Stretching may be the difference between pleasure and pain, first place and last place, or movement that is fluid or rough. Most athletes take an uninterested approach to stretching or as I like to call it, flexibility training. Yet research reports that a regular stretching program can increase athletic performance by as much as fifteen percent. A proper warm up will increase athletic performance just as a proper cool down will reduce overuse and chronic sports specific injuries.
Serious athletes should perform some form of flexibility training daily to increase joint range of motion, promote circulation, reduce muscle stiffness and prevent common injuries such as strains and sprains. Most athletes understand the principals of a proper stretching program however, they forget that stretching should not be performed until the body is properly warmed up. Before beginning a flexibility program, gently warm up the muscles that will be used by using a light repetitive activity such as fast walking, jumping rope, slow bike ride or a slow jog. A good rule of thumb is to gently exercise until a sweat first breaks out. This activity assists the stretching phase by increasing the blood flow to muscles, ligaments and tendons and making them more pliable. To understand this process better, sit on the ground and try and touch your toes. Then try again after performing a ten-minute warm up and see how much easier the task is to perform.
Stretching exercises have both short term and long term benefits. In the short term, stretching increases the joints range of motion, improves the ease of muscles in crossing the joints, and increases the blood supply to the soft tissue. These immediate changes, which enhance performance and help prevent injury, by themselves justify the need for stretching, both independently and in conjunction with daily exercise and training. Long-term benefits include enhanced comfort and better functioning of the entire body.
If you truly want the added fifteen percent increase in your performance level, then your success depends upon three factors: how often it is done (frequency), how hard it is done (intensity), and how long it is done (duration). To develop true flexibility, the exercises should be part of your daily routine. If a Sports Physical or Performance Enhancement exam has revealed limitations in a particular area (the hamstrings or lower back, for example) exercises should be done twice a day for that area (providing your sports practitioner approves). Intensity in a flexibility program refers to how much the muscles stretch during each exercise. Several theories exist on intensity. The one I hear the most is “no pain, no gain”, meaning stretch till it hurts. However, if you follow this school of thought you will get worse instead of better. By pushing the muscle into the “pain zone” you elicit the stretch reflex which is a guarding mechanism. This reflex will actually shorten the muscle, which in turn can cause a strain to the muscle you are trying to relax. Instead of pushing a muscle to the point of pain, the athlete should stretch just until feeling the point of tension, known as the action point. By not overstretching the muscle, athletes can relax while stretching and thus hold each position longer.
Opinions as to how long a stretch should be held (duration) vary tremendously depending on the source. Recent research points toward the most benefit from holding the stretch for a full sixty seconds. This is because it may take between twenty to forty seconds for the muscles to relax fully. By holding the stretch for sixty seconds, the athlete can be assured that tight muscles, tendons, and ligaments are being stretched slowly, with a minimal chance of injury. However, benefits can be gained with stretches between ten and thirty seconds.
By implementing a regular stretching program your athletic performance will go up and your injuries will go down, not a bad trade off.
Special thanks to the Chiropractic Sports Institute for this article!