When you’re eager to get on your bike or lace up the running shoes, stretching may not be your primary focus, but it is equally important as furthering your active lifestyle. Stretching offers our muscles support and therefore helps us avoid injury by lengthening and loosening before we engage them in motion. Some activities focus entirely on stretching, as seen in the practice of yoga, which is a chief source for expanding your stretch repertoire. Studies show that stretching may or may not be beneficial, but if you consider the helpful contribution of flexibility and lack of stiffness of any importance, you may want to incorporate it into your routine.
Stretching increases blood flow to the muscle, and when done correctly, it can prevent injury by reducing tension and enhancing athletic performance. Flexibility is key across the gamut of activities and sports with which you may be involved. Whether biking, weight training, dancing, or swimming, having full range of motion can never hurt.
How to Stretch Safely
Stretch After, Not Before
Though it may seem low-impact, stretching is not the warm-up it appears to be. In fact, you’ll want to warm up a little prior to stretching in order to avoid potential injury. Stretching cold muscles can lead to strain. Going for a quick walk, jog, or bike ride for five to ten minutes is a good primer for an effective stretch. Stretching after you exercise is optimal, as your muscles are already toasty. Before you perform a vigorous physical activity, avoid stretching. Several studies have shown that stretching prior to a track meet or other such event could actually reduce one’s performance abilities.
Focus on particular muscle groups, preferably large ones, that you know you’ll be using the most of. Stretching the lower back, neck, shoulders, hips, calves, and thighs is most important for any activity, including daily life and sitting at your desk. Especially work on loosening the muscles you use primarily on the job or in your active time. Always stretch both sides in order to stay balanced and avoid a concentration of tension in one area over the other. Additionally, it may throw off your posture, walking, and result in difficulty when playing sports or exercising if you are reluctant to stretch complementary muscles. (For example, if you stretch your neck in one direction, be sure to go the other way, as well.)
If you look for stretches customized to your sport or activity of choice, your routine of flexibility may be even more effective. As you target the muscle groups used in this activity while stretching, you increase the likelihood that your performance will improve on the next go-round.
Stretch Within Reason
If you stretch too far or begin to feel pain, STOP. Tension is normal, but intense pain is not. If you come to a noticeably difficult area to move, simply hold the stretch at a place where it feels bearable and without pain. Also, the tendency for some to bounce while stretching is not a helpful one, as you can tear your muscles, leaving scar tissue as the muscle heals, thus creating even more tension and decreasing flexibility. Torn muscle fibers will result in a greater amount of pain, potentially preventing you from enjoying your regular activities as much as you normally would.
Establish A Routine
Although stretching can eat away at your precious free time, it is well worth the positive outcome. It is advised to stretch two to three times per week at bare minimum, and your muscles will thank you for putting in the time. Those who do not stretch on a consistent basis compromise losing any results from stretching previously. Tension will rebuild rapidly, so make it a habit in order to keep your range of motion wide and your body relaxed. It also decreases stress as we tend to store nervous energy in our neck and shoulder muscles, which can be released with regular stretching.
To get started, here are a few stretches that everyone can benefit from, regardless of your preferred activities and target areas. Many people who work at a desk all day (or otherwise seated) will be able to relate to a moderate amount of neck strain and shoulder tension from peering at a screen or hovering over papers, and unnaturally stretching their necks, or avoiding good posture while completing tasks. If you know your tension will return shortly after a massage, integrating a few of these moves into your schedule may prove their worth in the long term.
The vast majority of stretches out there stem from yoga, and this basic pose is both a stretch and strengthening exercise for elongating your back muscles and hamstrings.
- Begin resting on hands and knees, looking straight ahead.
- Turning your gaze toward to floor, lift hips into an upside-down V-shape.
- Work on flattening your back rather than keeping heels ont he ground.
- Bend knees if needed.
A pectoral stretch to open your chest and allow for optimal breathing while stretching your back.
- Standing next to a wall, place your right hand up on the wall at 12 o’clock.
- Slowly move your hand from 12 to 1, 2, ending at 3 o’clock.
- Place your left hand on your right rib cage, taking a deep breath in, and pulling the rib cage forward while keeping the right arm still.
- A stretch should occur in front of the right shoulder and down the right arm. Hold for six deep breaths.
- Repeat on the other side.
Always an excellent choice for releasing neck, jaw, shoulder, and head tension, neck rolls are a stretch for any place and time. Do them at a traffic light, at your desk, at home, while you’re out, as long as you have a place to sit upright.
- Sit with your back straight and your head in line with your spine.
- Rest your palms on your legs, and relax your arms and shoulders.
- Carefully drop your head forward, keeping the rest of your spine straight.
- Take a deep breath in while rolling your head to the left, bringing your left ear toward your left shoulder. Maintain looseness in your arms and shoulders. Move slowly, following your breath.
- When your ear is above your shoulder, take several deep breaths. Exhale while bringing your head back to the center, moving slowly with the breath.
- Inhale while rolling your head to the other side, focusing on your breath and keeping your arms and shoulders relaxed.
- Repeat five to ten times.
1. Mayo Clinic. Stretching: Focus on Flexibility.
2. Bicycling.co.za. The Best Stretches for Cyclists.
4. FitDay.com. 3 Back Stretches for Your Upper Back.
Image by Chossne via Wikimedia Commons.