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Stretch your way to a faster you

We all know how important stretching is, but seldom find time or make the time to fit it into our schedules. We would rather spend the extra time going longer on the bike, or we are too tired by the time we finish our session, or too hungry and cannot wait any longer to attack the fridge. So stretching gets neglected over and over again. Instead of coming up with excuses, we need to remember how important is for our bodies and muscles, then make the time. The muscles that we push and work so hard chasing pb’s and stats, deserve a little TLC. 

Benefits of stretching

  • Stretches out a shortened muscle and returning it to its resting length. A happy muscle is a healthy muscle and a healthy muscle will be able to work more effectively
  • Introduces blood flow to the area. Blood flow brings in nutrients and oxygen and well as flushes out the muscle of debris and damaged cells etc.
  • Prepares a muscle for the load that it is about to receive in training
  • Increases and maintains range of motion (ROM) around a joint. Hence no restrictions and the joint is able to perform effectively with no limitations. Enhances coordination
  • Stretching not only targets muscles, but tendons (attach muscles to bone) and ligaments (attach bone to bone). So it addresses all the soft tissue of the body
  • Increase energy levels of the working muscle

Over the years the “how to stretch” has changed and will continue to do so. Gone are the days of stretching a cold muscle, or bouncing a stretch as a way to push it further. Certain stretches are now considered not effective as they stretch a nerve rather than the muscle. Example of this is the traditional hamstring stretch putting your foot up on something with your knee locked and leaning forward from the hips. Not all of us are ballerinas that can put your head on your knee ( more about this later) but most of us feel a nerve burn instead of an actual stretch in the hamstring region. So it is now recommended that you have a slight bend in your knee. This releases the tension on the nerve and rather allows you to stretch into the hamstring itself.

I never recommend to my clients and athletes to stretch a cold muscle. In other words you have just jumped out of bed and about to go swimming. I rather encourage that before training you do ROM (range of motion) movements to allow the body and muscles time to respond and wake up. So arm swings, hip mobility, rotational movement of the trunk, side bends, put your joints through the ranges with gentle, repeated movement. This warms the muscles up without pushing them to their limit and causing harm and microscopic muscle tears. Then use your warm up as a warm up, start off slow and controlled and allow the soft tissue time to adapt. So whatever you are about to do swim, bike or run, start off gentle.

There is nothing wrong with stopping during a session and applying a stretch to an area that is pulling tight. Like dropping your calf off a step to stretch the calf muscles. Or stretching out your gluts after some hill reps while running. You should hold these stretches for 60-90sec as this allows the brain pathway some time to send the messages back and forth to tell the muscle being stretched to let go.

After a session is a great time to stretch. The muscles are warm and may have pulled tight from the training session. Here once again holding a stretch for 60-90sec at a time. You can repeat a stretch 3 times if need be. Do not forget that foam rolling or rolling on a tennis ball is also a form of stretching. I use a foam roller on my back and front of legs, as well as lower back muscles. But then I like using a tennis ball to get into my gluts and hips, or Rhomboids and Traps around the shoulder region. I roll every alternate day as to not bruise the area. If something needs more, then I stretch it rather than roll it day after day.

Massage is also a great way to stretch a muscle. Sometimes you stretch and stretch but the problem persists. Imagine an elastic band as your muscle fibres, now imagine a knot tied in the middle of this band. You can pull each end of the band and stretch and keep stretching but this knot stays there. You need massage to breakdown this knot of tight muscle so that the entire length of fibres can be stretched and released. You can do self-massage, use a tennis ball or get your massage therapist or physio to do it for you. Pleasant? No it will not be, but the results are usually achieved quickly.

Lastly we need to look at when a muscle needs to be stretched and when not. In a sore tight muscle the muscle bunches up into a spasm as the fibres contract and stay contracted. This is usually painful and bad for performance. The points mentioned above will help to release these contractions and return the muscle to its resting length. A muscle performs at its best when it can contract and relax repeatedly. But sometimes like with a spasm the contraction cannot let go and needs to be stretched or massaged. BUT sometime a muscle is too long and too stretched. This can be a bad thing, as a muscle that is too long is less happy and at risk of injuring or tears. A long lengthened muscle can also cause pain so we think we need to stretch it. Stretching it does seem to bring relief as you are affecting the Golgi tendon (we have these in all our muscles as they measure our muscle length all the time to protect them from getting damaged or torn) but the risk of causing damage can be high. An example I am going to use is back to our ballet dancer who can put her head on her leg while trying to stretch her hamstring. To be able to do this means the muscle is too long as this stretch is passed the degree of normal range for a hamstring stretch. Ideally we should be able to reach our toes but that’s about it. Same as the amount of time I see athletes stretching their calves off a step and their heel is so far down that it’s passed the normal healthy stretch zone. If you are not aware then as a massage therapist, physio or biokinetist to test your ROM as to what muscles you should be stretching and what muscles you should be strength training to build stronger. 

In summary…..a happy healthy muscle that is at an optimal length will perform better and allow you to train and push and achieve your training goals.

 

So happy training and happy stretching

 

Mandy Lowings