I am not very good at relaxing. I have to work at it. Which is kind of ridiculous, right--working hard at not working? But it's true. I can't sit still. I tap my toes and bounce around if I'm forced to sit for any length of time. Meditation is torturous. I sit there and think about all of the things I could be doing that I'm not doing because I'm sitting here thinking about all of the things I could be doing that I'm not. Yoga is the same. It's always been too quiet, too slow. And when I finish my workouts I just want to be done and off to eat breakfast or start the rest of my day. Stretching is a thing that I force myself to do. I' know it's supposed to be the reward for all of that hard work I just did, but I have historically given it short shrift. I don't anymore.
Because flexible muscles are an important component of overall physical health. Muscles that function at their normal, resting lengths are happier and safer muscles. Among other things, flexible muscles help your joints move through their normal ranges of motion. That, in turn, can decrease injury and allow your muscles to operate at their optimal level of function.
About a year ago, Nikki slipped on the wet sidewalk outside of our building. While she did suffer a partial tear in her quadriceps muscle, she recovered relatively quickly. She maintains that one of the reasons it wasn’t a worse injury is because she works so hard on maintaining her flexibility. When she fell, her leg muscles were limber enough that they could absorb most of the strain put on them by the impact.
Stretching helps us to maintain that critical flexibility; it delivers blood flow (nutrients) to our muscles; and it increases oxygen delivery to our brains. All good things.
Here are my rules for happy, healthy stretching.
Only stretch warm muscles. I cannot stress this one enough. Stretching without warming-up first can cause you to tear muscle fibers, which will be painful. I do my stretching after I exercise, spending about 5-10 minutes on the major muscle groups I worked that day. If you don’t have time for a full workout, but still want to do some stretching, just do a quick 5-minute warm-up first. Take a walk; do just the warm-up portion of your favorite workout DVD; repeat the dynamic warm-up exercises you do with your trainer—get those muscles warm and blood flowing before you start stretching. Stretching cold muscles = injury and bad times.
Slow, steady stretches are the ticket. I cringe when I see people bouncing in their stretches. And I see it more often than I'd like. Once you settle into a stretch, stay still there for a while, ideally until you feel that muscle relax. Bouncing movements can cause tears and injury to the muscle fibers and are not effective.
Breathe. Often people hold their breath while they exercise. I do it too sometimes. Not sure why. I guess it seems like it’s helping, but it really isn’t. Just as breathing during exercise is important, breathing through your stretches is important too.
Never stretch to the point of pain or force a stretch. You can probably guess where I’m going with this—if you stretch to the point of pain, or try to force a stretch you will hurt yourself. Relax into your stretches. When you reach resistance in the muscle, stay there for 15 seconds or so and breathe. The way to communicate with a muscle is simply to think about it. So, think about that muscle relaxing and softening (as cheesy as that may sound). At about the 15 second point, you may find you can relax a little bit deeper into that stretch. If so, feel free to take the stretch a bit further. But again, it should never be painful. It should feel good to stretch and if it does not, back off a bit.
Make stretching a habit. As with other components of a healthy lifestyle, consistency is key. If you exercise several times per week, stretch after each session. Regardless of whether you are doing regular resistance or aerobic exercise, aim to complete a stretching session that targets all the major muscle groups in your body (calves, thighs, hips, back, neck and shoulders) at least 2-3 times per week. Your flexibility will improve each time you stretch.
Sitting is not easy. A quick note for those of you who spend your workday sitting at a desk—sitting is tough on your body. I know that seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Among other things, excessive sitting can cause tightness in your hip flexors and hamstrings, and can actually cause your gluteal muscles to atrophy. That in turn, places additional stress on your knees and lower back.
So a big yes to stretching, right? Have I convinced you to stretch yet? Or if you’re already stretching, have I made you feel like a rock star for doing so?