Flexibility refers to our ability to move our joints through their full range of motion and is required for optimal functioning during sporting activity and daily life. Inadequate flexibility is often a major factor in the development of sports injuries. Improving our flexibility is desirable whether for performance in sports such as ballet, gymnastics or weight lifting or for its benefits in terms of injury prevention. Stretching is the main way to achieve improvements in our flexibility.
While athletes, in my experience, are generally knowledgeable about which muscles they’re stretching they often have questions relating to how long stretches should be held and whether they should be done both before and after exercise or just before?
The two major mistakes made by athletes in relation to stretching are:
1) Not holding stretches for long enough
2) Failing to stretch after exercise
Stretches should be held for 30 seconds and repeated twice or three times in order to achieve desired results. It should be preformed to the point of tension but not pain within the muscle. Athletes will often stretch for 8-10 seconds which is adequate as part of a warm-up, but to achieve improved flexibility 30 second holds are necessary.
Failure to stretch after exercise is a major training error. During weight-bearing exercise such as running or field sports, micro-trauma occurs within muscles resulting in microscopic muscle damage and associated shortening and contraction of muscle tissue. Failure to stretch out following exercise permits this process to continue unchecked. Over a period of time continued training with failure to stretch out afterwards will result in chronic muscle shortening and lead to a loss of flexibility.
In general, stretching needs to be done regularly and often to achieve results in terms of flexibility. It’s essential in preventing injury and improving sporting performance. While no one will dispute the benefits of stretching, it seems all too often forgotten at the end of a training session. It’s a recipe for injuries!