As busy as we seem to be these days, getting our workouts in can be difficult, rushing from the gym to work or home to have dinner with our families. Because our schedules are so full already, we rarely make time to stretch before or after those workouts. We’ve probably all heard that stretching is a good idea, but is it really that important?
While there are conflicting reports about the proven benefits of stretching, we know that stretching increases flexibility, which in turn increases the range of motion in our joints. These things can both improve athletic performance and also decrease the risk of injury. Stretching also increases bloodflow to your muscles, which can help to warm them up, and aid in post exercise recovery. But stretching has to be done right. Improper or unsafe stretching can do way more harm than good.
To ensure you’re stretching correctly:
- Be sure to warm up your muscles first. While stretching before exercise can be a good idea, stretching cold muscles is no bueno. Cold muscles are usually tighter than warm ones, and stretching cold muscles can lead to injuries and muscle pulls. It’s a smart to do a bit of light jogging or other low intensity cardio for a few minutes before you stretch.
- Do activity specific stretches. Different sports or exercises focus on different muscles groups predominantly. Knowing what sorts of muscles will be used most often depending on what workout you’re about to do, you can choose stretches that will warm up those muscles before you start and will loosen them up again once you’re done exercising.
- No bouncing. While it’s not bad to try and increase your flexibility little by little, it’s better to move into stretches smoothly, reaching a bit more carefully throughout a stretch with your exhaled breaths.
- Hold it right there. Stay in your stretch for 30-60 seconds, breathing normally throughout.
- It’s not supposed to hurt. Feeling tension when stretching is good, but pain is not. If your muscles or joints start to hurt when stretching, either relax the stretch, or stop doing that motion all together.
- Target opposing muscles. For instance if you stretch your hamstrings, stretch your quadriceps, if you stretch your biceps, be sure to stretch your triceps as well. Just like it’s good to exercise opposing muscles so they grow strong together, it’s important to keep them flexible and limber together too.
- Stretch regularly. The more consistently you do your stretching routine, the more your flexibility and range of motion will increase after time.
- Yoga it up. In addition to pre- and post- workout stretching, adding some yoga to your routine can be very beneficial for your body and your mind. Practicing yoga is great for body awareness, balance, flexibility, and focus. Because its only goal is that flexibility and balance, the movements can be more relaxing and less intense, which can leave your body feeling rejuvenated, warm, and ready to go.
- I’ve been lucky myself to have many different trainers, coaches, and instructors throughout my life, all of whom brought their own ideas or methods of stretching. Because I’ve been able to try so many things, I’ve found a set of stretches that work well for me, things that make it easier for me to complete a run or skate in a hockey game with minimal muscle cramps and without lingering soreness. As much as I love the way I feel after I stretch, I still sometimes have a difficult time making myself do it after a game, or before I start swimming laps. The best way to remedy something like that is to make stretching a habit.
I also think practicing yoga is an amazing bonus to add to a workout routine. In particular I feel really great after doing hot yoga, my body feeling warm and flexible and renewed. Yoga isn’t for everyone, but for the people who find it beneficial (like I do), making sure to add yoga to your schedule is a must.
When trying to get started stretching your best bet (as always) is to try a few different things and find what works for you! If you don’t have a trainer or a coach to demonstrate or lead stretches for you, the internet is an invaluable resource for finding ideas and techniques. Just remember the eight tips above, be safe, and take care of your body so it can take care of you.