Before we start talking about stretching we must understand the meaning of flexibility in the body and how it works.
Each individual is born with a certain amount of flexibility. This ‘flexibility’, or lack of it can be conditioned with movement in the joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles. Surprisingly however, the amount of flexibility that we are born with is our natural ability, and we shouldn’t always necessarily work to change our flexibility unless it is causing joint pain, or restrictions to strength or movement.
To better understand our anatomy; ligaments connect bone to bone in a joint and give stability to the skeleton. Flexibility is not always as simple as reaching for the toes, and trying to reach further.
There should be a close relationship between the muscles and tendons to the muscle fibres. To stretch without breaking, we have a control system of tension within the tendons which measures changes of tension in every moment, and helps to prevent injury (which is why you may not be able to reach your toes).
When exercising, the muscles are warmed up which allows the muscle fibres to stretch a little more. For this reason, warmup plays a very important role. We can participate in two different types of stretching; active stretching; which promotes heating, such as before exercises, and static stretching; which we do to improve flexibility, often following exercise, or on it’s own.
Many competitive athletes spend most of their time training to improve strength and endurance, but very few pay attention to flexibility. Due to the passiveness of stretching, it is often overlooked. However, if we understand that the fibres are longer and better contract when they are flexible, perhaps athletes, and we ourselves would invest more time in stretching to further improve athletic performance.
Does Stretching Actually Help Reduce Injury?
Scientifically, there is controversy amongst researchers and doctors regarding stretching as a tool to reduce injuries, and unfortunately there is insufficient information to support this claim.
In a study presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Traumatology in 2011 MD. Daniel Pereles presented his findings after evaluating 2,729 recreational and elite runners, all which ran at least 10 miles per week. Participants were randomly divided into two groups: one group participated in stretching and the other group did not.
Runners in the stretching group were instructed to perform a leg routine for 3-5 minutes before starting to run. To the surprise of many, the study revealed, the simple act of stretching did not affect the injury rate. Pereles defined injury as any complication preventing running for at least a week. The main factors that may promote an injury include previous chronic injury, the burden of continuous mileage, and the weight of the runner.
This leads us to ask, if there is no direct relationship between stretching and reducing the risk of injury, why stretch?
It is a common question amongst athletes but the major benefit has to do with the skill that develops; an increase in range of motion around a joint, which further improves performance.
For example: many athletes have limited flexibility or tight hamstrings which prevents the athlete from improving their stride. Our muscles work in pairs to produce a movement; some are stretched while others contract, and if one has a limited ability to stretch it will reduce the range of motion. If we continue training with restricted movement for a period of time an imbalance is created as the strongest muscles is required to do more than the opposing muscle, and ends up injuring itself unless we do something to correct this imbalance of force and motion.
It is the responsibility of the coaches and trainers to make their athletes understand the difference between stretching and warm-up. Preheating the muscles prior to exercise has physiological benefits by increasing the heart rate, body temperature, blood flow and lubrication in the joints. Dynamic stretches and joint mobility are recommended as a warm up. Static stretching, or prolonged stretches, help to increase flexibility and provide other benefits, but have no direct relationship with reducing the risk of injury.
Increased flexibility has its benefits, depending on the sport and physical activity demands. The desired outcome or goal of stretching plays an imperative role in chosing the type of stretching to be completed. Choosing the correct method of stretching is important as we alter the tension produced in the muscles and tendons. If the appropriate stretches are not completed we could end up with injury; the opposite of our intended desire.
While we can also use stretching techniques to promote relaxation, muscle elongation, and improved flexibility, such as yoga and pilates, we should be conscious about the timing of such practices.
Stretching to improve flexibility must be done following sports, or after a proper warm stimulating the central nervous system, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints to achieve the proper muscle elongation and support the goal of the stretches.
[Alex Galeth, Trainer and Stretch Instructor]
Note: For this reason, at Encompass Fitness, we begin each session with a dynamic warm-up to stimulate blood flow, and prepare the body for movement, and follow each session with static stretching to promote recovery, and muscle elongation. We also offer yoga, and stretch classes at the end of the day to encourage efficient timing and promote proper participation in a healthy stretch program. [Brady Johnson, Founder, Encompass Fitness]