Continued – Stretch Yourself – When selecting a stretching routine, consider the work ahead of you.

May 16, 2012

By Coach Kaehler

Everyone knows that stretching is an essential part of training, but for many people, their knowledge of the subject ends there. Is it best to stretch before or after training? How long should a stretch be held? These are simple but fundamental questions that every athlete should be able to answer. Here’s a hint: It all depends on the type of stretching you’re doing and what you want to accomplish.

Athletes have two unassisted stretching methods to improve flexibility: static and ballistic. Static stretching is the most common method for improving muscle flexibility; ballistic stretching helps improve mobility. Selecting a technique depends on whether you are just warming up or are looking for more permanent changes in your flexibility. You also need to consider the intensity of the activity taking place immediately following your stretching routine.

To perform a static stretch, which is most commonly used as part of a warm-up routine, isolate a muscle group or groups and apply a passive hold with multiple repetitions. Typical holds last between three to five seconds and are repeated five to 10 times.  Longer-duration holds of 30 to 60 seconds are better performed away from training and are best suited to those looking to make permanent changes in joint flexibility.

Long-duration stretching is done daily for five minutes or longer per extremity and performed on both sides of the body. Recent studies have found that long-duration stretching significantly reduces maximum strength. Because of this, it makes more sense to do short-duration stretches prior to hard training or racing to ensure that your peak muscle performance is not compromised. Save the longer stretches for less intense training sessions or another time altogether.

Ballistic stretching is another self-stretching method that athletes use prior to training and competition. It’s practiced by moving in and out of the hold position in 1:1-second cycles for one minute. The research has shown that while the ballistic method is not as effective as the static technique in increasing flexibility, it does not negatively affect maximum strength and is better before maximum-effort bouts of exercise. One potential drawback, however, is that it is more likely to produce muscle soreness than static stretching.

Stretching is used as a warm-up activity to help improve athletic performance, reduce the risk of injury, and help reduce post-exercise muscle soreness. It can also be used to create long-term adaptations in joint flexibility. Regardless of your stretching method of choice, though, be sure to increase your core temperature by performing a cardiovascular exercise such as running, biking, or erging five to 10 minutes beforehand. Daily sessions of long-duration stretching (30 to 60 seconds) have been shown to induce more permanent changes in flexibility and are done away from maximal-effort bouts, while short-duration (three to five seconds of up to 10 reps) or ballistic stretches are better suited as a warm up before aggressive training.

When you are looking to create permanent changes in joint range of motion, make sure you are stretching daily—several times per day if possible—and are willing to make it a part of your normal routine for months or even years.  Short-duration stretches are great for warming your body up, but keep in mind that the changes to your joint range of motion are temporary.

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