Stretching is one of those things I often get asked about by my clients. Am I stretching too much? Should I stretch more? When should I stretch? What is dynamic stretching? I also get asked about it in relation to postural problems, which is a subject I'll take on for a subsequent blog.
In recent years it has been suggested that static stretching should not form part of your warm up. This is because it's been hard to prove that it's useful. It doesn't appear to prevent injury or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). There is also the thought that by lengthening the muscle you could reduce it's ability to produce maximal tension (stretching could make the muscles feel a bit weak). In other words, it's not necessarily useful to statically stretch your muscles before you exercise, dynamic stretching is another matter.
If you've ever done a warm up that includes jogging whilst doing butt flicks, high knees or the leg crossover one that defeats my husband, you have done dynamic stretching. I think it's important to understand what dynamic stretching does. The warm up routine for any sport is to prepare the body for what's coming. To prepare the heart, lungs, muscles and joints to step up and give us what we need to complete our session.
The best way to prepare muscles is to use them as you will during your exercise but in a more controlled way. In the same way that when I'm preparing to play table tennis against my son I get a Llama to randomly spit table tennis balls at me. Dynamic stretching is about putting the muscle through it's range of motion but not about pushing it to it's longest length and holding it there. A great example of a calf dynamic warm up is this one from James Dunne.
Cool down. This should be about bringing your heart rate down, your breathing rate down and also screening your body to see how your muscles are feeling and taking them back to their pre-workout length. After a workout, I take time to slow down to a gentle jog, then walk and finally (depending on the distance) I do some dynamic and static stretching (or lying on the floor waiting for porridge to be spooned into my mouth).
During my stretches I'm using those movements carefully to see how my muscles are feeling. Listening to them to see just how tight they feel, and gently teasing them back towards the length they were pre-run. In this "muscle whispering " session, I'm looking out for anything that feels unusually sore and tight. I'm not aggressive with these muscles, but will take the time to come back to them with dynamic stretches and maybe some rollering or self-massage techniques. My main aim is to monitor for and prevent injuries.
The other thing you may want to consider is doing a flexibility session as well as your running/cycling/rowing/kickboxing. An hour or so spent on flexibility and core strength will enhance your performance in your sport. One of my best decisions to date was to book up with Jacquelyn Cooper at Halcyon Yoga. Yoga is a lifestyle and to quote Jacquelyn "The yoga movements and postures are designed to allow awareness of each part of the body systematically in order to notice tension and tightness which becomes habitually and largely unnecessarily held in muscle fibres and to allow the body to intuitively release it."
It's hard to generalise as to how much stretching you should do but if you're not stretching at all and you do any activity where you shorten your muscles and ask them to work hard, then you should look at introducing some. Whether it's 70 miles a week of running or wrestling Llamas that won't give you back your ball, you need to give those muscles some care and attention.