All athletes at some point in their careers have been told to stretch. As children stretching is worked into the normal workout routine of practice. Once we move to high school, college, and beyond we forget the importance of stretching. Overall flexibility plays a huge role in injury prevention.
Flexibility is the key. Athletes who are more flexible tend to have fewer problems with muscle strains and cramping. Flexibility can also prevent low back pain and muscle soreness. By remaining flexible in the lower body it puts less stress on the low back and allows for more movement in the hips.
The most common question asked by coaches and athletes about stretching continues to be; is it better to stretch before or after activity. There are two schools of thought here. The first one is that we should stretch before activity in order to increase flexibility prior to a workout or competition, with the idea that this will decrease the risk for injury. The second idea would be to stretch after competition in order to increase overall flexibility when the body is already warm. Some coaches even use this as a cool down.
The answer to this question is actually more complex than one might think. Studies have shown that static stretching before activity (stretching and holding the stretch for longer periods) can decrease the ability of the muscle to produce a powerful contraction. This can significantly decrease athletic performance. What has been proven to be a more effective method is a dynamic warm-up and stretch. Dynamic stretching lengthens the muscle by stretching it thenand contracting them it in quick succession. A warm up should last long enough to warm the core temperature of the body and should cause perspiration. Dynamic stretching should be progressive and should increase in difficulty during the routine and should never be done beyond the capability of the athlete. A good example of a dynamic stretch would be a long arc leg swing. This can be performed by standing with the legs parallel and kicking one leg in front of the body then swinging it back into an extended position and kicking the leg forward again. Each swing should be far enough to cause a slight stretch and the end ranges but should not be painful. This exercise will stretch the hamstrings and the quadriceps muscles. The best way to choose a dynamic exercise for the warm up is to perform a movement specific to the activity and perform it slowly and controlled in order to warm up the muscles that are specific to that activity. The warm up should last long enough to warm the core temperature of the body and should cause perspiration.
This answer usually sparks another question. When should we use static stretching? Static stretching can increase overall flexibility and help to clear lactic acids from the muscles, which can decrease soreness and fatigue after activity. Static stretching should only be done post exercise and should last fifteen to thirty minutes. A static stretching routine can be used as a cool down and should be all encompassing. It should cover all the major muscle groups. The major muscle groups in the legs include the hamstrings, quadriceps, and calf muscles. One example of static stretching is a standing hamstrings stretch. This is performed by standing with legs together; folding from the hips bring the chest toward the ground. Static stretches are most effective if held for 20-30 seconds.
Static stretching can also be done without a workout. Most of us like to sit at home in front of the TV. This is a great time to stretch. Yoga is also a great option to assist in increased flexibility.
Remember flexibility is the key. Stay Flexible and injury free.