Updated: Feb 26
The benefits, How 2 and stretching plan (an extension of the article: Injury - Prevention is Better than the Cure).
According to the American College of Sports Medicine a mere ten minutes of daily stretching can reduce your chances of incurring an exercise-related injury by as much as 50%* - which is a whopping pay-off.
Why is stretching so effective at reducing injury risk?
My go-to method of explaining this to my students is to ask them to engage in a thought experiment. ‘Consider this,’ I say to them, ‘what would happen if you put an elastic band in the freezer for five minutes and then, on removing it, stretched it real quick?’ Inevitably they say it would snap. Of course it would. And if it didn’t snap it certainly wouldn’t by pliable. ‘Ok,’ I continue, ‘take the same elastic band, before we snapped it, and warm it up in your hands for five minutes then stretch it real quick again. What would happen?’ Inevitably they say it would stretch.
At this point the penny drops. They see what I’m knocking at: what warmth does to that elastic band stretching and increased flexibility does to our muscles. If we work on our range of movement around a joint (ROM) by engaging in daily stretching we can reduce our injury susceptibility. By contrast, if muscles are tight and stiff and the ROM constricted they are much more likely to pull, tear or rupture.
In the literature there is a ton of research that supports the relationship between improved flexibility and reduced injury. For example, one study conducted on 200 college athletes ‘found that the risk of injury decreased as flexibility improved,’ (Norris 2004). Moreover, the researchers showed that those athletes who did not develop their flexibility suffered 15% more injuries.
Besides reducing our injury susceptibility stretching induces a sense of calm and centeredness. It’s almost like a form of meditation; at least I think so. After ten to fifteen minutes of gentle stretching we can walk away feeling as focused as a Zen Buddhist.
The reason stretching can make us feel this way is because it causes the release of ‘feel good’ chemicals – endorphins. Furthermore, slow relaxed breathing, which we typically do (or ought to do) whilst holding a position, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Why's this a good thing? Well as Dr. Sapolsky says in his book, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, an activated PNS mediates calm whilst also promoting growth, energy storage and other optimistic processes.
Basically, when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated stress levels are down and the sense of well-being is up. (For more on stress watch this short video clip.)
Other benefits of stretching
Most importantly: regular stretching can reduce injury risk
A consistent stretching regime may, over time, improve your body alignment and posture
Reduces the severity of the DOMS (delayed onset of muscles soreness)
Improves body control and awareness
Greater increase in movement around the joint (ROM)
Stretching, simply put, makes you feel good
How 2 Stretching Guide
Though stretching (flexibility) is a crucial and extremely important component of fitness it is probably the one that is most overlooked. Why this is the case I couldn’t quite say; maybe the vast majority of trainers are incredulous to the benefits of stretching.
Whatever the reason ensure that you are not among these risk takers and implement a stretching regime. It’s easy to do and for the little time it takes the rewards could be substantial. To help you on your way I have produced a simple stretching guide that you can incorporate into your training.
The types of stretching we can do to improve our flexibility include static or developmental stretches where we hold the position for between 20 seconds and 1 minute. When working through a stretching regime, and this is best done post exercise, it is advisable to include the major muscle groups whilst also paying additional attention to those muscles predominantly worked during the session. So even if your main session consisted of, say, a five mile run, you should still stretch the muscles of the upper body but ensure to focus extra time on the quads, hammys and calves.
How to include 10 minutes of stretching into your day
Probably one of the best ways to ensure that you get your 10 a day is by bolting a stretch on to the end of your training/sports sessions. As soon as you finish pumping iron or pounding the tarmac immediately (or after the cool-down) initiate your stretching regime. Begin with the muscles of the upper body and slowly work down to those of the legs.
The ACSM recommends holding each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds each. However, I read a report recently that suggested holding post-exercise stretches for between 20 seconds to 1 minute and repeating each stretch 2 to 3 times. Basically, you perform stretches as you would a resistance exercise, the only difference being the reps are replaced by time and the intensity is much lower.
A stretch should never cause physical pain or discomfort. It should induce a mild sensation in the area being stretched.
Another method you can use to get more elasticated is by introducing into your life the Yogic science. This is my secret weapon against injury.
Every morning, without fail, I scrape myself out of bed about 5ish, roll out the Yoga mat, and slowly work through a series of sun salutations (see video tutorial below) and various floor exercises.
I’ve been doing this religiously for about a year now and not only is it a beautiful way to start each day but it has noticeably increased my flexibility which has translated into fewer injuries and improved physical performance. I cannot sing more highly the praises of Yoga. (For more on the Yogic science see the suggested reading list below.)
Check out this awesome Yoga instructional video of how to perform the sun salutation
Please pay heed to the dos and don’ts of stretching. Though the advice is very simple if it is adhered to it will make stretching more pleasant and safer. Read over the following list and incorporate the points into your stretches.
The dos and don’ts of stretching
Before applying the stretch take a deep breath and then exhale as you slowly ease into the position.
Always relax into your stretch.
Whilst holding the stretch position breathe slowly as this helps ease tension.
Stretch on a comfortable surface such as a soft Yoga mat.
When stretching be mindful of what you are doing and concentrate on the muscle being stretched.
Timing your stretches with a watch, not counting in your head, will ensure each stretch is applied for an equal duration.
Never bounce in the stretch position.
Do not force a stretch to the point where it causes an uncomfortable pain in the muscle.
Whilst stretching never push or put any pressure against a locked joint.
Do not rush your stretching regime.
Do not hold your breath during a stretch.
How 2 Stretching Plan
Suggested reading list (for more information on the books click the image)
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (Robert M. Sapolsky)
As Sapolsky explains, most of us do not lie awake at night worrying about whether we have leprosy or malaria. Instead, the diseases we fear - and the ones that plague us now - are illnesses brought on by the slow accumulation of damage, such as heart disease and cancer. When we worry or experience stress, our body turns on the same physiological responses that an animal's does, but we do not resolve conflict in the same way - through fighting or fleeing. Over time, this activation of a stress response makes us literally sick.
Anatomy of Hatha Yoga (H. David Coulter)
This is the first complete authoritative source combining the study of hatha yoga with anatomy and physiology. David Coulter provides an in-depth physiological examination of more than 100 yoga postures and practices and their relationship to the systems of the body. It includes chapters on breathing, relaxation and meditation as well as detailed diagrams, illustrations and photos.
The Complete Guide to Stretching (C. M. Norris)
The Complete Guide to Stretching is the definitive practical handbook for:
Sports participants and recreational exercisers who are keen to achieve a level of flexibility that will enhance their performance
Sports coaches and fitness instructors who are seeking a thorough understanding of the principles and practice of this often neglected component of physical fitness
Sport and exercise therapists who use stretching as an important part of a balanced rehabilitation programme.
(As we are very interested in user feedback at Hungry4Fitness, I would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
*Unfortunately I was unable to locate the citation for the ACSM statistic.
Norris. M. C (2004) Stretching. A & C Black. London.
Sapolsky. M. R (2004) Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. St. Martin's Griffin. New York.