The water is warm, the air is hot, and the kids are about to go back to school (Yeah!!!). Did I say that out loud? Summer is also a time of year when we often enjoy many forms of outdoor recreational activities. Oftentimes, when the air is warm and the sweat is rolling off our brow, for some reason we neglect a vital component of injury prevention and health, stretching. I would be surprised if anyone reading this article has not heard of stretching, done it or at least been told to by a coach, friend or parent. But do you know how to stretch, when to stretch and when not to stretch? That’s right, there are situations when stretching is counterproductive and/or potentially injury invoking.
Although there are exceptions to every rule, for the point of this article, let’s stick with the standards.
Do not stretch a cold muscle prior to activity. What you say? You have always been told to stretch before you engaged in your activity of choice.
The fact is, you must warm the muscle first by slowly and easily mimicking the activity you are about to participate in prior to stretching, otherwise you run the risk of damaging the muscle fibers. An example would be a golfer taking 20-30 practice swings, starting slowly and through only half the range of motion, gradually building up to full range of motion and swing force over time. After the round is over and the muscles have been fully activated is when the cooldown stretch is most important. Although holding a stretch for 5-10 seconds feels good and will have short term benefits, achieving long term gains will require you to hold the stretch for a minimum of 45 seconds. That is the time period required to activate the neurological stretch reflex.
Another extremely beneficial stretching technique is known as Post Isometric Relaxation or PIR. This technique is generally utilized to break a stubborn muscle spasm and/or rehabilitate an injured muscle. It involves contracting the involved muscle at about 25% of maximum capacity for a period of 5 seconds followed by passively stretching the same muscle for 5-10 seconds. Repeat this sequence five times.
If you have ever witnessed a swimmer on the starting platform aggressively swinging his/her arms before a race, or the kicker on a football team swinging his leg up and down like a pendulum, what you are watching is dynamic stretching. Correctly executed dynamic stretching is one of the most effective means of achieving long term flexibility as well as injury prevention. Performed incorrectly or initiated when the muscles are not properly warmed up, this form of stretching may lead to muscle or joint damage. To be on the safe side, begin incorporating this stretch under the guidance and supervision of a professional who has training in dynamic activities. Two other forms of stretching are ballistic stretching and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (or PNF). Although no less effective, due to space limitation, we can discuss these other forms later.
Maintaining our flexibility as we age is crucial in terms of joint health and function. In general, those who participate in a regular flexibility routine suffer less from joint and/or muscle pain and are less likely to injure themselves during activities of daily living. We have only touched on the surface of stretching for health, so if you have any specific questions regarding any of the flexibility techniques listed above, please feel free to contact our office and I will be happy to help guide you.