You know that pick-up basketball game you play every other month? Before stepping onto the court to dominate the other 40-somethings with beer bellies, you do your usual 90-second stretching routine. You sit down, spread your legs and, of course, keep your knees straight! Gotta stretch those hamstrings, after all. A few arm circles, 3 jumps in the air, and the proverbial calf stretch, and you are ready to go all Lebron James on your over-worked accountant friends.
WRONG! Much of what the sporting world has long believed to be beneficial about proper stretching techniques may actually have the opposite effect. You should never stretch cold muscles. Especially before an athletic competition! But what about simple static stretches? You know – the kind where you hold the stretch before a workout or competition? Nope. These actually decrease your strength, power, and performance!
I can’t tell you how many times we went straight into stretching before football practice in high school. Sports science has come a long way since then. Always warm up first. Always. You DO need to stretch, but don’t ever do it when muscles are cold. Always start with mild aerobic warm-ups (i.e. light jogging, stationary bicycle, etc.) to get blood to your tissues before doing any stretching. Think of your muscle tissues like oil in your car. If the oil is cold, it is thick and doesn’t flow very well. It has low viscosity. However, as it heats up, it becomes more fluid-like, smoother, and is able to function at peak performance. Stretching a cold muscle can do damage just like over working a car engine when it isn’t warm yet.
So how long does it take to properly warm up? Start with walking or slow jogging for about five minutes, instead of stretching before exercise. Warming up in this manner increases blood flow, which increases the temperature in the muscles, which makes the muscle fibers (collagen) more elastic and pliable. Remember the engine oil example? After warming up, you can do some dynamic instead of static stretches if you like. Dynamic stretching means slow, controlled movements rather than remaining still and holding a stretch. They can include simple movements like arm and leg circles, yoga stretches, or walking & jogging exercises. However, proper technique is key. You must be in control. Poor technique can put you at higher risk for injury.
Here are three simple dynamic stretches for your lower extremities:
Military march: Slowly lift your leg straight out in front of you, alternating as you walk with your normal stride length. While others may think you look a little silly, it is great hamstring stretch.
Knee lifts: As you jog or walk, bring your knees up toward your chest. Repeat on each side as you jog or walk. You can add some torso twists (gentle) if you like.
Butt-kicks: As you jog or walk, bend one knee and lift it behind you as if you were trying to kick yourself in the butt. This is great for stretching the quads.
Do 3-5 repetitions of 30 seconds each. Again, the movements must be done in a controlled way.
After your workout is the time for static stretches. This is the optimal time to lengthen muscles and improve your flexibility. Always hold static stretches for 30-60 seconds in order to be effective. Don’t stretch to the point of pain. Your high school coach was right about a lot of things, but the phrase “no pain, no gain” wasn’t one of them (at least in terms of stretching – strength training is a different story!). You should go to the point of slight discomfort and intensity. However, going into pain will actually cause a reflex in your muscles that counteracts the stretch. So, you may feel that you are really working hard, but you are just spinning your wheels at that point.
So get out there, weekend-version-Kobe Bryant! Dominate your Lions’ Club. Just remember to jog to the courts. And, only do your stretching after the slam dunk contest, not before.
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