Stretching is a key part of successful recovery strategy. But just like anything, there are things you can do to increase the effectiveness of your stretching regime so you’re not wasting time. Find out what they are here…
You likely know the basic answers:
- Prevent Injury
- Improve Recovery
Flexibility and stretching could end up being a very long article, where I talk about how you need a flexibility reserve of 20% for optimal performance, or that stretching doesn’t actually really prevent injuries, rather that strength through a given range of motion matters more…but it becomes complicating and long. I can try tackling it another time. But for now, I want to share a stretching technique for recovery that I learned in the book “Stretch to Win” by Ann and Chris Frederick.
Let’s first go over some basics:
- Prior to activity you want to do dynamic range of motion stretching. This means that you actively move your muscles through their full range of motion to prepare them for the dynamic loads that will come during the exercise bout (workout, practice, game).
- Doing static stretching has been shown to decrease strength and power output of athletes in subsequent bouts of exercise. As such, static stretching should not be done prior to exercise bouts.
- Static stretching helps to relax the working muscle and also helps to realign the sarcomeres (the muscle fibres).
To understand why static stretching is effective at relaxing the muscle, (and why you don’t want to do it before exercise bouts), we need to learn about the stretch reflex.
The Stretch Reflex
When your muscles are stretched, your body has a reflex that tries to contract the muscles that are being stretched. If the muscles are stretched very quickly, the resulting contraction can be quite forceful. That is why you drop down slightly just before you jump as high as you can. This is called the stretch-shortening cycle. Plyometrics aim to make use of the stretch-shortening cycle to increase the power of your jumps.
After an exercise bout (game, practice, workout, etc), your muscles aren’t physically shorter…but they are more sensitive to the stretch reflex. This means that you can be more explosive and powerful in your game. However, it also means that your muscles cannot stretch as far without the stretch reflex kicking in to prevent full lengthening of the muscle.
Relaxing the Stretch Reflex
Holding a static stretch helps attenuate the muscle to the stretch reflex. So holding a static stretch after an exercise bout can help restore a muscle to its resting length. This has a number of positive outcomes related to your recovery…but in my experience, there is a better way to get these positive effects: Undulating Stretching!
Static stretching involves holding the stretch of a muscle in a fixed place for a specific amount of time. Undulating stretching is a little different. Undulating stretching uses slight movements synchronized with the breath.
How to do Undulating Stretching
Let’s take for example a glute max stretch (where you are lying on your back and pull one knee into your chest).
- Pull the knee into your chest to a point where you start to feel tension
- Take a deep breath releasing the stretch to a point where you do not feel tension
- As you exhale, increase the stretch again to a point where you being to feel tension
- Continue breathing and stretching in this way until there is no tension in the muscle
- There is not set time to stretch…listen to your body, and finish the stretch when you feel no more tension
This style of stretching is more effective than static stretching because:
- Rather than stretching for a set time, the stretcher is able to listen to their body and determine when they should finish a stretch. This will ensure that the muscle is properly relaxed, and also that the stretcher isn’t wasting any time. (Maybe a muscle is really tight and 60 seconds of stretching doesn’t cut it. Alternatively, maybe a muscle is not that tight, and 60 seconds of stretching is way too much.)
- By aiming to reduce tension, the stretcher is reducing the effect of the stretch reflex. It is possible to hold a static stretch and never get any relaxation if you’ve pushed yourself too far. In that case, you wouldn’t be attenuating the stretching reflex. Gently aiming to reduce tension as you move slowly in and out of greater ranges of motion will better relax the stretch reflex and therefore the muscle. Again, moving gently through different ranges of motion allows you to customize your stretch to how your body is feeling that day.
- By synchronizing your breathing with your stretching, you further attenuate the stretch reflex. Also, stretching takes on an almost meditative quality…thereby relaxing your entire body. A large part of stretching is shifting the body from a fight or flight (or stressed, or yang energy) state…to a state of rest and recovery (relaxed or yin energy). By taking your body to a place of relaxation, you allow your body to get to work rebuilding muscle tissues and fuel stores. If you remain in a stressed state, your body will continue to expend energy, break down tissue, and excrete stress hormones.
When I started undulating stretching, I actually noticed an improvement in my mobility. I say that, because with static stretching, I had never actually seen an improvement in flexibility.
Try out Undulating Stretching! It’s a simple change to make, that can both improve your results stretching, and potentially save you time.