Stretching and flexibility are tow of the more controversial topics in the running and strength training world. Coaches, trainers, experts and runners disagree over its usefulness in supplementing and enhancing performance, quickening recovery, and preventing injury.
Numerous studies have deemed all stretching useless pre and post workout. While other studies claim some types of stretches are better than others. These studies also fall victim to the inherent flaws of data collection, poor measuring sticks, statistical analysis, and human error. This makes matters even more confusing.
This post will attempt to bring some clarity to stretching and flexibility. Define what flexibility means and how it can benefit runners. Plus, different methods to efficiently build flexibility.
Chapter 1: What is flexibility?
It is very important to understand that there is no one size fits all definition when it comes to flexibility. Flexibility can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It purely depends on your activity, sport, competition and/or daily lifestyle.
Even then, there is likely more than one definition that could be relevant. I took a good deal of time to contemplate and research this matter. There are 2 distinct definitions that popped up over and over. Static and Dynamic Flexibility.
This type of flexibility refers to an athlete’s or practitioner’s full range of motion that can be obtained without sudden motion or movement.
For example, if you reach down to touch your toes with your fingers.
This type of flexibility refers to an athlete’s or practitioner’s full range of motion that can obtained with motion.
For example, if you swing your leg back and forth to stretch to your groin.
As if things were not already convoluted. You can get more specific with definitions I mentioned above.
There are two types of each flexibility.
Static Active Flexibility – This refers to an athlete’s or practitioner’s ability to stretch his or her muscles with zero outside forces to extend your range of motion.
For example, trying to extend your arm as far backward as you can without using objects to pull against.
Static Passive Flexibility – This refers to an athlete’s or practitioner’s ability to stretch his or her muscles with outside forces influencing your range of motion.
For example, grabbing the doorframe at head level and bending your upper body to the opposite site to stretch your chest and front shoulders. You are using the wall (forced exerted) to extend your of motion.
Or bending down to touch your feet and pulling your toes (or shoes) to extend your range of motion.
Dynamic Active Flexibility – This is rapid movement that utilizes your full range of motion to stretch your muscles. This movement is created by your muscles and is not initiated by outside forces.
For example, swinging your leg side to side to stretch your hips and glutes. This is movement was created by your muscles.
Dynamic Passive Flexibility – The same definition as above with a small difference. This movement is not created by your muscles and is initiated by outside forces.
For example, someone is pushing your leg (exerting force) to build momentum on this movement. This momentum will swing your leg further then if you had just used your muscles to initiate the movement.
Hence, extending your range of motion beyond your normal means.
Do not be too daunted. All of these definitions are intertwined.
Usually if you have good static flexibility then you have pretty decent dynamic flexibility as well. And vice versa.
However, it is important to understand moving forward that each type of flexibility has its own importance in some way.
How You Should Look At Flexibility
Usually runners care about flexibility for one (or both) of two reasons. The first being injury prevention. The other reason being a boost in performance. The studies are pretty inconclusive. Many of them suffer from the same research and data collection issues I mentioned earlier.
Therefore, I do not put much stake in their results.
From my experience, stretching has proven to play a big role in injury prevention. For example, after a short run or sprinting session I used to feel a twinge of lower back pain. I feared it would get worse if I did not address the issue.
As I researched more, I discovered that lower back pain is usually a symptom of hamstring and hip tightness. I had both. My hip tightness was so bad at times that I could not sit down for more than a couple minutes without feeling my hips muscles getting tighter.
Everyday, for the next week eight weeks, I spent about 30 minutes stretching my lower body before I went to bed. I did not know much about how to stretch at the time. I knew the basic static stretches and that is exactly what I did. I just put extra focus on my hips. My back pain literally disappeared. I have heard similar stories from others who run or lift weights.
Although I have not even come close to reaching the peak of my flexibility (I have only done enough to try and undo the years worth of abuse I put my body through), it has helped me alleviate chronic pain and soreness in my hips and hamstrings.
Brad A. Walker had a great piece of advice. He said to approach stretching like you would approach strength training. Find out where your weaknesses or needs are and address them. If you have a weak upper body then it would make sense to address this issue to avoid severe muscle imbalances down the road. So you build a strength training routine that will address this issue. Same thing with stretching. Find out where your tightness lies and create a flexibility training program to address the issue.
Why You Need To Warm Up
Warm up exercises prior to your workout are very important to preventing injury. It prepares the body for more vigorous activity.
Your body stimulates blood circulation within the body. During the warm up, your body will begin to send oxygen and other vital nutrients (carried through the blood) to the organs and muscles being exhausted during warm up. This will loosen the muscles up a little.
Stretching needs to be apart of the warm up. Not the warm up itself. This is where many people go wrong. Some static stretch excessively and then go straight into their workout. This makes no logical sense. Your muscles are still cold. There are a number of activities that you need to put together that constitute for good warm up and stretching warm muscles is one of them.
Static Stretching used to be the end all be all of stretching. However, the effectiveness of static stretching has become one of the most heated and debated topics in the Sports Science community.
Many fitness gurus say static stretching hurts your performance when training. Some say it only temporary elongates your muscles. Some say it zaps your muscles of energy. Some say it even increases your risk of falling victim to injury.
Let’s take a look at static stretching. Our goal is to understand to how it can benefit our training.
These exercises are used to stretch the muscle and other soft tissue for 15 seconds or more (tendons, ligaments, and fascia) while the body is at rest (relaxed and immobilized).
You want to gain or maintain the level of flexibility needed for your sport. Like I mentioned earlier, look to adopt a stretching program and build proper flexibility over a couple weeks or months.
Do not expect it to have an impact on your body immediately.
Who these types of stretches are good for?
These types of stretches are good for all athletes and active people who want to enhance their flexibility for their health and sport.
They are best for people that do any type of strenuous (anaerobic) workout such as sprints, resistance training, or interval training. They are best to perform post workout.
These types of stretches are best for individuals who are a little stiffer than average. For these individuals, 15 to 20 minutes of static stretching can go a long way.
Benefits Of Static Stretching
RANGE OF MOTION: This is good maintaining range of motion with the joint.
RESULTS: Static stretching creates and promotes muscle flexibility and increased range in motion. Muscle flexibility has shown to have tremendous long term health benefits.
INCREASED BLOOD CIRCULATION: Static stretching can stimulate blood flow. This can really help alleviate muscle soreness and enhance recovery time. This is because blood carries and transfers nutrients to different parts of the body.
IT’S EASY: This is a very safe and easy way to stretch for those who have tight muscles if done correctly. If it is done consistently, improvements in overall flexibility will be seen. Thus, making it a good place to start for those who want to gain flexibility.
YOU JUST NEED YOUR BODY: This type of stretching can also be done individually and with no additional equipment needed. This means static stretches can be performed it can be wherever and whenever you want.
Drawbacks Of Static Stretching
Time Consuming: Static stretching can take a while if you are working your whole body. If you did an in depth full body static stretching routine, it could take up to 30 minutes.
I recommend focusing on the muscle groups that you feel tightness in on a regular basis instead repeating the same stretch two or three times for muscle groups that are not tight.
Boring: Sitting and holding a stretch for long periods of time can be very tedious.
I have tried listening to music and podcasts. However, getting the most out of the stretch usually demands a bit of concentration. It is not always fun but it necessary to get the most of static stretching.
Painful:Stretching beyond your range of motion can be painful at times.
I have noticed that I have had much better results stretching farthest at the point of my range of motion and trying to hold it there for 15 to 20 seconds. Over time, your muscles will adjust. You will slowly increase your range of motion and be able to stretch farther than before.
Stretch Reflex: If you stretch a muscle past its range of motion, your nervous system automatically sends an involuntary command to your muscles to contract. This is to protect the muscles from tearing. Your muscles think they are under stress when they are being stretched too far. They think they are in danger of tearing. In response your nervous system sends an automatic command for your muscles to contract before they can tear.
You have probably felt this happen to you before if you have attempted a deep stretch.
For example, I kneel down on one knee and bend my torso forward to stretch my hip muscles. If I stretch too far outwards or try push beyond my range of motion, my hip muscles will suddenly jolts inwards a bit. This is my hip muscles contracting to avoid a potential tearing.
To avoid the stretch reflex, just stretch to the farthest point of your range motion. Over the span of a couple weeks, slowly stretch a little farther.
Remember, this reflex is a protective measure instituted by your autonomic nervous system. It is meant to help you. Use it to figure out if you are stretching too far. If so, stretch a little bit below that point and hold it. If this is done correctly, you should be able to avoid stretch reflex and improve your flexibility.
LINK OUT TO STATIC STRETCHING GUIDE
Static Stretching Mistakes
YOU MIGHT NOT NEED TO STRETCH: Do not stretch if you are already very flexible or hyper mobile. If you can bend your joints all over the place and for some odd reason you feel a bit of muscle tightness. It’s probably not because you have overly tight muscles.
IF IT HURTS…STOP: Stretching through severe pain is not a good idea. It is okay to brush through a tiny bit of discomfort. However, pushing through immense pain does you more harm than good. It can cause severe soft tissue (muscle, ligaments, fascia, tendons) injury. You want to stretch at the end of your range of motion for 15 to 20 seconds. Then relax for a 2 or 5 seconds and repeat the stretch for two or three more times for each muscle group.
Chapter 3: Dynamic Stretching
These stretching exercises that are done with movement such bouncing, rotating, twisting, and swinging. These stretching movements are performed to increase your range of motion.
This is very different from static stretching. In a static stretch, we put our bodies into position and then hold the stretch for a prolonged amount of time. Remember the differences between static and dynamic flexibility.
Once again, here are the definitions to remind you.
Static Flexibility – obtaining your maximum range of motion without movement. Such as putting yourself in a certain position and holding a stretch.
Dynamic Flexibility – obtaining your maximum range of motion by using momentum or velocity (movement) created by using your muscles (active) or outside forces (passive).
Who these types of stretches are good for?
This type of stretching is good for anyone who participates in any sports that require a lot diverse movement, speed, and explosiveness.
Athletes and active people who want to develop an effective and efficient warm up.
GOOD FOR DYNAMIC FLEXIBILITY – This is a given. This type of stretching is much more suited for dynamic flexibility because it is centered around movement and momentum.
EFFECTIVE WARM UP – It should be noted that this should be PART of the warm up. NOT THE ENTIRE WARM UP. There are a couple important elements that make an effective warm up.
Don’t just do a dynamic stretch for your warm up and then go into strenuous activity. Your chances of injury increase greatly.
These dynamic stretches get more blood pumping throughout the body. That better prepares you right before vigorous physical activity takes place. Hence, making it a great piece to add to your warm up
EXPLOSIVENESS AND STRENGTH – These dynamic stretches are movement based. They are meant to simulate movements done in sports and competition.
So make sure to gear your dynamic stretches toward the movements you will be performing during your workout.
EASY TO OVER DO – Sometimes it is hard to tell how much dynamic stretching is enough. Use caution. Do not try to push past your range of motion to early by using too much momentum. This will highly increase your chances of injury.
Like static stretching, push to the farthest point of your range of motion. Slowly, build from there. No need to get hurt warming up.
EFFECTIVENESS FOR STATIC FLEXIBILITY – This type of stretching is not as effective for static flexibility.
Although there is a good deal of overlap, you will need to focus on static stretching to enhance static flexibility. You will stretch dynamically instead to gain greater dynamic flexibility.
DYNAMIC STRETCHING MISTAKES
DO NOT UNDER DO – Sometimes we cut the movements short in order get more repetitions in. Or we do not want to stretch too far in fear of tearing a muscle. However, we need to make sure to complete the movement at our furthest point of our range of motion. NOT SOONER.
Immediately, stopping your momentum in the middle of the movement can put unneeded stress on your joints. Or worse, it could cause injury.
NO UNNATURAL MOVEMENTS – Do not move your body parts in ways they were not intended to. You joints and soft tissue will not react well. Thus, this can cause serious injury.
DO NOT RUSH IT – A lot people try to move their body parts very quickly when they begin doing this. It is not wise to begin this way. It could put you in harm’s way by creating more opportunities for you to get seriously injured. Start slowly with a couple easy movements then gradually try to extend your flexibility with faster movements.
Aaron L. Mattes was the first the to bring this type of stretching method to the public light.
This is actually a form dynamic stretching. However, it has gaining its own following over the years.
It focuses on relaxing the stretched muscle by contracting the opposing muscle group. Hold the stretch for 2 to 3 seconds and then release. You repeat this for 3 to 10 repetitions per set.
On the first couple reps, the trainee will stretch to farthest point on their range of motion. This will get the opposed muscle group to contract. The contracted muscle sends a signal to the stretched muscle to relax. This makes it much easier to extend our range of motion because the muscle group is now relaxed due the contraction of the opposed muscle group.
Also, it helps you avoid the “stretch reflex” that we talked about earlier. The stretch reflex is usually initiated after the first 3 seconds of a deep stretch (slightly varies from person to person).
Putting together an AIS program is very similar to putting together a strength training program. Work on one muscle group at a time. Warm the muscles up with a couple easy repetitions.
Then in the next couple sets, try to slightly extend your range of motion. The muscles will slowly become more elastic. Just like how they would slowly get stronger if you were on a strength training program.
Who these types of stretches are good for?
All Physically Active People – This method of stretching is good for anyone who completes some form of physical activity multiple times a week. It will support better mobility and movement. It will also help you recover faster.
Athletes Who Want To Prevent Injury – Injury prevention is always a top priority for athletes. Stretching the soft tissue (muscles, tendons, and ligaments) in your body will help it deal with the rigors of training. Flexible and elastic soft tissue is a lot harder to tear than stiff and tight soft tissue.
Those Who Want To Improve Their Flexibility – This method of stretching is great if you just want to improve your flexibility. AIS provides an efficient system to improve general flexibility.
Benefits Of Active Isolated Stretching
INCREASE BLOOD FLOW – There will be more blood flowing to your muscles. This stimulated blood flow also helps with detoxification and enhanced recovery.
DECENT WARM UP – This method of stretching could take the place of static stretching during your warm up. It is suitable replacement. It is as effective and will probably save you more time.
I would like to remind you that stretching is only ONE PART of your warm up. Not the entire warm up.
TIME EFFICIENT – This method takes a lot less time than static stretching. Each set should take no more than 30 seconds.
NO PARTNER NEEDED – You can do these stretches anywhere at anytime. You do not any objects or tools. However, you can perform deeper stretches if you use a towel to really pull and stretch your muscles.
NO STRETCH REFLEX – This method of stretching was specifically designed not activate stretch reflex. The muscle is not only being relaxed (due to the contraction of the opposing muscle group) but it is not stretched for more than 3 seconds at a time. With AIS, the autonomic nervous system does not have time to react to the stretched muscle and activate stretch reflex.
Drawbacks Of Active Isolated Stretching
NEED A LOT OF REPETITIONS – Like static stretching, the results are gradual. Many repetitions and sets have to be performed over a couple weeks or months to see significant change.
This is a form of stretching in which a muscle is passively stretched (usually by a partner) for a prolonged period of time. Your partner will help you achieve maximum range of motion and you hold the stretch.
Then the muscle group is contracted in its stretched position against the resistance your partner will provide. Then the muscle group is stretched (with the help of your partner) again with an increased range of motion. Your partner will facilitate the stretch and provide the resistance for the muscle contraction.
This method of stretching was originally created to improve motor performance during rehabilitation for those who suffered from strokes and other conditions that effected the body’s motor skills.
This form of stretching is definitely more advanced and may require a partner to maximize its effectiveness. It involves contractions of targeted (muscles we want to stretch) and opposing muscles groups. As well as holding them in prolonged stretches.
Some believe this is the fastest and most effective way to stretch your muscles and gain flexibility. This is because it brings the best parts of static stretching and AIS together. However, this is classified as a static stretch.
PNF is great for targeting specific muscle groups to increase range of motion. PNF also improves muscular strength as well.
There are several different variations of PNF. There Contract Relax, Contract Relax Agonist Contraction, and Agonist Contraction. The most popular variation is Contract Relax (or Hold – Relax).
Contract Relax – The targeted muscle group is passively (assisted by your partner) stretched to the farthest point of its range of motion for up to 20 seconds. Then the muscle group is contracted for up to 15 seconds at 25% to 50% maximum effort. The muscle is contracted in the same position as it was stretched. Your partner will provide resistance so you can contract your muscle in a stretched position. You want the contraction to be similar to your level of training whether it be sprinting, long distance running, or strength training. Then the targeted muscle is relaxed and stretched for up to 15 seconds with the new range of motion. Then let the muscle group rest for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat the exercise.
There are experts that slightly disagree with the time frames above. This is what works for me and I have seen it work for other people. Adjust the time lengths to your liking. You want your stretching phases to be around 5 to 30 seconds long and 10 to 15 seconds for the contraction.
Agonist Contraction – Your partner will passively lengthen the targeted muscle (antagonist) to the farthest point of its range of motion. At the same time, you will contract the muscle group opposite (agonist) of the target muscle group. This causes the targeted muscle group to relax more. Your partner will passively increase your range of motion and deepen the stretch.
This technique is the least popular of the three. It feels like a static-passive stretch. But it is very effective in relaxing the target muscle group and gaining a deeper stretch.
Contract Relax Agonist Contraction – This stretching technique follows the same procedure as Contract Relax. Except there are some minor differences to make the stretch more effective.
The difference is when the target muscle is relaxed and moved into a stretch, the trainee contracts the opposite muscle group.
So in every phase of the exercise either the targeted or opposing muscle group is contracting. However, there is no final passive stretch for the target muscle group. This exercise has just two phases.
This variation has gained immense popularity in the last ten years. Especially for rehabilitation and flexibility training. However, this variation is usually very difficult for new flexibility trainees to grasp and perform. It might be easier to start with Contract Relax instead and work your way up to this variation over time.
DOs and DONTs of PNF
DO treat this like a strength training program. Assess your flexibility weaknesses and create a plan to address them. Start slowly and gradually improve upon the exercises.
DO NOT perform these exercises without performing a proper warm up to prevent injury. Or make it part of your warm up.
We always want to avoid stretching cold muscles. Especially in this case because your muscles are both stretching and contracting.
DO NOT perform more than one PNF exercise for a muscle group a day. The muscles will need time to rest and recover.
BENEFITS OF PNF
GOOD FOR EVERYONE – This type of stretching is good for everybody. Whether it be for athletes or those who just want increase their static range of motion. These means PNF is good for everyone from hardcore athletes to the regular couch potato.
EFFECTIVE AND EFFICIENT – This exercises do not take very long. It is not quite as efficient as AIS. However, you can also adjust the time lengths to your liking.
STRENGTHENS MUSCLES – The prolonged contractions of muscle groups promote strength and endurance. This is great for athletes as well as the common person. Stronger muscles will also help prevent injury.
DRAWBACKS OF PNF
RISK OF INJURY – Because the muscles are put through more strenuous activity during these exercises than other types of stretching, the chances of injury are much higher. It is best that you are guided by a coach or professional that has experience in PNF before you try this.
Like all other flexibility programs, take your time and do not over do it to accelerate flexibility gains. That will most likely lead to injury.
NEED A PARTNER – These exercises are most effective when you have a partner passively stretching your muscles and providing the resistance for a contraction.It also makes it easier on you. All you have to do contract and relax your muscles. That’s it.
You can use any piece equipment to simulate the effect of a partner or immovable object. It is not quite as effective as having skilled partner but you will still see great results if done correctly.
Towels and belts work well from my experience. You can also use a wall in your house or apartment. The goal is to find something that has the following qualities.
Help you passively reach the farthest point of your range of motion and then deepen the stretch after a contraction.
An immovable object your muscles can contract against.
Remember it is important to see what works for you.
However, you should not expect results immediately. It will take a while to build the flexibility you desire to see significant results.
You will to pick the method that works best for your body and lifestyle.
How active are you? How flexible are you right now? Do you suffer from chronic pain?
These are some of the questions will need to o ask yourself to create a stretching program for yourself.
Use this information to put together a stretching program that fits your goals and addresses your bodily issues.
Let me know what you think.
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