When you ask someone to list all the components of fitness, i.e. speed, strength, power etc. flexibility is usually the last one mentioned. It is though the most universally beneficial attribute to athletes of all sports, and possibly the easiest to improve upon.
Why Stretch? – You Never See A Racehorse Stretching!
True, but then you also don’t see racehorses sit behind a desk eight hours a day, run on asphalt, or start running after being sedentary for 20 years! Whilst engaging in sport strengthens your muscles, it also shortens and tightens them. Along with training properly and choosing the right footwear and clothing, stretching is the most important thing you can do to protect your body. It will also improve your performance and lessen muscle soreness. Flexibility is your ability to move through a full range of motion. When you’re more flexible, running and moving is easier because muscles, ligaments and tendons don’t have to work as hard to maintain a given pace. Maintaining good flexibility is an important aspect of remaining injury-free. Stretching is important to:
- Prepare for exercise
- Maintain and increase flexibility
- Improve posture, joint mobility and performance
- Decrease the risk of injury while improving body awareness. Be able to feel problem areas / tightness, and the need for further work (see part two: benefits of sports massage)
Decreasing the risk of injury is the most important. For example a short taut rope is more likely to break under tension, than a longer one of the same strength. In both cases, the shorter, tighter fibre is being asked to do a relatively greater amount of work, and will eventually tear from the task. Muscles are like a piece of blue-tac, as when warm, are more pliable and durable. Stretching helps to warm the tissues, by increasing blood flow and oxygen, which in turn makes muscles more receptive to being gently elongated. When your muscles and connective tissues are more supple, they can more easily absorb and distribute the repetitive shock that running and sporting activity subjects them to. However, this is only the case if stretching is done properly!
Don’t Go Ballistic: The Right Way To Stretch
Different methods of stretching include Ballistic and Static:
- Ballistic: Dynamic or moving, e.g. bouncing toe touch
- Static: Not moving:
- Active, requires other muscles to support, so may adopt the position. E.G. shoulder stretch with arms held above head.
- Passive, uses an external force, such as gravity or a partner, to aid you to get into stretch position. E.G. Hamstring with leg out in front bending forward at waist, or quad stretch holding at ankle.
So which is best? The best way to understand the right way is to know more about the wrong ways. Bouncy, jerky movements as with Ballistic stretching should be avoided. It’s bad because when you make a movement that lengthens a muscle, its initial reaction is to contract, similar as to when you stretch a coil. Therefore this stretching may increase rather than lessen the amount of tension in your muscles, and possibly result in becoming strained. The right way to stretch is to do so comfortably, gently, and consistently. Gradually stretching to a point of mild tension as in Static stretching is by far the most safe and effective method.
The Basic Guidelines To Adhere To:
- Stretch 3-4 times a week, for 15-minutes, to maintain and improve your flexibility
- A good flexibility program will improve your biomechanical efficiency, increase your enjoyment, and lower your injury risk
- Stretch on a flat, firm but comfortable surface
- Stretch in warm, dry clothes that don’t restrict your movement
- Breathe normally while stretching; don’t hold your breath!
- Stretch to the point of mild tension, not pain! Don’t bounce.
- When warming up, stretches should be held for 10-15 seconds. Following exercise, to increase flexibility, stretches should be held for 30+ seconds, allowing the stretch reflex* to occur. This is best achieved by stretching on the floor, as is easier for the muscles to relax, rather than when standing up.
(*Stretch reflex is the feeling of tension at the end of a person’s range of movement when stretching. It works as a safety mechanism. By allowing the muscle to desensitise (relax), the stretch can then be taken further, eventually increasing flexibility).
The human body has over 500 muscles, so which should you concentrate on to aid performance, improve recovery and decrease the risk of injury? A lot depends on the sport and discipline you participate in, but for most, the important areas are the prime movers on the back of the body:
- Hip (& Iliotibial Band)
This is not an exhaustive list, just a few examples. If you require further help or extra / alternative options then please ask when next in the shop or seek the advice of a sports therapist, personal trainer or Physiotherapist.
- The best time to stretch to improve your flexibility is once you are fully warmed up, usually after you finish exercising
- If when doing any of these stretches you experience any pain or pins and needles then contact a qualified sports therapist/physiotherapist.