Stretching is important for several reasons. It improves flexibility, which can come in handy whether you’re reaching down to pick up a pencil from the floor, climbing a ladder to the roof or trying to grab your overeager child before they run into the street. From a sports perspective, flexibility allows you to move more easily and with a greater range of motion while reducing the odds that you’ll pull, strain or overstretch something in the heat of battle. It also can protect against long-term injury, in the sense that flexibility and range-of-motion deficits can cause overcompensation patterns to develop.
Because stretching makes your body more flexible, it also has mental health benefits. First, picture yourself on the couch after a long day’s work or a morning at the racquetball court, sore, stiff and in pain. Now picture yourself on the same couch after the same activities, but well-stretched, blood and oxygen circulating properly, able to achieve a superior range of motion despite your draining day. Now that’s a reason to stretch, isn’t it?
Traditionally, stretching routines have followed the principle of static holding; that means holding a stretch in a single position for 20-30 seconds or more. These types of stretches, known as static stretches, were the only stretches in town for years. Of late, experts in the fitness world increasingly question whether static stretching, particularly before running or performing a sport, has value. In fact, they theorize that static stretching may actually increase injury risk if performed before participating in an activity.
The reason for this concern is because when your muscles are cold, they’re at their most stiff. That makes perfect sense, right? Again, picture yourself heading out for a run – without warming up your body – after spending a sedentary day at your desk at work and another hour in your car coming home. Static stretching could actually overstretch the muscle, straining or tearing it.
The solution, according to more and more experts, is to warm up first, complete your physical activity (say, a run) and then perform static stretches, when your body can handle it. The bottom line is that cold muscles are much easier to injure than warm muscles; applying a prolonged, static stretch before you’re adequately warmed up could do more damage than good.
So, does that mean you shouldn’t stretch before an activity? Of course not. But you might not want to do static stretches. Instead, try dynamic active stretches – things like knee lifts, arm circles, walking lunges, leg swings, torso twists, etc. Think of dynamic stretches as a way to warm up your body in a gentle fashion that prepares you for your activity. Talk to your doctor to learn more.