SINGAPORE: If you have been watching the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, you would have seen what the human body is capable of in terms of flexibility, especially when it comes to figure skating.
While splits and other seemingly joint-dislocating poses may have their place on the ice, does being flexible have its merits in other sports or in our daily lives?
It depends on the sport you do and the intensity you do it. “In distance runners, the worse an athlete’s flexibility, the better their running economy, which is linked to marathon performance,” said Trent Stellingwerff, a sport physiologist from the Canadian Sport Institute.
“(Elite runners) need to be flexible and mobile enough to have a great range of motion. But the stiffer they are, the faster they will run,” Stellingwerff explained in a Vox online article.
The same can be said for cyclists. Asker Jeukendrup, an exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist who has worked with Olympic champions and Tour de France cyclists, said in the same article that “stretching is only a small part of a daily routine and the athletes are relatively inflexible”.
Flexibility plays a role in the average person’s life, too. It is required when you reach for something, or bend down to pick up a dropped item, said Jay Hertel, a kinesiologist and professor of sports medicine at the University of Virginia.
“You need to be able to go through a functional range of motion from the standpoint of being able to do activities of daily living,” he said.
Flexibility is defined as the range of movement you can get out of a joint, according to the Sports Injury Clinic’s website. It is determined by factors such as muscle tissue elasticity, ligament laxity, age and gender.
The type of joint is another factor, according to Sports Injury Clinic. For instance, a ball-and-socket joint such as a shoulder is more flexible than a hinge joint such as the knee.
Genetics aside, a person’s level of physical activity can also affect flexibility. For instance, sitting all day in a chair results in tight hamstrings in the back of the thighs, which can make it harder to extend your leg or straighten your knee all the way, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
“If you don’t move through a joint’s full range of motion, you can definitely develop a limited range of motion,” said Hertel.
Interestingly, the long-held notion that stretching can improve flexibility and minimise injuries has been disproved by a systematic review on 25 trials with more than 26,000 participants published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
"There are some beneficial effects of stretching, but they are very small and have been oversold,” said Professor Rob Herbert from Neuroscience Research Australia in Vox. “For the research that’s been done up to now, it looks like there’s little or no effect on injury, and a very small beneficial effect of stretching on soreness - but that’s probably so small, most people wouldn’t be able to perceive it.”
Still, Prof Herbert said there is no harm in stretching. It may help reduce soreness to some small degree but it will not boost athletic ability, he said.