Monday, May 17, 2010

Hint #11: Save Stretching for Later

Stretching may be one of the most misunderstood components of exercise.

When I was in high school, I stretched immediately after changing into my running clothes at cross country practice. In fact, the whole team did. We all gathered outside the front of the school and stretched – mainly our legs – before hitting the pavement. Some of my teammates sat doing butterfly stretches, while others stood trying to loosen up their quads. Little did we know, we were doing it all wrong.

Stretching is often – though erroneously – considered a warm-up activity. We warm up to increase blood flow, prepare mentally and physically for upcoming exertion, and reduce our risk of injury. Ironically, stretching at the beginning of a workout can do the exact opposite. If you have ever attempted toe touches or other stationary stretches before beginning physical activity, you could be causing your muscles to contract, which is counter-productive.

Think of your muscles as rubber bands. What happens when a cold rubber band is stretched? It could tear, or even snap, while a warm rubber band is more elastic and bendable. The same is true of our muscles. Stretching a cold muscle could result in injury or diminish your performance during a workout. If your body fears it is being overstretched, it may tighten your muscles, limiting your ability to move freely.

For maximum results, warm up your muscles by gradually increasing your heart rate before moderate and vigorous exercise. Jog lightly before going on a long run, gradually increase your speed before beginning a power-walking session, or, do sport-specific activities or dynamic (moving) stretches to make the body more agile.

Save static (stationary) stretches for the end of your workout or do them after you have elevated your heart rate. Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds at a time, and repeat as desired. And, if you can’t ditch the pre-workout stretch, consider doing a light warm up and some gentle, quick stretching before beginning the more intense phase of your exercise session.

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