Have you ever had muscle cramping when going on a hike or run? Have you ever experienced areas of tension in the sides of your thighs? How about ankle or calf tension, or pain that limits you from continuing, causing you to stop or slow down?
How about neck or shoulder tension during or after your sport?
If you are like most people tension and pain as we try to get stronger, or improve our fitness through starting or progressing an exercise program, are par for the course.
Let’s talk about what is happening here.
When we experience pain or tightness as we exercise this tells us that there is a loss of joint mobility present in one or more joints. This loss of mobility causes a reduced efficiency in the mechanics of your body, creating tension in the connective tissue and muscle groups. Your muscles are working harder and straining because of the change from normal mechanics.
Consider an alignment problem of the front end of your car. The bigger the change in the alignment from what is ‘normal’ the greater the strain as well as friction to the tires, bearings and moving parts of your car’s front end. Over time this imbalance creates wear to the tires as well as to the bearings.
In the same way a hip and leg problem, or a shoulder problem, is a system that is not working as efficiently as it should. This creates increased friction, and the muscles will strain to try and compensate. This can cause muscle pain and even injury over time.
Where does stretching fit?
Having the flexibility to accomplish your sport or activity is necessary for success. This allows you to develop greater strength and skill as you continue to push yourself, getting better at your sport.
Failing to have this flexibility and pain can limit your improvement.
Video - What is a stretch and how can you get the most out of improving your flexibility.
The Science Of Stretching
Did you know that when you put a muscle on a stretch, like trying to touch your toes, your muscles are actually contracting? Because of sensors in our muscles, called muscle spindles, a lengthening or stretching motion causes a protective contraction or tensing of the muscle group.
This is why we tend to reach the same spot in our stretch over time, causing a restriction of mobility instead of improving our flexibility.
Most stretches are isometrics.
During a 'stretch' the muscles are firing or contracting in a shortened position. They are not lengthening or stretching the muscle groups.
Flexibility versus Stretching
Let’s use a golfer as an example. A golfer needs to have the shoulder and arm motion, the neck and spine mobility, the hip and ankle motion, to move through the entire range of a golf swing. The muscles, tendons and ligaments need to be strong enough to control and stabilize these joints and not get injured as they get stretched. These tendons and ligaments must be strong enough to repeat the golf swing over and over without tearing or injuring tissue.
Each exercise or activity has a flexibility requirement to safely and continuously maintain that exercise. Biking is going to have a different need than running. Hip extension becomes quite necessary when you are a runner and is not a factor when you are biking.
Let’s think about flexibility as our goal.
List of common areas of tightness and pain, and what they mean.
Knee pain, Achilles tendon, heel pain, outer thigh tension or pain, back tension, shoulder and neck tension.
SI joint or Sacroiliac Joint injury
Lack of core function and firing
ITB link – foam rolling
Exactly how to warm up prior to a specific sport is quite variable from sport to sport and even within a specific sport. The differences in research on best practices for warming up vary greatly as there are many factors to consider. Here are a few things to consider when focusing on a warmup period.
Your warmup should be related to your sport or activity. For example, if you are a swimmer then 20 to 30 minutes in the pool prior to a more intense workout or race is appropriate. For a golfer, warmup with practice swings of 10 repetitions or more has been shown to significantly increase your club head speed, effectively reducing your handicap.
Practice your sport or activity repetitively and at a lower intensity to warm up.
Your warmup is sport or activity dependent, based on a planned length of time and if the activity is short and ballistic (higher intensity) or long and repetitive (lower intensity).
Your warmup should be related to your activity or sport.
Your warmup will be longer, 15 to 20 minutes or more, if it is an aerobic activity like biking, swimming or running.
Video - 5 stretches for everyone
3 Tips for improving your flexibility
1. Warm up by moving at a gentle pace that allows you to maintain a conversation while you exercise. The repetitive muscle contractions and relaxation causes blood flow to increase in your muscles reducing your chance of injury by starting too fast or ‘cold’. Your warm up should mimic your activity or sport for best results.
2. Use opposing muscles to release tight muscles. This is called reciprocal inhibition. When you contract your quads in an active knee straightening motion your hamstrings will reflexively relax. This is a great way to improve hamstrings flexibility.
3. Stretch or move following an exercise such as hiking. Your body will be warmed up and stretching movements can help move the by-products of exercise out of your muscles.