To Your Health
September, 2007 (Vol. 01, Issue 09)
Stretching the Limits
By Meghan Vivo
How often do you stretch before exercising? If you don't warm up and cool down regularly, a serious injury could be right around the corner.
A surprising number of people believe stretching is a waste of time. Even some of the most dedicated athletes are prone to skipping the pre-exercise warm-up and the post-exercise cooldown. The reality is just about every physical activity or sport requires quick bursts of energy, and most also involve running. These movements place more strain on your muscles and joints than you may realize. As you run, your muscles try to accommodate movement uphill, downhill and everything in between.
Most workouts cause your muscles to contract and flex, without the corresponding movements to lengthen and stretch them. Stretching exercises relieve muscle tension, flush lactic acid out of your muscles (lactic acid accumulates during high-intensity exercise, creating that "burning sensation," and can contribute to suboptimal muscle performance), and increase your range of motion for longer strides and better athletic performance. For ideal results and maximum performance, start with a quick warm-up, take five minutes to stretch before your workout, and end with a cooldown.
Contrary to popular belief, stretching shouldn't be the first thing you do when you are about to work out or play a sport. In fact, stretching cold muscles can result in pulls and injuries. Your best bet is to start with a five-minute warm-up.
Why: A warm-up prepares your body for a good cardio workout by revving up the blood flow to your heart and lungs. Your muscles contract and demand more oxygen, resulting in an increase in your heart rate, cardiac output and breathing rate. Blood flows faster through your arteries and veins and into the working muscles. Your blood temperature rises in preparation for activity and, as oxygen is released more quickly, the temperature of the muscles also increases. This process allows the muscles to use glucose to burn calories and exert energy for more strenuous exercise.
How: Your warm-up should be a shorter, less intense version of whatever activity you're about to engage in. For example, if you'll be walking briskly, your warm-up should be a five-minute, low-intensity (50 percent to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate) walk.
After your warm-up, take a few minutes to stretch your major muscle groups, with a particular focus on the areas you are about to train. For example, a runner may focus on stretching their quadriceps, hip flexors, calves and thighs. Even if you don't exercise regularly, stretching three times a week can provide a variety of benefits.