Spring is here, the park gates are open! Soccer and baseball players are out on the fields and tennis players on the courts. Our clinic becomes busy this time of year as our community becomes more active and the risk for injuries increases. Many of the injuries we see can be prevented, or at least less severe, simply by being more educated about the most effective methods for warming up and cooling down before and after your activity.
You may be aware of the longstanding debate on stretching. In fact, there is some research that implies that static stretching before an athletic performance may actually be detrimental and play no role in decreasing risk of injury. However, we cannot assume that just because static stretching prior to an athletic event may not be recommended, doesn’t mean that static or other types of stretching aren’t beneficial at other times for other reasons; whether you are an athlete or not. Let’s explore what flexibility and stretching are really all about; and if, when, and why we should stretch.
Flexibility is the ability to move a joint smoothly, without injury or damage, through its complete range of motion. Many components can influence flexibility such as muscle lengths, ligaments, fascia, the joint itself, and even skin. We will be exploring the muscular component.
When a muscle is shortened or tight, your joint will be less able, or unable, to complete its full movement. So if you quickly kicked a soccer ball, it may result in a muscle strain or injury if the hamstring muscles at the back of the thigh are tight. However, if the muscles were ‘flexible’ enough, they would have been able to withstand that range of movement without any tear or injury. Studies have shown that increasing joint range of motion by increasing muscle flexibility by stretching does indeed reduce the risk of injury (Hartig&Henderson). Improved flexibility of certain muscle groups can also improve postural alignment and body mechanics, therefore reduce incidences of repetitive strain injuries and other conditions such as back, neck or shoulder pain.
So, if we know flexibility and stretching are beneficial, why are many experts questioning it? Actually, they are not saying that stretching isn’t beneficial, but rather, that certain types of stretching are better than others depending on when they are performed.
There are many different types of stretching, but we will discuss two main types of stretching, static and dynamic. Dynamic stretching is when muscle action produces active movement to result in a stretch, such as with gradually deepening walking lunges or increasing amplitude of arm circles. Static stretching is when muscle groups are placed and held for approximately 30 seconds in a lengthened position, and no movement occurs. There are several more subcategories of effective stretching methods within these main categories that your physiotherapist may introduce to you, but for simplicity we’ll stop here.
Research shows that dynamic stretching is preferred over static stretching prior to an athletic event (to improve performance and decrease risk of injury during performance). Research also shows that static stretching is instrumental in increasing overall joint range of motion, therefore decreasing risk of injury, and is most safe and beneficial when performed when muscles are warm,
typically after the activity.
Therefore, the most effective warm up routines should involve actively warming up the large muscle groups by gradually increasing the speed and amplitude of the activity (deep lunges, arm and leg circles, light running drills, jumping jacks, etc). If you are experiencing a particularly tight area, take time to perform a prolonged static stretch to those muscles once you are warm. Post-activity, it is highly recommended to perform prolonged static stretches to help improve and maintain muscle lengths to decrease risk of injury. Your physiotherapist can show you the stretches that are most safe, effective, and specific to your activity.
Maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle including regular stretching, strengthening, balance exercises, a healthy diet, and stress management are often overlooked, but all very valuable, for injury prevention!
**This article is not intended to act as medical advice, nor to diagnose or replace your current treatment. Please seek clearance and guidance from your licensed healthcare professional prior to participating in any of the tips, advice, practices or movements mentioned in this article.