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Stretch Yourself To A Better You

Written by Stu Watson

The rules of stretching have changed.  Do it right, and your body will thank you.

For most of the last 20 years, I haven't stretched. Zero, nada, zilch, not before, during or after exercise.

It wasn't always thus. In the early days I stretched religiously before every run. This was a legacy habit, born in my high school track days when every after-school practice began with group stretching.

Before You Stretch:

*Most people will do fine with one 30-second stretch, but some may need repeated stretches of longer duration

*Get the stretch you need by holding it until you feel the muscle relax, then push further into the stretch until resistance eases.
*While stretching will improve range of motion by increasing flexibility and reducing pain, it won't reduce the risk of injury.

So I continued, assuming the coach knew best, even though I always had my doubts about a guy whose advice to any injured, sore or malingering athlete was a uniform "run it off."

My suspicions were right: I wasn't stretching correctly. Not only was my timing off, so was my technique. 

First, stretching before exercise isn't necessarily optimal. The new wisdom says I should stretch only after my muscles have warmed up. Jog one-quarter to one-half mile then stretch to achieve optimum benefits.

Then there were the stretches themselves. I had been schooled in the era of ballistic stretching, that is, the bouncy variety. According to findings reported by Canadian researchers in the journal The Physician and Sports Medicine, the bounce does more harm than good. It boosts stiffness and can cause tiny muscle tears that increase pain and limit range of motion and performance.

But I didn't know that then. I simply knew that I should wait a bit before stretching, so I stopped the pre-run stretch and quickly blew off the notion of stopping along the trail to stretch.

And when I was done with the run? Well, who needed to stretch then, because after all, the workout was over, right?

In quick and simple fashion, I had abandoned stretching altogether.

Now I know better. I know that warming up helps reduce risk of injury and prepares the muscle for the stretch by reducing pain from stiffness.

One slow, continuous stretch that lasts 15 to 30 seconds is all we need for each muscle group. Stretching the muscle to your maximum tolerance and holding it (a static stretch) both increases the tolerance of the muscle toward that stretch and reduces its natural tendency to rebound to its original shape.

The best type of stretch is something that involves proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. This is a sort of counterintuitive stretch, one in which you stretch and from that stretched position, exert muscular force against a partner's applied resistance.

I'll do the stretches, but you can't make me pronounce them.