Whether stretching itself prevents injuries has been hotly debated by scientist and athletes for several years. What has become clear is that balancing muscle strength and flexibility is key to maintaining healthy movement habits, and that good range of motion makes better biomechanics, reduces fatigue and therefore helps prevent overuse injuries. While most sports involve strengthening, very few incorporate flexibility work, and so it’s important to practice stretches that will balance out any tension in the muscles you use.
When is the best time to stretch?
The best time to stretch is when muscles are already warm, like after a workout. Stretching after an activity may seem like a chore, but it is a great way to cool down and also helps reduce lactic acid in the muscles which may help prevent soreness and stiffness following a workout.
• Light stretching of mild intensity and duration can reverse muscle tension, like arching your back to stretch it out after hunching over your desk for an extended period of time.
• Heavier stretching can increase muscle length, but must be done safely to avoid tearing the muscle.
• Light stretching can be a good way to release tension in muscles while warming up. When stretching before a workout, only stretch to the point of very mild tension and hold for no more than 10 seconds.
• Heavy stretching before a workout can tear muscles, and also induce a state of fatigue that prevents them from working effectively. Think of your favourite cotton shirt, and how after being stretched out it needs to be washed to regain its shape. Your muscles need to rest after intense stretching to regain their strength.
What’s the safest way to stretch?
• Warm up prior to stretching
• Stretch gently and slowly (avoid bouncing)
• Stretch ONLY to the point of tension, not pain
• Breathe slowly and easily while stretching
Your body has what’s called the “Stretch reflex” which causes muscles to contract once they’ve been stretched quickly. This is the body’s natural way of preventing muscle tears and keeping itself upright. When you stretch slowly while breathing deeply, you can get around this reflex to lengthen your muscles.
PNF stretching is very effective and can be done in two ways:
• One is to actively contract the muscle you want to lengthen before stretching it. This causes fatigue which decreases the muscle’s ability to hold tension
• The other way is to actively contract the muscle group that is opposite the one you want to stretch, which causes the stretching muscle to relax
Try to avoid ballistic (or bouncing) stretching, as has been shown to cause muscle tears, especially when muscles are not warmed up.
Proper alignment is the key to safe stretching. Twisting the body out of alignment to create the appearance of more flexibility is not beneficial if that twisted position is not used in the activity you are stretching for.
How long should I hold the stretch?
That depends on whether you’re trying to maintain your muscle length or increase it.
• To maintain your range of motion, hold a stretch for 10-20 second. You can repeat it a second time if you like.
• To increase muscle length, hold a stretch for 30-40 seconds and repeat 3 times. This can be done up to 5 times a day.
Yoga is a great way to balance muscle strength and flexibility. You can practice these poses after a walk, but you don’t need to do all of them every day. Start by stretching the muscles that felt the most tense when you began your walk. When you have extra time, try the whole series.
Yoga poses to stretch multiple muscles:
|Child’s pose||back, shoulders|
|Thunderbolt||feet, shins, quads|
|Hero||quads, hip flexors|
|Thread the needle||shoulders, back|
|Cobra||abs, hip flexors|
|Down dog||calves, feet, hamstrings, pecs|
|Lunges with twists||hip flexors, quads, back|
|Warrior 1||hip flexors, calves, hams|
|Squat||glutes, calves, feet|
If you’re not familiar with these poses, you can look them up at yogajournal.com