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Stretching for triathlon

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

Earlier in the week I was forwarded the link to a British Journal of Sports Medicine study, which found after 25 trials with over 26,000 participants that stretching in fact has NO beneficial impact in preventing sports injuries:

If this is the case (and I’ve long believed it is) it would reflect my experience over 50 years of multi-sport coaching. It also presents a good opportunity to clarify my position on why stretching as a controlled exercise stimuli for triathlon training is simply unnecessary.

Let me be clear. I have no dogma against stretching. I use it, as I also use weights, but it depends on the sporting discipline. Stretching is not a matter of injury prevention, but a matter of range of motion. Athletes competing as sprinters or middle distance runners need a certain range of motion. As do hurdlers, who would be well advised to stretch regularly and intensively. My own daughter does light leg extension stretches while training for tennis.

But this is where the rubber hits the road. Triathlon does not need extensive range of motion.

If taught properly, the appropriate body roll swimming uses little range of motion. I’ve seen Olympic champion swimmers with the flexibility of a steel rod. Bike riding requires absolutely none. Even our shortest triathlon event ​has a minimum of 5km of running, which uses less than 50% of our range of motion.

So when posed with the statement: ‘Stretching helps prevent injury’, my answer is in triathlon it doesn’t. It creates injury opportunities that would have otherwise not been there.

In addition to stealing valuable training time, stretching adds another complicated dynamic while tapering for a big performance. When reflecting back on a poor race, many pro athletes and age-groupers completely overlook the fact that due to nerves, they’ve overstretched before the big day and tired out tendons and muscles critical to producing a good performance.

It is of course important to warm and loosen up before a big workout, but how this is best done is a very individual thing. After training if you feel that you ‘have’ to stretch, my advice is take a steam or sauna straight after the workout. Once the body temp is abnormally high only then do your light, progressive stretch. I’ve found this to be the safest approach.

Will everyone take this advice (and now the science) on board? Of course not. Even in my own squad we have the brainwashed, rolling around on golf and tennis balls as if this were the natural way to release ‘niggles’. I don’t need a scientific study to know which athletes will soon be ‘feeling’ an injury coming on, they’re usually the ones contorting themselves into all sorts of unnatural positions before the session starts.

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