By Tom Poole, DPT
Why should I stretch? What is the point of stretching? What kind of stretch is best? When should I stretch? These are some of the most common questions I field when working with athletic clients. There are unlimited factors that can lead to injury including a range of training errors and preexisting injuries, with a lack of stretching being a common factor.
There has been a heated debate about the type of stretching that athletes should perform in order to compete at their top potential. But, surprisingly, there is little said about the effect stretching has on injury prevention. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine recently released a review concluding “there is not sufficient evidence to endorse or discontinue routine stretching before or after exercise to prevent injury among competitive or recreational athletes.” While many athletes and doctors have experienced profound benefits from stretching and, thereby, strongly disagree, others deny an empirical correlation.
Nonetheless stretching is known to create a viscoelastic effect which decreases stiffness and increases range of motion and, thereby, promotes optimal functioning. This is most relevant for endurance sports athletes as they experience repetitive motions such as running, cycling, obstacle courses and swimming. Recent studies link pre-participation stretching to a decreased incidence of muscle strains in athletes.
So, how should you start?
The warm up should be a 5-10 minute bout of light exercise to increase heart rate and prepare the body for activity. This can be as simple as a light jog or calisthenics.
Dynamic stretching is best pre-workout as it incorporates actively stretching the muscle to its end range without a prolonged hold. Leg swings, lunges, heel walks, toe walks, high knees, buttock kicks, and Frankenstein walks are a few examples. The idea is to include muscles that will later be stressed aerobically.
Post-event static stretching also should include large muscle groups. During a run the calfs, quads, gluts and hamstrings are all active, whereas obstacle course athletes often place strain on lats and triceps. Whatever muscles that feel tight or tired will benefit from stretching. Static holds are held 30-90 seconds without bouncing. Three repetitions of each stretch should be completed, for optimal gain.
Stretching should be a part of every work out in order to promote prime functionality and decrease the risk of muscle strain. The 10 minutes it takes to complete stretching is minuscule compared to the 3-12 weeks most often taken to rehab muscular strains.
Tom Poole, DPT practices physical therapy at Rutland Regional Medical Center Outpatient Services.