Why and When to Stretch Your MusclesOct 09, 2012
I recently met a fit young man who loves to run. A mutual friend brought us together, introducing me as someone who might be able to help with his back pain. He had seen a chiropractor who told him the curve in his lower back had flattened which was probably contributing to his pain. I agreed and went into an explanation of posture and compromised movement mechanics.
He continued his story and explained how he had researched the problem, finding that tight hamstrings could be contributing to the flattening of the spinal curve. He began a stretching program and between that and the chiropractic adjustments gained relief and was running again.
Following his improvement and new found knowledge about the value of stretching, I was only slightly surprised when he went on to tell me that he just didn't have time to continue stretching regularly. Fitting in the run was already pushing his busy schedule.
How common it is that once we begin to feel better we fall back into our harmful routines and once again take our body for granted. We expect that regardless of the abuse we inflict, our body will recover and support continued punishment. I expressed concerned if he didn't continue stretching his back pain would return and he wouldn't be able to run. My words seemed to fall on closed ears, our conversation quickly ended.
A Brief Physiology Lesson: Muscle Length-Tension Relationship
A short or long muscle is weak. If your muscles are shortened by activity without stretching to return them to normal length you are weak!
Muscle force is generated when the protein fibers within the muscle cells slide past one another, known as the sliding filament theory. In order to generate optimal tension muscle cells need to be at a normal resting length. Too much overlap, when the muscle is shortened or too little overlap, when the muscle is lengthened results in reduced force production or failure of the muscle to perform the requested movement, leading to compensations and inefficient actions.
(Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 2000)
Shortened muscles can also pull on the bones and create postural misalignment as seen in the runner described above with the lost lumbar curve. Unbalanced posture causes compensated movements and lowers energy efficiency and performance.
When should you stretch?
Over the years there has been much debate about the best time to stretch - before or after a workout. The latest guidance is to do range of motion exercises prior to your workout and static stretches following, to gain flexibility.
Great guidance, but it doesn't mean anything to those who skip stretching altogether and may even be harmful. Yes, harmful! If you believe that the only time to stretch is directly following your workout which is already time crunched, there is not much chance you'll trade workout time for stretching time. So, you skip it. Sound familiar?
This was my pattern and still is some days. I just want to get outside for my run, bike or ski and I only have a short amount of time. No way will I spend my precious workout minutes stretching. I do my activity, quickly shower and rush back to work or my other commitments.
It is a lot better to stretch sometime than not at all. When I can't stretch in conjunction with my workout I will do it at another time during the day.
The important thing is that you do stretch, consistently! The body is dynamic and your muscle length and tension change with use. Continually shortening your muscles without stretching raises your risk for injuries and pain.
Stretch everyday to keep your muscles healthy, posture aligned and performance peaked
I generally stretch first thing in the morning, it's a great way to start the day. Many of my clients choose to stretch in the evening as way to unwind and relax before bed. The important thing is to find a schedule that works for you and stick to it!
What is your stretching routine? Leave a comment below.
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