Whether you are an athlete or have an average level of physical activity, I believe stretching should be an integral part of your daily life. Often, young people focus on building muscle and developing aerobic fitness, but flexibility is equally important.
Stretching is necessary – it helps keep muscles and fascia flexible, strong and healthy, thus maintaining range of motion in the joints. A short tight muscle is a weak muscle.
For example, young people who are office based or in full-time education sit in a chair for a large part of the day. This tightens the hip flexors and hamstrings making it more difficult to extend the legs and knees fully, which affects walking. Now imagine what could happen when more stress is placed on these muscles by playing tennis or going for a run.
Reasons to stretch include:
- Injury prevention
- Aid recovery after exercise
- Promote and maintain agility
- Reduce muscle tension and discomfort
- Improve blood flow and circulation
- Enhance body function and sports performance
- Improve posture and alignment
- Decrease stress in combination with mindfulness
Stretching becomes more important as we mature. Learning proper stretching techniques at a young age and making it a habit, means it is more likely to become a lifelong activity.
When Should You Stretch?
- Before sport or physical activity as part of a warm up using dynamic stretches
- After sport or physical activity as part of a cool down; especially important for injury prevention. Static stretches are best to avoid muscle cramps.
Daily stretching or a program of stretching three to four times a week is ideal.
Stretching has a cumulative effect. Sporadic stretching won’t magically make you more flexible. It may take weeks or months to restore a muscle that has shortened and tightened over an equally lengthy period, but if you consistently work on it, you will succeed.
How to Stretch?
It is best to warm up with a short aerobic activity before you stretch. A brief 5-10 minute walk or cycle is sufficient to increase blood and oxygen flow making the tissues more pliable and ready for change.
- Dynamic stretches – use quick repetitive movement to move the joint through full range of motion. Think about mimicking the movement patterns in the upcoming workout or sport.
- Static stretches are most familiar and held for 30 seconds. To perform a static stretch, you take the joint to a point where you feel a comfortable resistance and hold, continuing to breathe deeply.
- PNF (Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) is a bit of a mouthful. Put simply, this is assisted stretching with a partner/trainer using resistance. A muscle group is placed in a position of comfortable stretch, then the muscle group is contracted for 5-6 seconds whilst the partner applies enough resistance to inhibit movement. The muscle group is then relaxed and placed in a controlled stretch for 20-30 seconds. A short recovery period of 30 seconds is allowed before repeating.
Dos and Don’ts
- Don’t bounce whilst stretching, you may injure the muscle
- Stabilise your joints whilst you stretch
- Remember to breathe – inhale slowly and relax into the stretch as you exhale.
- Always do both sides – you may be more flexible on one side, but you should stretch both sides equally to avoid increasing your risk of injury
Is there a Downside?
- If you try going beyond comfortable to the point of pain, you risk tearing the muscle
- If you stretch a cold muscle, you can cause damage and pain
- Too much flexibility is as bad as too little. In both cases the muscles are weakened, so stick to normal range of motion.
Important – Stretching for Teens
At puberty, stretching becomes more important as flexibility can reduce markedly during growth spurts. The unequal growth of bone and muscles can result in pain, thus performing daily static stretches during and after growth spurts can ease the severity of the pain.
If a teenager is particularly active, playing a lot of sport, and failing to stretch, the risk of injury from muscle tears (strains or pulls) increases. Dynamic stretches, particularly before a competitive event, helps prevent injury.
Why Mindfulness is Important
The incidence of anxiety, fatigue and depression in the population, but particularly in the young, is increasing. In the ‘Insta Age’ it can all be about how you look but, how you feel may not be so obvious. Chronic stress has many undesirable effects on the body. Regular stretching combined with mindful focus and breathing has been shown to reduce mental tension and decrease anxiety and depression. In my personal experience of teaching bodywork, working in a mindful way is also more effective.
The Nordic Body Kinetic Approach
- static, dynamic and PNF stretching
- core strengthening
- deep breathing
so that the stability and mobility of the body’s kinetic chain acts as the foundation for functional movement.
Over time this builds
- movement efficiency
- joint stability and mobility
- neuromuscular control
- body awareness