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Monday, 1 August 2011

Stretching- an introduction

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Stretching, I swear that its one of those things that is the most misunderstood aspect of training. For a long time I didn't really see the point in it, and I know a large number of runners, climbers, cyclists and athletes who also don't see the point in it.
The reason being, "I do really well just as I am at the moment, and I don't stretch now, why would I want to stretch when it might make me perform less optimally?"
"the more I stretch the more it hurts, so I figure if I don't stretch, it won't hurt so much, and I'll just keep on going as normal".

In the past few weeks I have been asked a number of times, "Why should I stretch? Go on, convince me".
To be fair, if that is your attitude, I'm probably never going to convince you to stretch as you have your mind pretty made up that it isn't for you. Happy Days. Continue to not stretch, and watch me sail past you in the next couple of years as I continue to practice stretching, gain and retain flexibility and in so doing, continue to be fit and healthy.

Just for the record, I'll write a few bits and pieces below as to why it might be intelligent to consider adding some kind of stretching to your exercise.

The problem with poor flexibility is that it restricts how you move, and how far you can move without injury. If we take running as an example, imagine if your stride length was a little longer- if the tendons attaching muscle to bone enabled you to stretch out that little bit more and cover a slight bit more distance everytime you took a stride, it would make you faster.
If you are a climber, the suppleness would give you more ways in which to move your body to be balanced on top of a dodgy smear.
If you are a cyclist, it means that the muscles are freer to work independently of each other, and that individual muscles are able to fire individually, instead of dragging others with it, causing excessive premature fatigue.
In heavy lifters, it means that muscles are more balanced and that more muscular effort can be used for more of the time, thus making you less prone to fatigue.

Stretching creates space within joint capsules, space between layers of muscles and space in general within your tissues. This is a good thing. The more space there is, the easier it is for blood to flow around your body. More blood means more nutrients get to more places. Nutrients are obviously a good thing as it helps to heal muscles. The more efficient the flow of blood, oxygen and all that good stuff, the faster you will recover from muscular trauma. Also- if blood is getting to the muscles and tissues, as well as bringing nutrients to them, it is also efficiently transporting metabolic waste away from them as well. Lactate, hydrogen ions, the bits that make the muscle contract less well because of their presence, they are transported away from the muscles more efficiently, thus making your recovery faster, and making the muscles better, faster and, well, more efficient.
(its all about efficiency, see.)

Tight muscles, myofascia and joint capsules not only reduce range of movement, they also slow down movement within that reduced range. The feeling of tightness in a muscle will slow any movement, for fear of damaging tissue when moving.
Muscular force- the amount of force and velocity you can bring to bear over a specific range of movement is also impaired.
Speed and agility is also compromised.

Why should I stretch?
Potential benefits are these:
Better range of movement.
Better Force production over that range of movement (Power)
More efficient blood flow (and nutrient flow) to the muscles-
More efficient removal of metabolic waste- both these mean more efficient muscular recovery from aerobic AND anaerobic activity
Better proprioception- knowing exactly where your body is in space at any one time
Better agility (the ability to stop, change direction and go again)

And of course the ability to do all that without getting injured. 

If it was possible to get all these things, just with a bit of application, would you?
It seems like a no brainer to me, but then, each person makes their own decision as to what they want to do in order to train.
Look at the benefits and decide for yourself. Is it worth it to stretch?
If so, do it. If not, don't bother. I'm not here to convince you, just present you with facts so that you can make your own decisions.
Its your body, do what you want with it.

There are a number of different ways to stretch, a few myths and some untruths. There are also bad times to stretch, good times, good habits and bad habits. Its a bit of a minefield. I can understand that because of all the conflicting advice out there, there are those that don't stretch because inaction is preferable to doing something "wrong". Injuring themselves because of bad advice... that has got to be the worst thing to do.

If you disagree with anything I post, please do comment, I'd prefer it to be a discussion rather than a dissing exercise. I'd also like to point out that this is not a be all and end all, just accumulation of knowledge I have gained thus far. If there are other sources of information on stretching, please do point me in their direction.


  1. Can we get a piece on "bad times to stretch, good times, good habits and bad habits" ??


  2. I'm sure I can fit it in one of the proceeding blogs. Thanks for the suggestion.