S is for Stretching

We’re asked many times about stretching so here’s a summary of the most frequent questions we hear:

Why do I need to stretch?

First ask yourself what you want to achieve from stretching, then you’ll be closer to knowing why. Here’s a quick summary of the key benefits:

  • Better range of movement
  • Better force production throughout that range of movement (power)
  • More efficient blood flow (and nutrient flow) to the muscles
  • More efficient removal of metabolic waste – both of these mean more efficient muscular recovery from aerobic AND anaerobic activity
  • Better proprioception – knowing exactly where your body is in space at any one time
  • Better agility (the ability to stop, change direction and go again)

When should I stretch?

Before exercise is of benefit if the stretching is dynamic and the aim is to increase blood flow, warm up muscles and prepare you for action. This is not the time to try to make gains to the overall length of muscles and soft tissues. After a training session is useful as part of the warm down routine and will aid recovery. But, if your aim is to gain flexibility and significantly affect the length/structure of soft tissues then stretching should be seen as an entirely separate activity from the sport you are involved in. This is developmental stretching, and will require an investment of your time and patience – there is no quick fix way to reverse the months and years it’s taken structures to become shortened.

How do I stretch?

cat stretchThis one is easy really, and again will require you to invest time and thought to the process if you are wanting to do developmental stretching.  Work out what part of you is tight/stiff/restricting movement and then move your arm/leg/body into a position that increases the length. There shouldn’t be any pain. You will feel tension, but if it’s painful then you’ve gone to far so back off. After some time (we’re talking minutes) you should begin to feel the tension ease and at this point you can move into the stretch a little further, and so-on. Repeat for as long as you like. I will often stretch my calves while drinking a cup of tea – that usually takes me a good 10 minutes – so I know I’m committed to that time with my calves.

One golden rule you must abide by is that stretching this way needs to be done when you are warm. Don’t just jump out of bed or off the sofa and launch into a deep stretch. I personally like to stretch after a run – but once I’m showered and hydrated. This way my body hasn’t been static for the last few hours so there’s good blood flow to the areas I’ll focus on. If you are going to stretch but haven’t been exercising then warm up and increase blood flow by going for a brisk 5-10 minute walk or doing some dynamic stretching before moving on to the developmental stretches.

I also think that deep breathing is good when you are stretching. I’m not talking about the focused breathing that you can do in yoga practice, just some good deep breaths to fill and empty your lungs. You have lots of connective tissues from your diaphragm to muscles in your torso and legs, so filling and emptying your lungs adds depth to those stretches. Just try it and see what the difference is.

If you’re interested in learning about stretching in more detail then read our series of articles:

Stretching – an introduction

Stretching – Part 2

Stretching – Part 3

Stretching – Part 4

Stretching – A summary

There’s also a couple of easy to follow stretch routines for those of you who sit at a desk (isn’t that most of us?):

Stretches for desk workers –  part 1

Stretches for desk workers – part 2

and for an explanation of how to stretch your calves read this article.

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