S – t – r – e – t – c – h – i – n – g
Stretching often falls by the wayside when you are gearing up for your favorite activity. Sure, you might tug on your ankle a few times or shake your legs out before taking the road for a run, but is that doing you any good?
Stretching will improve your flexibility and improving your flexibility may have a positive impact on your overall performance and quality of life, especially when that increased flexibility allows your joints to move more freely throughout their entire range of motion. You can also decrease the risk of activity-related injuries by improved flexibility (through stretching). When muscles or tendons are less flexible and we place a demand on them exceeding their capability, the tissue can be injured.
Numerous studies have attempted to provide a clear cut answer on the benefits of stretching – few have been able to do so definitively.
You Better Stretch So You Don’t Hurt Yourself!
Athlete: Ouch! (Athlete seen walking away from the track, limping)
Coach: What happened?
Athlete: I pulled my muscle while running. It really hurts!
Coach: Did you stretch before you went running?
We have all heard or been a part of a conversation just like this and often uncertain if we did or are doing the right things to prepare ourselves for a workout. In today’s post, we will attempt to provide some of the latest information available and share our thoughts on what to do and when to do it.
The benefits of stretching may include improved flexibility, circulation, balance & coordination, and performance of daily activities. (Photo courtesy of T. Simler/Oakwood Healthcare Inc)
Which One Should I Use?
Stretching, particularly of a single variety, is a common practice before sports participation and likely based on the concepts drilled into coaches and athletes heads: stretch or get hurt. Watch any high school game – the choreographed, highly precise stretching activities that take place once the team takes the floor or field.
There are three types of stretching: static, ballistic and PNF.
Static stretching requires you place the extremity and muscle into a position of lengthening or stretch and hold for a short period of time before releasing the stretch. When performed properly, static stretching is one of the safest methods of increasing muscle length. Although, an acute session of stretching has been shown to impair muscular strength but did not have an effect on overuse injuries. Timing of a stretching session may then be important. To improve overall flexibility, perform the stretching routine after an exercise session, while the muscle tissues are still warm. A good 15 minutes of focused attention on specific muscle groups will help improve your flexibility.
Ballistic stretching is performed by repetitive bouncing motions into and out of a stretched position (very old method and not recommended); or by activating the agonist muscle group (say the quadriceps – see the photo) by swinging the leg forward and up higher than the torso, which will actively stretch the antagonist muscle group (in this example, the hamstrings). One study concluded that ballistic stretching did not impair jumping performance, likely due to the total volume of stretching performed in the study. A ballistic program can be implemented prior to an exercise bout and when combined with an active warm-up, it can yield beneficial results.
By engaging the quadriceps (agonist), the antagonists (hamstrings) are placed on stretch.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facillitation (PNF) is a method of stretching using a partner or device to facillitate a variety of stretching techniques. For today’s post, we will leave this topic for those trained and educated in its proper use.
Helpful Tips On Stretching
Don’t consider stretching a warm-up – to improve a muscle’s flexibility, stretch after a workout, practice or activity. This way you are not stretch cold muscle tissue and the will gain the improvements in flexibility you desire.
Perform stretching for large muscle groups – The large muscle groups do most of the work. Focus on them! Calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, lower back, neck, shoulders and chest. Always perform the stretching routine for both sides of the body.
Pain is not your friend when stretching! – You can expect to feel a moderate amount of tension within the muscled being stretched, not pain. Stretch just to the edge of pain, then back off to a point where the pain lessens.
Use sports or activity specific stretches – If you play soccer where hip flexor muscle injuries are common, add in the appropriate flexor stretch. For baseball pitchers, specific shoulder and forearm stretches are essential.
Maintain the routine – We struggle to even carve time out for a workout, let alone the extra time for a stretching routine. Do your absolute best to not skip out on the stretching so you gain the most benefit in terms of flexibility.
We have stayed away from in-depth writing about a proper warm-up. For this you will have to check back with us very shortly.
If you aren’t moving already, get moving and include a general program of stretching to your routine. If you are moving, move more; and focus on the appropriate stretching methods at the appropriate time. Stay loose, stay flexible, move better and move more!
Special thanks to Garrett McLaughlin, MS, ATC (Edsel Ford HS) for his prep work on this post!