Friday, February 1, 2013

Stretching: When and How

Stretching can be an important component of a comprehensive fitness or sport training regimen.  Sometimes it can actually be detrimental.  Incorporating stretching into your program can be as complicated as adding any other component to your plan.  Here is my approach based on my years of experience and education in physical therapy, sports medicine, and fitness.

First, stretching before a workout is not a good idea.  You are actually weaker immediately after stretching due to the reflexive relaxation caused by a sustained stretch.  This weakness may last for up to an hour.  You do not want to start a workout or a race in a weakened state.  Before a workout you need a dynamic warm up that may incorporate functional flexibility movements.  So, if you are going to stretch, do it at the end of the workout.

While the research supporting the efficacy of stretching is lacking, I feel there are appropriate times to stretch.  One good time is after a workout to relax "tight" muscles.  This will not prevent muscle soreness, but it may make you more comfortable immediately following the workout.  Hold stretches for at least ten seconds to overcome the stretch reflex and achieve that reflexive relaxation.  Holding a stretch for less than six to ten seconds will have little to no effect.  Stretch intuitively: focus on the muscles that are tight or have tension or fullness.  If you are unsure how to stretch, consult a professional: physical therapist, athletic trainer, personal trainer.

There are also specific groups of people who may benefit from focused stretching.  People with low back pain frequently have tight hamstrings and thus, should stretch regularly.  Runners, especially those over forty or so, can benefit from stretching their calves and (although it sounds funny) their big toes.  Tightness in these two areas have been associated with running-specific injuries.  Of course, stretching is frequently used in the rehabilitation setting as well--trust your therapist.

In these cases, the goal is to improve range of motion or flexibility.  Stretches for these purposes should be held for thirty to sixty seconds and repeated up to three times per session.  Recent research has concluded that benefits from a stretching session like this may only last a few hours.  So, stretch often.  You may also be able to maintain this improved flexibility by emphasizing full range of motion in those problem areas during your other training, for example doing lunges with the back leg straight to work on the flexibility of your hip flexors.

Again, if you are unsure how to stretch, consult a professional.  Perhaps now, utilizing these tips and information you may stretch more thoughtfully.


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