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Static stretching before cycling makes you less efficient

September 19th, 2011

I wrote a few months ago about an Italian study showing that static stretching hurts cycling performance — that was the first study I’d seen about stretching and cycling, joining a whole bunch of studies showing that stretching hurts speed, power and endurance in running. Now researchers at Cal State Fullerton have backed up that initial result with a slightly different study, published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, that reaches basically the same conclusion.

The study was very simple: 10 highly trained cyclists (5 men, 5 women) did two 30-minute rides at 65% VO2max pace, while the researchers measured economy (i.e. how much oxygen they needed to maintain the pace), perceived exertion, and heart rate. Before one of the rides, they did a standard 16-minute static stretching routine. Here are the results for oxygen use (squares indicate the non-stretching trial):

Pretty straightforward: after stretching, it took more oxygen to maintain the same pace. Note that the difference was statistically significant only at the five-minute mark, not for the rest of the data points, indicating that the effect gradually wears off. Perceived exertion was the same in both trials — so the volunteers felt the same, but their bodies were working less efficiently.

Why does this happen? The researchers write that the results “may be explained through either muscle mechanics or neural factors or a combination of the two.” Then they spend a few pages going through all the various muscle-related theories and the various brain/nerve-related theories. The short answer is that no one knows. One of the previous neural studies they mentioned was interesting, and I wasn’t familiar with it:

Cramer et al. (4) proposed neural factors, such as decreased muscle activation or altered reflex sensitivity, might be the primary mechanism underlying the stretching-induced decreases in force. After stretching only one leg, they reported the same pattern of stretch-induced decrease in both stretched and un-stretched limbs...

That’s pretty cool! It certainly suggests that, whatever is going on in the muscles, there’s also something going on in the nervous system. Bottom line is simple — and by now, should be no surprise: don’t static stretch before workouts or races. It hinders performance.

  1. September 19th, 2011 at 12:42 | #1

    Hi Alex,

    I love the blog and the recent series on stride rate has been really fun to follow. Anyway, I am curious about your personal thoughts on static stretching in terms of your perceptions – not necessarily scientific literature.

    Being a relatively decent runner, I can personally attest that I sometimes can’t get moving well without stretching first. I usually let myself warm-up the first mile or two of a run, but sometimes I just need to stretch to get things to loosen up.

    Just the other day I was out for a run and my quads were really tight from the previous days workout. I ran for about 10-15 minutes and finally decided to stop and stretch. After an easy 3 minute session, I felt light years better and the rest of the run felt great. I can say unequivocally that the short stretch helped.

    I know you must have had similiar experiences in your training. Sometimes, in training and coaching, we heavily weigh the scientific evidence, yet forget to factor in what the athlete feels and experiences.

    Thanks ahead of time.

  2. tom
    September 19th, 2011 at 20:46 | #2

    I think its kind of funny that something as old as stretching is being discredited by studies such as this. Ten cyclist and two 30 minute tests hardly amount to enough data to make a statement like ” Bottom line is simple…”, even if if backs up previous studis of similar quality.

    What are the positive effects of stretching prior to exercise – why have we been doing it for so long? Do these positive effects out-weigh the tiny variations seen in measured economy? What are confidence limits or percent error of measured economy (VO2)? How does this measurement and the 30 minute test at 65% VO2max relate to speed, power and endurance?

  3. alex
    September 19th, 2011 at 21:23 | #3

    @tom: You’re certainly right that a single study such as this wouldn’t be enough to discredit stretching. The reason I said that the results “by now should be no surprise” is that this study adds to a body of over a hundred studies stretching back more than a decade that (a) fail to find any benefit for increasing performance or reducing injury from static stretching before exercise, and (b) find that power, strength and endurance are all impaired by pre-exercise static stretching.

    If you’re interested, you can read about a few of the studies in previous entries on my blog (http://sweatscience.com/tag/stretching/). I also have a whole chapter in my book on stretching that explores the history and research on stretching in much greater depth. I realize it’s a big change from what we’re used to, but the evidence is quite substantial and well established. (The Cramer study I referred to in the post, for example, was from 2004.)

  4. alex
    September 19th, 2011 at 22:42 | #4

    @Jeff: Thanks for the comment, and hope the training and coaching are going well!

    The short answer: dynamic stretching. If you had to stop and stretch your quads, it was because they were tight within the range of motion used for running — NOT because you needed an extra inch or two at the extreme of your range of motion. You can loosen those quads up either by static stretching or by dynamic stretching (e.g. A and B skips, leg swings, etc.) — the difference is that most (though admittedly not all) studies suggest that dynamic stretches don’t produce the same decrease in running economy and power than static stretches do.

    Having said that… the challenge with stretching studies (and all performance studies, for that matter) is the difference between average response and individual variation. It may be that static quad stretching doesn’t help 95 out of 100 people, but helps 5 people who have unusually problematic quads. So I have no trouble believing that runners may develop some particular areas of tightness or imbalance where the benefits of concerted static stretching outweigh the downsides. Someone who has been running as long and as much as you have probably has a pretty good feel for when something is “off” in your body. So while my advice for average beginning runners is to use dynamic rather than static stretching, I definitely would agree that experienced athletes shouldn’t ignore what their bodies are telling them.

  5. louvbinas
    September 20th, 2011 at 16:03 | #5

    When introducing a new stressor to athletes such as 16 minutes of static stretching what could we expect to happen? What if we introduced the athletes to any other 16 minute workout before their ride? 16 minutes of Zumba or ballet anyone?
    16 minutes of handstands or slackline balancing? How about a study that sticks with the athletes and their 16 minutes of static stretching for 6 months or a year before we make up our minds?

  6. alex
    September 20th, 2011 at 21:45 | #6

    @louvbinas: That’s a very good point. Fortunately, pre-exercise stretching is quite a bit more common than pre-exercise handstands, so it’s not hard to find people who are already fully habituated to stretching. For example, in the study of pre-run stretching that I wrote about last year, all the subjects already performed a stretching routine on a daily basis, as a precondition of participation in the study. And yet the results were the same: pre-run stretching made them slower and less efficient compared to not stretching.

    As I said above, these latest results are NOT a surprise, nor are they the product of a single isolated study. There are dozens and dozens of studies over the past decade confirming that static stretching causes an acute decline in muscular performance.

  7. louvbinas
    September 21st, 2011 at 00:59 | #7

    Please note that in the above research there is no mention whether the 10 highly trained cyclists had an already established stretching routine. Therefore stretching could have been a new stressor for some or all of the subjects which could easily make them more fatigued and less coordinated.

    Is it a surprise that working the muscles of the legs and lower extremities might tire said muscles thus making people “slower and less efficient”? With any other type of lower body workout we would expect such a result and might not even attempt the research. For example weighted squats before running or cycling would probably produce slow and less efficient runners or cyclists.

    The perception that stretching is not a “workout” might be more relevant in all of this.

  8. alex
    September 21st, 2011 at 01:05 | #8

    @louvbinas: So if stretching before a workout is the equivalent of doing weighted squats before a workout, you’re in agreement that it’s not a good idea?

  9. Marcel
    September 21st, 2011 at 05:23 | #9

    There is actually very little if any scientific studies out there that proof that stretching improves athletic performance. Think of your muscle like a coil spring, if it get stretched it is less jumpy and springy. Less stretched it remains springy and requires less energy to use the stored energy. You need to also decide if your in a sport like gymnastics where being flexible is important. Other sports you need to decide am I stretching because everyone else is or because there is a need to because of muscle shortness. Or is this it to do with limb length, joint angles and range of motion and nothing to do with muscle length, all question you need to ask yourself, too often everything is blamed on range of motion and that we need to stretch, sometimes it is just down to improper technique and laziness to use the correct running, skiing, cycling, siting posture or technique etc. Stretching has a place but at the right time and situation.

  10. louvbinas
    September 21st, 2011 at 11:41 | #10

    @alex
    Yes, I am not invested in the benefits of stretching. It could be the worst thing on earth before cycling and I would be fine with that.

  11. Klaus
    September 21st, 2011 at 13:11 | #11

    Hi Alex,
    thanks a lot for your great blog and good luck for the next 2,5 years, of even more!
    However, I am not totally convinced yet by the study you mention. Basically that´s due to the design of the study – in my experience as a middle distance runner back in the 90s, I´ve NEVER seen anyone doing a “standard 16-minute static stretching routine”, as you call it, before a race or a hard workout (I think the other study about stretching in cycling you wrote about some time ago even involved 30 minutes of stretching)! Most people, including myself, did something like 5 minutes of static stretching between 30 and 60 minutes before a race, followed by some easy sprints and other exercises, and after some easy running as a warm up. I think it´s pretty obvious that such an extended stretching program like the one the study investigated immediately before a race will have adverse effects, and that´s why probably more or less nobody does such an amount of pre-exercise stretching… Of course, the stretching within a longer warm-up program might still be bad but get neutralized by the time afterwards until the race starts, or by other exercises. But still I think that you cannot study pre-exercise stretching seriously without having a closer look at its usage in warm-up routines. I know that would be much more complicated than just having two groups, one with and one without stretching before a performance test, but I guess that would be the only way to really figure out whether static stretching is good or bad for performance. In a certain way, the study you cite is like making people drink 2 bottles of wine each day in order to figure out whether wine is good or bad for your health, don´t you think?

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