Stretching has long played an important role in the world of sport and fitness, with many athletes stretching religiously before and after exercise in hopes of preventing injuries.
More recently, this practice has been called into question with many people wondering if stretching really makes a difference to athletic performance. The answer, like most things, is not black and white, as we explore a little in this article.
A brief introduction to stretching
Stretching is a type of movement that increases flexibility by lengthening muscle fibres to the end of their range. Stretching before and after exercise has been thought to reduce the risk of injury, improve athletic performance and reduce muscle soreness after exercise.
The two most common types of stretching are static and dynamic stretching. Static stretching is when you lengthen your muscle and then hold that position for a period of time.
Dynamic stretching uses movement and momentum of the body to stretch muscles to their end range, without holding the stretch at the end.
What does the research say?
Some research has suggested that static stretching before an activity can actually reduce power, strength and performance. However, these reductions were shown to be minimal and not noticed at all if the stretches were held for less than 45 seconds. It has also been found that stretching does improve flexibility but only for a short period of time. A few minutes after stretching, your joints move further, and with less resistance, so you may have improved flexibility immediately after stretching.
Why stretch at all?
One thing that is undeniable is that stretching feels great, with many people feeling more relaxed and reporting a rush of endorphins after a good stretching session. It is also difficult to test the long-term effects of stretching specific muscles showing abnormal tightness. A long-term static stretching routine will improve your overall flexibility, and this is thought to help prevent injuries, although the evidence is inconclusive.
If you’re an athlete, the decision to stretch or not can be a personal one. A warm-up prior to intense exercise that includes some form of dynamic stretching is generally recommended for reducing injury risk, but of course is no guarantee. Strength and balance training may have a far greater impact on reducing injuries in the long term.
Your physiotherapist is able to guide you on the best stretching advice for your individual activity and they may be able to identify some areas where improving your flexibility will help to reduce injuries and improve performance.
Being active is one the most important aspects of a healthy lifestyle and there are many different ways to get your heart rate up. No matter what your choice of activity is, there is always some risk of injury. In this article, we have listed some tips to help you prevent accidents and injuries.
1. Choose the right footwear
The correct footwear can go a long way in protecting your feet and ankles from injury and can even prevent serious accidents such as falls. Every activity places different demands on your body and tailoring your footwear to suit these stressors is a great strategy for preventing injuries. For example, basketball players often wear shoes with support that extends above the ankles to help protect against ankle sprains, while hikers require thick and supportive soles to cushion and protect their feet. Wearing shoes that are too large or have poor grip can lead to slips and falls, particularly when exercising in the outdoors. Your physiotherapist can guide you with the correct choice of footwear for your chosen activity.
2. Pace yourself
When you start to see improvements in your fitness and strength, it can be tempting to push your limits to see just how far you can go. The danger in this is that often your tissues are still adapting to the increased demands of your new exercise regime. Increasing your weights, training time or running distances by too much too soon can lead to major setbacks. Give your body time to adjust and progress in a slow and steady manner.
3. Check your form and posture
Checking your posture in the middle of a workout is probably the last thing on your mind, however poor form is a leading cause of injury in athletes. As an example, lifting weights when your spine is not in its optimal position causes many low back injuries. Taking a second to check your posture before starting a lift is highly recommended.
4. Seek professional advice
Coaches and trainers are able to help you spot vulnerabilities and share their knowledge, helping you get the most out of your chosen activity. Often it is easier to prevent bad habits from forming than it is to break them once they are already in place. Invest in the advice of an expert, they can help you to avoid injuries as well as reach your peak performance.
Your physiotherapist is able to identify weakness in your training technique, biomechanical vulnerabilities, tight and/or weak muscles and can help guide you through your recovery if an injury does occur. However, prevention of injuries is always preferable to treatment whenever possible.
While there are many benefits to be gained from effective stretching, employing an improper technique can actually result in injury. Here are some tips and guidelines for you to follow when stretching...
- Warm up first with an activity such as walking (at least 5 -10 minutes).
- Stretches should be pain-free. You should only feel tension or a tight feeling when stretching. If you feel a sharp pain, this means you're stretching too far.
- Don't hold your breath while stretching, keep breathing to ensure the muscle tissues remain oxygenated during the stretch.
- Stretch both sides. But if one muscle is tighter than the other, focus on it more until they're both in the same range.
- Avoid bouncing at the end of the stretch because it may lead to injury.
- Hold stretches for 20-30 seconds, if not longer. A 10 second stretch is not always enough to achieve a lasting effect.
- Repeat the stretch 3-5 times with intermittent rest periods in between.
- Make sure your body is aligned properly and observe good posture.
When to Stretch?
Traditionally, stretching has been encouraged before and after any kind of physical activity. However, recent studies show that there is no discerning difference between whether you stretch before exercise/sports or not, both in terms of performance and injury prevention. In some cases, researchers say that it's okay to omit the pre-event stretch since the post-event stretch is much more beneficial.
Some of our everyday postures and activities can lead to certain muscles becoming tight while the others sit in a lengthened position. These habitual postures that lead to muscle imbalances then become more and more difficult to correct over time. Many therapists will suggest that stretching all muscles generically isn’t as beneficial as identifying which of your muscles are abnormally tight and developing a targeted stretching regime.
Talk to your physiotherapist for advice regarding the best stretching program for your body type, posture and activity levels.
Maintaining balance is a complex process that your body does automatically. The body uses various systems to maintain balance, where if one system fails, the others can compensate to keep you stable. You may not notice a deterioration in your balance until you're in a challenging situation.
Our bodies have three systems that work together to keep us balanced: our vision, our inner ear, and our proprioception (our ability to sense the position and movement of our joints, muscles, and tendons). Our eyes provide visual information about the world around us, while the inner ear helps us maintain our balance by detecting changes in our head's position. Meanwhile, receptors in our joints, muscles, and tendons help us understand where our body is in space and how it is moving.
Poor balance can cause falls, broken bones, and serious injuries. The good news is that you can usually improve your balance with just a little practice. Here are a few quick tips you can try...
1. Maintain good posture.
Good posture helps align your body, which is important for balance. Stand up straight with your shoulders back and head up. Avoid slouching or leaning to one side as it can throw off your balance.
2. Practice standing on one leg.
Standing on one leg may seem easy, but it can be challenging if you're not used to it. Start near a wall or hold onto a sturdy surface for safety. Gradually try standing on one leg without support. This exercise improves proprioception, which is your body's ability to sense where it is in space.
3. Strengthen your core muscles.
Core muscles located in your abdomen, back, and hips help stabilize your body and keep you upright. Strengthening them through exercises like planks, side planks, and bridges can improve your balance.
4. Regularly challenge your balance.
Notice what the limits of your balance are and see if you can improve on this gradually every day. Setting small goals for yourself can result in large improvements in your balance over time.
Talk to your physiotherapist about creating a personalised program to improve your balance. Your physiotherapist is an expert who can evaluate which aspects of your balance need improvement and how to do it. They can assess which exercises are most appropriate for you, regardless of your fitness level or age.
We know many of the habits that shape our adult lives are set in childhood. Physical activity is important for a growing body as movement and weight bearing have a large impact on bone strength, muscle and tendon health. Here are some tips to make sure your child is staying as active as possible.
1. Find an activity that suits your child.
Children who are coordinated and excel in competition may find team sports both increase their self-esteem as well as keep them fit. For other children, being a part of a team can be uncomfortable.
Less competitive children may prefer a sport where success is measured by improving on their own performance, rather than being compared to other children. Surfing, yoga, martial arts, dancing or gymnastics may be activities that suit your child if competitive and team sports cause them to be discouraged.
2. Do get injuries checked out by a professional and invest in proper rehabilitation.
While children do bounce back quickly from injuries, they also may have difficulty expressing pain and discomfort. A niggling pain that won’t go away may cause your child to say “I don’t like sport” rather than realising that they are in pain.
Some children may retain worries that they will hurt themselves again because of a previous injury and avoid exercise. Your physiotherapist can help to identify any issues that your child is having and help to resolve them.
3. Set fun and challenging goals for them to complete during their daily routine.
As less children are walking and riding to school, try to find ways to fit extra activities into the day. Some fun examples include running a daily long jump competition in the back yard or adding a routine of age appropriate exercises, such as star jumps, hopping, balancing and running on the spot. You can make these exercises part of the night or morning ritual, just like brushing your teeth.
An essential component of physiotherapy treatment is your home exercise program. All physiotherapists know that patients who complete their exercises will have better outcomes from their treatment, however it can be difficult to find time to complete them. Here are a few tips that can help you to fit your exercises into your weekly routine.
Plan when to complete them
Making a plan might sound simple, but the expression 'failing to plan is planning to fail' has some truth to it. Physiotherapy exercises are specifically targeted towards weak and tight muscles. The exercises are likely to be a little difficult and uncomfortable. Setting a particular time aside in advance to complete them can help you overcome any resistance to getting them done.
Ask your physio to prioritise them
Your physiotherapist might give you a combination of exercises to complete. If you're struggling to find time to complete them all, ask your physiotherapist to rank the exercises in order of importance, this can help you to make sure you complete the most important ones when you are short of time.
Set triggers as reminders
You can use small every day tasks as reminders to remind you to complete your exercises. Some examples include boiling the kettle, brushing your teeth or as a final task before getting into bed.
Use positive reinforcement
Combining a task you don't enjoy with one that you do is a great way to motivate yourself. You can either pair your exercises with something you love such as watching an episode of your favourite tv show or give yourself a reward once they are completed. Either way, the more positive associations you make with completing your home exercise program, the less barriers you make to completing them!
Want more tips? Ask your physiotherapist for their top tips and tricks for fitting your exercise program into your day.