It’s that beautiful, sunny time of year again. It’s time to hit the tennis court, walk the golf course, hop onto the bike, or participate in other active ways of enjoying the Okanagan spring weather. As you increase your strength and endurance through these activities, be sure to also keep flexible. Make stretching a part of your routine.

Stretching describes a maneuver used to increase flexibility of soft tissue, lengthening the structures that have become shortened or stiff. Shortening can occur from situations such as immobilization (i.e. being in a cast), prolonged postures, weakness or imbalances of muscle groups, injury, or developmental conditions. Vigorous activity can also lead to shortening and tightening of muscles.

Benefits of stretching

Stretching improves flexibility by increasing the range of motion of a joint and decreasing stiffness in a muscle. This improved flexibility can improve performance in some sports, such as gymnastics, dancing, martial arts, or goalies in hockey. In other situations, improved flexibility can help obtain better posturing or help with pain.  Other goals of stretching are to reduce the risk of muscle strain, reduce muscle soreness, and enhance mental and physical relaxation.

The risk of injury from stretching exercises is low when done correctly (described below), and when held for a short duration pre-exercise (less than 8-10 minutes of stretching per area), won’t compromise muscle strength.

When to stretch

It is important to ensure that you are warmed up prior to stretching. It is best to do so actively, such as by doing a light jog, bike, or quick walk for 5-10 minutes. If you are stretching pre-activity, do so after your warm-up regime. If stretching post-exercise, it follows the active cool-down.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends stretching to be a part of overall fitness program, performed for the major muscle groups at least 2-3 times a week. In some cases, stretching should be performed daily.

How to stretch

Two of the more common kinds of self-stretching are static and dynamic. Dynamic stretches are usually performed pre- rather than post-exercise. These take the joint through the range of motion rather than being sustained at an end position. These exercises should be performed as instructed by a physiotherapist or your coach.

For static stretching, go into the position slowly, just to the point of feeling tension, not pain. Hold the position for 15-30 seconds if pre-activity, and the full 30 seconds if post. It is a low intensity stretch—it should not feel strong. If you feel like you are unable to hold the full duration, back out of the position slightly. Don’t bounce while here—just hold the position. When the 15-30 seconds is up (I recommend using a stop watch, or sing the ABCs—you’d be surprised at how long it actually is!) slowly release the tension, not allowing the muscle to recoil. The ACSM recommends 3-5 repetitions per stretch.

In order to avoid injury, it’s important not to overstretch, by taking the posture too far. The position should not cause discomfort or pain, and should be within a normal range of motion for the joint being exercised (don’t hyperextend).

Overstretching can do harm by causing strain, hypermobility, or even instability. Make sure that proper alignment is used—if you are unfamiliar with a stretch, seek assistance. Otherwise the exercise may not target the proper muscle, and can even cause stress to other structures

In some cases, extra help is needed. A trained individual, such as a physiotherapist, can use manual (hands-on) techniques to help you through the maneuver. Sometimes special techniques, such as ‘contract-relax’, will be used.

What to stretch

Post-activity, you’ll want to focus on the muscles that were just exercised.

Typically the muscles most frequently shortened are the hamstrings, calves, hip flexors and pectorals (front of the chest).

If unsure of how or what to exercise, or if you have an injury, be sure to seek advice from a trained individual to ensure you’re getting the maximum benefit from your stretching program, safely.