Everything you need to know about it!

By Raymond Onyango.

 In recent years, stretching has emerged as a key factor in the improvement of physical performance at the most elite levels of professional sport. Where stretching was once something athletes did as an afterthought and quite often – not at all, today stretching techniques such as yoga are practiced by the most unlikely of sports teams including basketball’s Los Angeles Lakers, Rugby’s New Zealand All Blacks, as well as a host of talented individual athletes such as the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, who have strode the tennis rankings like a colossus over the last decade winning 18 major titles between them.

Improves Athletic Performance

A growing body of research evidence that links regular stretching to improved athletic performance and lower susceptibility to injury, is the primary driving force behind this huge explosion of interest in stretching and stretch based forms of exercise such as yoga. It is how ever not just elite athletes alone who are taking up the cue and incorporating regular stretching into their training programs, in my own yoga classes everybody from pregnant mums-to-be, senior citizens, amateur road runners and avid weight lifters are hitting the mat in an effort to loosen up and improve their range of motion or get rid of niggling pain from tight lower backs and hamstrings.

Avoid Injury While Stretching

Along with this growing interest in stretching however is the growing concern that an increase in stretching related injuries is bound to follow unless we fitness professionals take the initiative to educate the general public about the do’s and don’ts of stretching and use of safe, effective and proven methods, that side step the possibility of doing damage as opposed to good.

Whenever you attempt to stretch any muscle, there are two forces primarily at work – the muscle spindles and the Golgi tendon organ.  These two specialized organs are muscle receptors, that provide information about the length and tension of the muscle to which they are attached, and thus help the body to maintain posture – without them balance and simple actions such as walking would be a physical impossibility.  The muscle spindles are small sensory organs that are found in several locations within our muscles and their job is to trigger the muscle to contract. A great example of the muscle Spindles in action can be observed when you watch a man dozing off to sleep while seated in a chair. The moment he nods off and his head drops, the muscle spindles sense this change of posture, and spring into action causing him to involuntarily jerk his head back up. The Golgi Tendon organs on the other hand are located in the tendons that attach the muscle to the bone. Here they monitor changes in the tension of the muscle that comes from a change in muscle length. When the tendon or muscle is stretched to a certain degree, they send a message to the brain telling the muscle to relax. This is very useful in preventing injury.

Its All About Technique

The key to effective stretching lies in successfully manipulating the relationship between the muscle spindles and the Golgi tendon organ.  Static or hold stretching is probably the most commonly used flexibility technique and is very effective and safe. With this technique a muscle is gradually stretched to the point of limitation and then held in that position for 15 to 30 seconds, before relaxing and repeating again. Accompanied by deep slow breathing, this stretching technique allows you to influence the deployment of the golgi organ tendon, which inhibits the muscle spindles and allows the true stretch to take place, deep within the muscle fibers.

Unfortunately I still see far to many people stretching with short, jerky and bouncing movements, a technique known as ballistic stretching. Ballistic stretching has been demonstrated to not only be ineffective but also downright dangerous. The reasoning behind this is that the jerky movements engaged in this technique of stretching actively encourage the deployment of the muscle spindles – whose job is to get the muscle to contract – thus negating any benefit to the stretch. Beyond that, this contractile impulse precipitated by the muscle spindles, working in opposition to the stretching force applied by the individual in question, immensely contributes to the possibility of tearing or straining a muscle or ligament – not quite the sort of outcome we are looking for!

Warm Up First

Other cardinal rules observe when stretching are that muscles must never be stretched when cold. Heat greatly increases the levels of elasticity of the muscle tissues and allows you to increase your range of motion with reduced risk of injury. It might make more sense to relegate your stretching to the end of your exercise activities when your body is at its warmest and therefore most pliable state.  Further to this you must breath deeply and slowly while holding each stretch, as this calms down the nervous system and reduces opposition to the stretch allowing you to gradually increase you range of motion to much greater levels. Stretching must also be done on a daily basis, once or twice a week will simply not suffice, especially if you are involved in muscle building activities such as weight lifting or endurance activities such a running. A brief stretching session after each workout must be a scheduled part of your time management, if you hope to keep training injury free for years to come.

Have a flexible week will you!