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February 2002 Issue
S-T-R-R-E-E-E-E-E-T-C-H! Ahhhh ... didn't that feel good?
by Michael Fick
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Isn't stretching for "those people" who are into yoga, yogurt, running, and Spandex? Or is it for bad backs, rehabilitation, or contortionists?

Sure ... just as it's for little old ladies, high school athletes, cats, and you and me. It helps prevent or fix many ailments, from little aches and pains to temporary total disabilities such as a "thrown-out" back. It helps us put on our shoes, mend a fence, and pole vault. It helps many people sleep. It prolongs our youth, in the sense that it helps us do more with our bodies than our less elastic peers can do. Besides, it feels good. If it didn't, do you think cats would do it? (If it doesn't, you're doing it wrong.)

Longer, stronger muscles are less likely to be injured. You make them stronger by working them against resistance, longer by stretching them. Longer, stronger muscles are probably also quicker - to outplay an opponent or catch a dropped wine bottle before it hits the floor.

Stretching requires almost no apparatus. Its only expense is a book on how to stretch in general, what muscles to stretch, and how to stretch each one. The number of muscles to be stretched and the ways to stretch them are amazing; it took some very advanced knowledge and extensive experimentation to come up with some of the clever positions experts have developed to stretch some muscles. Yet once we achieve the right position and get juuuust the right muscle, you can see why cats do it; it feels downright mmmahvelous! Stretching with a partner can be more effective ... and very interesting.

Compare stretching to some of its alternatives -- the intense pain of tennis or golfer's elbow, a leg cramp, or a lower back on fire -- and you'll see one advantage to stretching. Compare your time in the high hurdles, your tennis score, or your clean and jerk total, and another advantage of stretching will appear on the scoreboard. Compare your recovery from injury or surgery, how you feel during and after housework, and your daily aches and pains with and without regular stretching. The comparisons will convince you of the values of stretching.

Notice there's no mention of stretching before exercise to prevent injuries. Here's why ... and it's a biggie: research repeatedly concludes that stretching before exercising not only fails to help prevent injury, it often causes it. Those lean, mean, runnin' machines stretching in their Spandex before they run away to burn off their last bowl of bean sprouts and couscous are increasing their chances of injury unless they ran up a sweat before stretching. Stretching helps prevent injury only in the long haul, and is safest and most effective when done after the workout or game. Stretching helps draw amino acids into muscle cells, encourages protein synthesis, and suppresses protein degradation, all good reasons why post-workout stretching should most effectively help muscle cells repair themselves and grow stronger.

There are several ways to stretch, covered in detail in the first reference below. The basic stretch, the one we're most familiar with, is a slow, virtually static stretch lasting less than half a minute. Static stretching is performed by positioning your body to place the target muscle under tension provided by gravity, an object such as a wall or table or the floor, a non-involved limb such as your other hand or leg, or a partner. Both the target muscle and its opposing muscle must be relaxed as you slowly and gently move your body as required to increase the tension in the target muscle until you feel the stretch but feel no pain. Maintain that position, breathing slowly and exhaling deeply with a sigh to further relax the muscle as it sags into a longer state. A good stretch should feel almost dreamy, as you just let the target muscle passively elongate. When you feel the muscle give way into a longer state, the tension you applied will also relax. Restore that tension, maintain it, keep breathing deeply, and let the muscle passively flow again into an even longer state. As soon as this second "meltdown" occurs, your stretch is done. Then slowly and carefully come out of the stretch. The stretch and recovery should be a very controlled, precise process every inch of the way for a proper, beneficial, safe stretch. Once you learn the basic stretch process and the precise form for each stretch, each one should take no more than 20-30 seconds.

A proper stretch feels so relaxing your eyes want to roll back into your head. It's good for the muscle, its tendons, the involved joint, your peace of mind, your aches and pains, your housework, your sleep, your attitude, and your athletic performance. And if you did it while watching your favorite TV show or listening to your favorite music or book on tape, your whole stretching routine took you no extra time. Each stretch took half a minute, and most of us need only a few basic stretches plus maybe a few extra ones specific to our sport or to some nagging physical problem. Research shows that one complete stretch does more good than several briefer ones.

A better way to stretch is the PNF method. At its simplest, it adds a specific, simple, quick muscle contraction to the middle of the static stretch to enhance the stretch. It's complicated to explain, but simple to do once you understand it, so I'll leave the details to the sources in the links below. It provides a very satisfying, effective, safe, comfortable stretch; it's probably the stretch cats would do if they could read. (There's even a best version of the PNF method - the agonist-contract-relax version - if you really get into this.)

Always remember: any proper stretch feels good both real time and afterwards. You should almost fall asleep in a good stretching session. If some movement jolts you awake with discomfort, you're overdoing something. Overstretching is harmful -- unlike calorie-free ice cream, of which there is no such thing as too much.

If you are stretching for recovery from injury or surgery, your physical therapist (PT) will tell you how much pain to expect and tolerate, and your stretches may take minutes rather than seconds. Any good doctor will refer you to PT for recovery from most surgeries or injuries impacting your range of motion.

The ballistic or bouncing stretch provides a better stretch, but at a significantly greater risk of injury. It's for serious, competitive athletes who know what they're doing, are coached in their stretching by expert trainers, and would rather miss an event due to a stretching-related injury than place second in the event.

Many experts and websites refer us to Brad Appleton's superb, thorough, free online stretching manual at http://www.enteract.com/~bradapp/docs/rec/stretching/. Start clicking on the Table of Contents and you'll understand why his manual is so popular and so highly regarded, especially when you realize that

  1. it's free,
  2. he has no formal training in this field, and
  3. developing this excellent tome was essentially a hobby.

Probably the most widely acclaimed book on stretching is the Andersons' classic work, "Stretching". Its latest version is described at http://www.shelterpub.com/_fitness/_stretching/stg_book.html. Another excellent stretching site, http://www.thestretchinghandbook.com/archives/warm-up.htm, offers a free sports health and stretching e-mail newsletter, contains archives of that newsletter, and offers a book full of stretching advice and photographs. It ranks stretches according to their safety and to how serious your needs are.

If those resources leave you wanting more information, enter "stretching" in Google and duck ... and admit you are hooked on stretching.

Click and skim through those sources. Study the parts that interest you most. Identify your personal stretching needs, as determined by your own collection of aches and pains, stiffness, and preferred sports (no, no, no ... the ones you do, not the ones you watch. You knew that!), and lay out your own stretching regimen. You may want to consult a PT or personal trainer (the former often has more medical training) for advice on your regimen and your form, or see a doctor if you're trying to fix something. Some common stretches are harmful, such as the hurdler's stretch most non-informed joggers lead with or the toe-touch we all did 20 years ago, back when people still advised sit-ups.

Wise up. Get at least as smart as your dog or cat. Live life a little more fully. Slide down off the couch onto the floor without missing a word of TV, and s-t-r-r-e-e-e-t-c-h. It's the very antithesis -- but a great adjunct -- to working out.



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