Making time to stretch – Part 1

Time to take a deep breath and relax into stretching!

We all know that stretching is good for us and that we should do it, yet we often run out of time to do it! Perhaps it’s because being able to hold a certain stretch without getting a cramp isn’t quite as cool as a new personal best.

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of making time to stretch, there are a plenty, so these are in no specific order.

Little background first, our overall flexibility reduces with age (unfortunately) so much like we do with resistance training we need to work on maintaining and improving it where possible.

We also have many more types of training available and often mix different types within our own training regimes. We should ideally be tailoring our stretching to the training type – a little more on that later.

Lastly, as with most of our topics, there is a lot of cross over, many of points made could be placed under multiple sections and as such further emphasise the importance of stretching in general.

Time to ease ourselves into it….

Flexibility covers a wide benefit range, let’s look at some of the more prominent ones:

Reduces age related stiffness, by stretching we can counter the flexibility we naturally lose as we age.

Helps your joints to move through their entire range of movement

Decreases our risk of injury, the warmer the muscles, the less likely we are to overwork them during exercise and the more flexible they are the better protected we are during daily tasks

Promotes blood flow and allows our muscles to perform optimally.

Better posture can be achieved when stretching becomes a routine, current research shows that whilst the direct benefits of stretching can disappear over the course of a few hours up to a day, routinely stretching allows the nervous system to:

Adapt to the change

Sustain the increase of range of movement

Lengthen the muscle themselves.

There is also a cross over into helping to alleviate general aches and pains (or keep them to a minimum) stretches for the chest, shoulders and lower back are particularly helpful when considering posture with many of us working at a desk, commuting or performing repetitive tasks.

If we can’t remove the body shapes we make during the day, we can use a stretching routine to help relax the strain placed on the muscles that have been tightened, it’s a long game and as discussed later, we should allow time for our bodies to adapt to the changes slowly.

Decreased your risk of injury – it’s important here to take a little look at the differences between static and dynamic stretching (For those in the know there is a third called ballistic, this caters for a very small population so we will leave that one out in this article).

Dynamic stretches are when we perform a movement path, aligned with the activity we are going to do, for example high knees and butt kicks prior to running. These also potentiate the muscles and can help to enhance the mind muscle connection.

Static stretches focus on holding tension in the muscle, increasing the length of muscles or returning them to their pre-exercise length (depending on the movements completed).

We can see from the above that dynamic stretching would tend to lend itself much more to pre-exercise and static to after exercise, whilst there is still some disagreement on the benefits of both pre and post exercise, generally speaking dynamic exercise allows use to prepare more pragmatically for the movement paths and shapes we are going to perform, static stretching increases blood flow (more on this later) and resets in a more efficient manner than dynamic.

Looking at a squat movement, we are asking for a lot of hip flexibility, lengthening of our leg muscles under load, if we don’t create this movement in our warm-up this could lead to less flexibility in the muscle and a counter movement taking place.

This counter movement due to shorten range of movement would in the case of the squat, potentially be leaning forward which would add stress to the lower back, our knees caving in causing pain to our knees.

With our warm-up we are looking to replicate the range of movement needed, decrease the resistance of the muscle (against the movement) and have the flexibility to nail the movement.

Quick takeaways

When warming up, consider the activity you are about to undertake, look to use dynamic stretches to mimic the movement paths we are going to use, warm and prepare those muscles ready for that purpose.

When undertaking static stretches, we still need to be warm, if we are stretching after exercise we are covered, if it’s not after exercise make sure we have conducted some movement, light jumping jacks, walking up and down the stairs etc can help get the blood moving and allow us to have a productive stretching session.

Time is important, but longer does not equal better. We would look to hold stretches for 30-60 seconds – this can be shorter whilst we are starting out:

Get into the stretch position, feel the tension, it shouldn’t be painful.

Wait for the tension to reduce, allow yourself to ‘sink’ into the stretch a little more if you can and hold for the rest of the 60 seconds – shorter when we first start out.

Don’t bounce in the stretch, we want to allow the body to feel the tension in a controlled, smooth manner.

Regulate your breathing during the stretch, try to have a normal breathing pattern.

Focus on larger, main muscles such as lower back, thighs, hips, shoulders and neck.

Aim for symmetry, we want to be equally flexible on both sides of our body, this is especially important when recovering from injury.

Allow stretching to be a relaxing activity, be that after exercise, when unwinding from a tough day or as a self-relaxing activity. It is not a sprint, we are looking to relax our muscles, remove tension and generally feel better afterwards!

If you have any further questions or would like to understand how stretching can improve your daily activities or performance speak to one of us at Spike Fitness.