Since my last blog entry I have learned much about stretching to relieve pain. If you played organized sports, you’ve probably heard that you should stretch before participating in physical activity. That is true, but it doesn’t stop with stretching prior to activity. You should also stretch after the activity. If you don’t exercise, you should still stretch three times a week so your muscles will maintain flexibility.
Stretching before exercise increases your flexibility and your joints’ range of motion. This will improve performance and relieve muscle stiffness and tension.
Post-exercise stretching helps prevent your muscles from tightening up and helps cool the body down. If you’ve overdone your workout, your muscles will still be sore, but stretching after will increase your flexibility.
If you’re like most of us, you were taught the importance of warm-up exercises back in grade school, and you’ve likely continued with pretty much the same routine ever since. Science, however, has moved on. Researchers now believe that some of the more entrenched elements of many athletes’ warm-up regimens are not only a waste of time but actually bad for you (can you believe it?). The old presumption that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, known as static stretching, primes muscles for a workout is now thought to be inaccurate. It actually weakens them. In a recent study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent. Also, stretching one leg’s muscles can reduce strength in the other leg as well, probably because the central nervous system rebels against the movements.
“There is a neuromuscular inhibitory response to static stretching,” says Malachy McHugh, the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which is not how an athlete wants to begin a workout.
The right warm up should do two things: loosen muscles and tendons to increase the range of motion of various joints, and literally warm up the body. When you’re at rest, there’s less blood flow to muscles and tendons, and they stiffen. “You need to make tissues and tendons compliant before beginning exercise,” Knudson says.
A well-designed warm-up starts by increasing body heat and blood flow. Warm muscles and dilated blood vessels pull oxygen from the bloodstream more efficiently and use stored muscle fuel more effectively.
To raise the body’s temperature, a warm-up must begin with aerobic activity, usually light jogging. That’s why tennis players run around the court four or five times before a match and marathoners stride in front of the starting line. But many athletes do this portion of their warm-up too intensely or too early. A 2002 study of collegiate volleyball players found that those who’d warmed up and then sat on the bench for 30 minutes had lower backs that were stiffer than they had been before the warm-up. Most experts advise starting your warm-up jog at about 40 percent of your maximum heart rate (a very easy pace) and progressing to about 60 percent. The aerobic warm-up should take only 5 to 10 minutes, with a 5-minute recovery. Then it’s time for the most important and unorthodox part of a proper warm-up regimen, the Spider-Man! Check this out: