Stretching is good for you. Some general stretching advice is given on how and when to stretch, and on the nutritional supplements to make stretching effective.
Originally published 2001
Jeff Galloway’s marathon training book was recently brought to my attention. It recommends:
- Don’t stretch before running. Do warm-ups like walking.
- Wait at least 30 minutes after running before stretching .
He’s absolutely right on the first count. I’m unfamiliar with his reasoning on the second. But item #1 is correct, and not widely known, which implies that he is well-informed. So #2 is likely to be valid, as well.
When I was coaching volleyball in New England, I had occasion to read the coaching journals and learn something about the applied physiology that the national teams are using (and then gear it down to the level I was coaching).
Some information to consider:
- Warming up a muscle before exercise is the absolute best way to prevent injury. “Warming up” means just that — raising the temperature of the muscle. The temperature increase comes from the heat released during exercise and from the increased blood flow to the muscle.
- The best way to warm up is to do the same activities you are about to engage in, only very, very lightly, instead of strenuously. (Warming up different muscles than the ones you will be using doesn’t help much.)
- Gradually increase your exertion level. As your body temperature rises, so can your intensity level. The result: You’ll not only be warmed up and loose, which lessens your chance of injury during the activity, but you will be well prepared for maximum performance.
- Stretching a muscle “cold” (especially with a bouncing stretch) has a high likelihood of producing an injury — especially as you get older. So, if you are going to stretch before your activity, warm up first.
- Since virtually all sports programs start with pre-game stretching, it is vital that you arrive early and get yourself warmed up!
- The best time to stretch is after your activity. For several reasons:
- The muscles are warm, and unlikely to tear. That makes it possible to work to *increase* your range of motion. (Stretching before the activity, on the other hand, should be limited to preparing the muscle for the activity — not for pushing the envelope.)
- The stretching increases blood flow to the muscles, which need it to wash away metabolic byproducts and obtain nutrients for rebuilding. So both recovery time and soreness are reduced.
- Since you’ve already performed your activity, even if you do sustain a minor injury during stretching you’ll have plenty of time to recover before your next event. In any case, your performance at that event won’t suffer. (Some small tearing is likely when working to increase range of motion.)
- Studies show that stretching between weight training exercises increases strength gains. Partly, that may be due to having a bit of extra rest that helps you catch your breath. But it could also be due to the fact that a muscle grows by lengthing its actin and myosin fibers, so they have more overlap. Stretching assists that growth by increasing blood flow and removing waste products. It may also be the case that the fibers need to be in their fully elongated position in order to grow, and that the “tightness” you feel after exercise is the result of muscle tissues bunching up until they heal enough to stretch out. (Growth occurs only after recovery. That could be why. Stretching promotes recovery, which may allows the growth phase to begin sooner.)
- The most flexible, muscular guy I ever saw ran marathons! He never stretched before a marathon. Instead, he warmed up by running an easy mile or two. (That’s pretty incredible all by itself.) After running, he did an hour or so of Yoga. He claimed he was never sore. I believe him. And he could practically scratch his toes with elbows.
- However, despite the fact that stretching afterwards is ideal, few events and activities are planned with that principle in mind. (I used to watch the national volleyball team go through a series of cool down exercises, and I did the same with my players. But it is all too rare to find time allocated for post- activity stretching.)That being the case, I find that the next best practical alternative is to warm yourself up before the pre-activity stretching. It’s not ideal, but it’s accepted as part of the pre-game ritual, and it is definitely better than no stretching.
In activities where performance depends on being fully stretched out and loose (martial arts and dancing, among others) it does make sense to stretch as part of the pre-event warm ups. Emphasis should be on light exercise that warm ups the body as muscles are stretched.
Running is terrific exercise, but it can also tighten you up something fierce. But with as few as 5 post-run stretches, you can increase your flexibility, reduce soreness, and and improve your recovery time so you get stronger, faster.
Here are the stretches, working from the bottom up. Hold them for a slow count of 20 (which works out to about 30 seconds each, for me), or somewhat longer (up to a minute):
- Calf stretch:The calves run along the back of your lower leg. The best stretch I’ve found is to stand with your toes on something raised, like a curb, and let your heels hang down. (If it’s wet, I’ll open the car door and stand on the edge of car, holding onto the edge of the roof for balance.)You can do the lunge stretch for the calves, too. But since you’re only doing one leg at a time, it takes twice a long. (On the other hand, you maximize the stretch for each calf. Your choice.)
- Hamstring stretch: The hamstring is the muscle at the back of the thigh. This is a terrific stretch for them, and it’s pretty much the only one that works. Stand facing a tree, pole, wall, or some other support. Reach out and press your hands against the object. The goal is for your hands to be level with your hips, or as near as you can get to that position. If you’re too close, bend your elbows. If too far, work your feet backward. Then, with your feet directly under your hips, push your chest towards the ground while keeping your legs reasonably straight. Lever against the support to keep your body straight as you stretch out the hamstrings.
- Glute stretch: The “glutes”, aka the gluteus maximus, is otherwise known as your butt. From the hamstring-stretch position, let go of the support and slowly drop your arms towards the ground. Drop your head, round your back, and let gravity pull you towards the ground. When gravity has taken you as far as you will go, you can stretch a little further by putting your hands behind your legs and pull gently pulling your body towards your knees.
- Quad stretch: The quads are the muscles on your thigh. If the ground is dry, sit on you heels for 30 seconds, then lean back and rest on yor hands, elbows, or (ideally) on your back for 30 seconds. Great quad stretch. If the ground is wet, hold something for balance while standing, lift one leg behind you, grasp your foot, and pull it to your butt as though you were sitting on it. Then push your hips forward for a better stretch.
- Hip stretch: The muscles at the sides of your hips get more of a workout than you realize, when you run. If the ground is dry, stretch them by sitting cross-legged and leaning forward as far as you can for 30 seconds. When you’re done it’s a great time to meditate and enjoy the endorphin after-glow…If the ground is wet, spread your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart to take the hamstrings out of the equation. Then bend forward once more, focusing attention on the hips. You can then meditate in the Taiji “Empty Stance”–or Wu-ji stance — where your feet are shoulder width apart, knees are slightly bent, upper body is tilted slightly forward to release all tension in the back, and your hands just hang or rest comfortably below your navel.
When working to increase range of motion, it is worth supplementing to make sure your body has the macro-nutrients it needs to repair itself with supple, pliant tissue. To do that, you need 1 to 2 grams per day of:
- Vitamin C
Now, 1 to 2 grams per day is a lot more than you usually think of when you’re taking a vitamin supplement. But these nutrients are different, because they’re actually used as nutritional building blocks to build muscle tissue. For more information, see “Macro Nutrient” Supplements.
Stretching is important, and there is a lot of important information out there about how to do it. This essay focused on when, and what supplements help the process.
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