I know many fitness enthusiasts who will spend 2 hours at the gym and only five minutes stretching. I know hikers who will hike all day and not stretch once; Paddlers who’s only arm stretch is when they wake up in the morning and stretch as they get out of bed. There has been plenty of research that shows that being flexible reduces your chance of injury in high impact sports, so why the resistance?
Boredom, Invisible Benefits, Lack of Time
Many people find stretching boring. They feel like it’s something keeping them from doing the fun stuff, their real activity. Unlike weight training or other exercises, you can’t look in the mirror and see your flexibility while just standing there. Without that visual feedback, it’s hard for some to find the motivation to stretch. Then there are time constraints. If you only have an hour to work out, stretching for fifteen minutes seems like a huge waste of your limited time. So how do we address these issues?
Make it Fun/Relaxing/Productive
Entertain yourself while stretching. Stretch with a friend and make it a competition to see who can get the deepest stretch. Turn off your pumped-up training music and listen to a podcast to learn something new while stretching. Alternatively, turn on some soft meditative music and focus on relaxing and breathing. Fifteen minutes of stretching and deep breathing can really reset your stress levels.
Notice Your Gains
While you can’t see the benefits of stretching just by standing in the mirror you can still see them. When I first started emphasizing stretching two years ago I couldn’t touch my toes. Now, I can get my upper body almost flat against my legs. Take note of your starting flexibility, set goals, and notice your progress. I’ve long since met my goal of touching my toes and have set a new goal of being able to do the splits by the time I’m forty. I have two years to meet that goal and it’s looking like I may get there early.
Yes, spending some of your set aside workout time stretching, means less time with your actual workout. I still would argue it’s time well spent. What are 15 minutes of your workout set aside for stretching if it avoids weeks missed due to injury? My injury rate has dropped dramatically since stretching. I no longer get shin splints when I run after a long hiatus. I’ve had bad stumbles while hiking and my flexibility has saved me from pulled muscles. I recently started taking Brazilian Jiujitsu classes and have been spared some of the common pulled muscles and other injuries of new students, in large part due to my flexibility. I also believe flexibility helps you to maintain proper form while working out which means better gains.
Develop a Routine
I follow the same routine every time I stretch because it ensures I remember all muscle groups. I always stretch at the end of my workout when my muscles are warm and I can reap the most benefits. I start standing, stretching as many groups as I can and use yoga poses to flow into different positions, working my way to the floor and stretching areas I can’t get standing. Every session I am sure to stretch my sides, back, stomach, all muscles in my legs, my arms, wrists, ankles, and my neck.
Take your Time
While spending 10 seconds in a stretch is better than nothing, it’s not ideal. Spending at least 30 seconds, preferably a minute or more, in each pose will give your muscles time to relax into the stretch and for your flexibility to improve. Take the time to breathe deeply in each stretch, trying to deepen it with each exhalation. Massaging the tight muscle while stretching will help to loosen it and deepen your stretch.
Don’t Over Do It
Stretch to the point where you feel a good amount of tightness but not to the point of pain. You definitely want to feel the heat of the stretch but if it’s painful you are pushing too hard, too fast. Take your time in each position and your flexibility will increase without the need for pain.
Many yoga poses have the double benefits of increased flexibility and better balance. Balance, along with flexibility, and muscle strength, are things that decrease with age, but all are preventable. Balance goes hand in hand with flexibility in decreasing injury no matter what your age, so it is worth working on. Some of my favorite poses for flexibility and balance are Lord of the Dance (this stretches almost your whole body from arms, to torso, to legs, and it opens up your chest and feels great), Half Moon Pose (another full body stretch and surprisingly hard balancing challenge), and Tree Pose (this gives a great stretch to the groin, an often overlooked area to stretch but easy to injure if it’s not flexible).
Give it a Try!
Commit to a month of stretching and I guarantee you will see enough benefits that you will want to continue. You will notice that your body just feels more capable. Your muscles will be sore less often and recover quicker. Like a well-oiled machine, you will feel your movements flow better. When you try a new activity you won’t find yourself getting pulled muscles. Stretching just makes an active life better.