For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told ‘it’s good to stretch’. It’s never been a habit (more accurately, I did a few token stretches at the end of a workout)! As a child and teen, flexibility was a given. Back then I could do ballet, gymnastics, running, tennis, skiing … anything … without needing to stretch one muscle. I’d feel fine the next day. Not so anymore!
The more I look in to it, regular stretching seems to be just as important as exercise, rest and good nutrition. And it’s not just for those of us who exercise or are injured. Regular stretching is just as important as we age (a current bugbear of mine with my parents).
Frankly, I like it. There’s nothing like a good stretch! Here’s why I think stretching is the way forward. And why it deserves more than a couple of quick side bends after your workout.
Flexibility & Mobility
Yup … we’re all getting older! Stretching helps keep us flexible and mobile. As the body ages, muscles can become tighter and our range of motion reduced.
A good stretch will improve the range of motion of a joint by stretching out the surrounding soft tissue. This will help us keep up with daily tasks and activities as we age (raising arms, walking, turning your head). It also helps keep us upright! Inflexibility undermines balance … which could lead to life-altering falls when we’re older.
Even if aging is not a pressing issue, better flexibility may improve performance in physical activities or decrease risk of injuries. When joints move through their full range of motion, it helps muscles work more effectively.
There are lots of debates about whether stretching actually reduces injury. But it has been shown to increase blood-flow to muscles. This increases nutrient supply to muscles, reducing soreness and speeding recovery after a good work out. Great news if you want to re-condition your muscles for future training.
Keeps you balanced!
We all have some form of muscle imbalance in our bodies (I have a particularly weak left buttock apparently!!).
Some of this is down to our own make up (size, posture etc…). Some of it is down to the kind of exercise regime we follow. Some of it may be down to injury. And then there’s lifestyle … let’s not forget, many of us sit for 10 hours a day. Hardcore chair sitting can cause all sorts of problems from sore shoulders and necks to sore backs (read this post for more on the dangers of sitting).
When muscles get tight (for whatever reason), others will begin to weaken, creating more muscle imbalance in the body. A daily stretching routine (just a few minutes a day) can help the body stay conditioned and balanced by preventing chronic conditions and further imbalances.
You may not know (or need to know) the seven different stretch categories, but you are probably aware of the two most common: static and dynamic.
Static stretches tend to be done after a workout. They are designed to be held in a challenging but comfortable position for a period of time, typically 30 seconds. The focus is on relaxing the body part being stretched and letting it go further on its own, over time.
Dynamic stretching simply means ‘stretching whilst moving’ – for example – front-to-back leg swings, knee-hugs, quad-holds, hand-walks, arm swings, walking lunges etc. Muscles need to be warm before you do these. They shouldn’t be held for more than 5-10 seconds.
Before plunging into a daily stretching routine, it’s worth thinking about some stretching essentials … the Do’s and Don’ts of getting your stretch on!
- Stretching is not a ‘one size fits all’ kinda thing. You need to stretch for your body, its issues and how you train. Some evidence suggests that it’s helpful to do stretches tailored for your sport or activity.
- Stretching is not a warm up! It’s more effective once the muscles are warm. So it’s best to stretch after a workout or after some light jogging, walking or biking.
- Stretch regularly! There’s no point stretching once or twice and then forgetting about it. To keep your flexibility you need to perform each stretch three times, at least twice a week.
- Keep going. Once you’ve seen improvements don’t stop, because you might just end up back where you started. For instance if stretching helped your range of motion, if you stop, you could find your range of motion decreases.
- Bouncing when stretching is a No No! The stretching motion is supposed to be smooth and controlled. Bouncing could injure the muscle.
- Hold the stretch. You’re supposed to hold a static stretch for about 30 seconds. Any less and it won’t do anything. Any more and you could risk injury.
- Keep it balanced by stretching both sides. So if you stretch the left hamstring, make sure you stretch the right one. If you don’t you could cause other issues down the line.
- It shouldn’t hurt! You are supposed to feel a stretch and some tension but not pain. If it hurts you’ve gone too far.
- Know when to be cautious! Chronic conditions or injury may mean adjusting your stretching techniques. For example, with my current back flare-up, I’m not allowed to stretch my hamstrings (which I did continuously … until I was told to stop!). Talk to your doctor or physiotherapist about the most appropriate way to stretch if you have any health concerns.
If you don’t know where to start, try one of these apps to get you going!
Performance Stretching by Lolo – Foam Roller, Static, and Dynamic Stretches – This app aims to re-educate us on how to stretch properly and effectively … moving us away from those basic stretches we learned at school. Performance Stretching will show you how to do it right and will complement most workout routines.
Start Stretching by Gregory Dunn – Start Stretching is a stretching coach intended for healthy individuals who want to improve their physical flexibility. The simple stretches described by this app are suited for those who want to become more flexible, but don’t know how to begin.
Stretch HD by SportsMed Studio – Stretch HD was created by an Australian Physiotherapist who found that a large proportion of his patients were unfamiliar with common stretching techniques. If you like video tutorials, this is the one for you! The app offers high quality, evidence-based videos to walk you through stretching routines.
Well I’m off to limber up!
P.S Always get advice from a health professional first if you are unsure whether you should incorporate stretching into your routine!
P.P.S The last couple of months have been hectic, which is why I haven’t posted. But I’m back! Thanks for sticking around!