Stretching the Limits
By Meghan Vivo
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.
Why: The American Council on Exercise provides these top 10 reasons people should take time to stretch before and after a workout:
How: Each stretch should last about 30 seconds. Studies of the long-term effects of stretching on range of motion have shown that people who stretch for 30 seconds per muscle each day increase their range of motion significantly more than those who stretch 15 seconds per muscle each day. In general, there is little benefit to stretches that last as long as 60 seconds.
A word of caution: Bouncing while you stretch can cause microtears (small tears that result in scar tissue) in the muscle, which increases the likelihood of pain. Most experts believe stretching should not be a painful experience - if you're in pain, you've pushed too far. Try to stretch a little further with each stretch, but only to the point of mild tension. Your movements and your breathing should be slow, rhythmic and controlled.
Every workout should end with a brief cooldown and stretching routine. Research indicates that if you only have time to stretch once, you should make time after your workout, when your muscles are warm and responsive to stretching.
Why: If you've done your workout right, your heart rate will be at its peak and you'll feel warm and tired. The cooldown lets your heart transition to its normal rate and lets your muscles adjust out of their contracted state, which can help prevent strain and soreness.
How: As with the warm-up, the cooldown should be a low-intensity, five-minute version of the activity you just completed, followed by a series of stretching exercises.
Failing to stretch after physical activity can cause injuries, but stretching with bad form also is a leading cause of injuries. Be sure to do it right. If you have a muscle condition, prior injury, or particular area of sensitivity or soreness, you should consult with your doctor about creating a specialized stretching routine. If you are an athlete or an avid runner, your doctor can guide you through more vigorous types of stretching, including ballistic, dynamic, active and isometric stretching.
Now that you know the benefits of warming up, cooling down and regular stretching, never again underestimate the importance of the first and last few minutes of your workout. Rather than shocking your system with sudden changes and strains, take a few minutes to let your body adjust to the physical demands you're about to place on it.
BASIC STRETCHING EXERCISES
Standing Quadriceps Stretch
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