Have you ever attempted to exercise or work outside in the cold without stretching? How long did it take before you either felt stiff or pulled something as a result? In our fast-paced world, too many of us overlook the importance of stretching both before and after exercising to help prevent injury. A stretched muscle can not only help prevent injury, it can improve your overall athletic performance and improve your range of motion. However, some studies have shown that stretching doesn’t reduce injury as much as we’ve believed, so read on to make your considerations.
- The truth about the pre-exercise stretch. Contrary to old beliefs, pre-workout stretching does not necessarily prevent injury. In August 2010, the USA Track and Field website published a study that involved almost 1,400 runners who broke up into two groups: One didn’t stretch before running and the other did static stretching, which involves holding a stretch for 20 seconds. After three months, the injury percentage (running does have a pretty high rate overall) for both groups was 16 percent. The majority of science says a pre-workout stretch not only doesn’t prevent injury but over-stretching may actually negatively affect performance. Long stretching causes the muscles to tighten up as a response so they don’t over-stretch.
- Stretching versus flexibility. What we really want from our workout is for muscles to work at their best, and some increased flexibility can help with a greater range of motion. Think about it: When you pull a muscle, it’s because you went past the point of your personal flexibility and forced the muscle to go beyond its capacity. Better flexibility improves physical performance, helps joints perform their full range of motion and decreases risk of injuries. And it increases blood flow to the muscles, which is why it feels good to do so before or after working out.
- So what should you do? If you do stretch, go for a dynamic stretch, which involves moving your muscles in a similar way to your chosen sport/exercise at a lower level, then slowly increasing the speed and intensity as you warm up. On that note, recognize that stretching does not equal a warm-up. Before running, for example, do some walking or light jogging to get those particular muscles moving and ready. If you want to stretch, do so after your workout when your muscles are still warm. And even then, keep the stretches short and repeated for about 30 second while holding them (don’t bounce!). Stretch for flexibility and do so in moderation.
Stretching can be part of a regular exercise routine; just do so cautiously and remember that a warm-up gets your muscles going; the stretching helps with flexibility. And yes, a good old-fashioned morning stretch is still a good way to greet the day.
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