questions to fitness@stripes.osd.mil.

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