Stretching may take a back seat to your exercise routine. You may think that stretching your hamstrings and calves is just something to be done if you have a few extra minutes before or after pounding out some miles on the treadmill. The main concern is exercising, not stretching, right?
Not so fast. Although studies about the benefits of stretching are mixed, stretching may help you improve your joint range of motion, which in turn may help improve your athletic performance and decrease your risk of injury. Understand why stretching can help and how to stretch correctly.
After the warm up, stretching before a workout allows the body to become more pliable and less prone to injury. The muscles that should be stretched will be the main muscles groups that are going to be worked on during the session. Post stretches or maintenance stretches are just as or if not more important than stretching prior to your workout, after your warm up. The main muscles groups used during the session are the ones that need to stretch. If a muscle group has been continually contracted in the main workout, stretches should be performed to get the muscle back to their normal length. They may also help to alleviate potential soreness.
A maintenance stretch is usually held for between 10-15 seconds, while a warm up stretch is held for 8-10 seconds.
Stretching helps to:
• reduce muscle tension, and make the body feel more relaxed
• increase the range of motion
• prevent muscle strains: a strong pre-stretched muscle resists stress better than a strong unstretched muscle
• prevent joint strains
• reduce the risk of back problems
• prepare the body for strenuous exercise
• increase ‘body awareness’
• promote circulation
• for females, reduces the severity of painful menstruation (dysmenorrhea)
• increase the learning, practice, and performance of many types of skilled movements
• reduce muscular soreness.
Use these tips to keep stretching safe:
- Don’t consider stretching a warm-up. You may hurt yourself if you stretch cold muscles. So before stretching, warm up with light walking, jogging or biking at low intensity for five to 10 minutes. Or better yet, stretch after you exercise when your muscles are warmed up.
Also, consider holding off on stretching before an intense activity, such as sprinting or track and field activities. Some research suggests that pre-event stretching before these types of events may actually decrease performance.
Strive for symmetry. Everyone’s genetics for flexibility are a bit different, so rather than striving for that gymnast or ballet dancer degree of motion, focus on having equal flexibility side to side (especially if you have a history of a previous injury).
- Focus on major muscle groups. When you’re stretching, focus on major muscle groups such as your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders.
Also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use at work or play. Make sure that you stretch both sides. For instance, if you stretch your left hamstring, be sure to stretch your right hamstring, too.
- Don’t bounce. Stretch in a smooth movement, without bouncing. Bouncing as you stretch can cause injury to your muscle.
- Hold your stretch. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds; in problem areas, you may need to hold for around 60 seconds. Breathe normally as you stretch.
- Don’t aim for pain. Expect to feel tension while you’re stretching, not pain. If it hurts, you’ve pushed too far. Back off to the point where you don’t feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
- Make stretches sport specific. Some evidence suggests that it’s helpful to do stretches tailored for your sport or activity. If you play soccer, for instance, you’re more vulnerable to hamstring strains. So opt for stretches that help your hamstrings.
- Keep up with your stretching. Stretching can be time-consuming. But you can achieve the most benefits by stretching regularly, at least two to three times a week.
If you don’t stretch regularly, you risk losing any benefits that stretching offered. For instance, if stretching helped you increase your range of motion, and you stop stretching, your range of motion may decrease again.
- Bring movement into your stretching. Gentle movement can help you be more flexible in specific movements. The gentle movements of tai chi or yoga, for instance, may be a good way to stretch.
And if you’re going to perform a specific activity, such as a kick in martial arts or kicking a soccer ball, do the move slowly and at low intensity at first to get your muscles used to it. Then speed up gradually as your muscles become accustomed to the motion.
You should consult your physician before stretching if:
• there has been a recent bone fracture, sprain or strain
• the range of motion is in some way limited
• the joint is inflamed or infected
• if you have signs of osteoporosis
• you experience pain when the joint is moved or the muscle is stretched
• you are suffering from certain diseases of the skin or blood