As the winter weather approaches we might be thinking "What I can do during this down time to improve my sports performance?" My suggestion is "take time to improve your global flexibility or mobility." The words "flexibility" or "mobility" will both be used in this article and can be defined as the broad range of movement (ROM) in a joint or series of joints. It is of significant importance to all types of training. Developing an appreciation of the flexibility needs will help to prevent injuries and to improve performance. Unfortunately, this type of training is often neglected with our hectic schedules.
The questions I hear most often include: What stretches are best? How much time should be spent? Will the increase in joint mobility improve performance enough to justify the time spent? The answers to these questions will depend on what you want to get out of the session. Are you trying to improve posture, increase sport specific range of motion, prevent injuries, and/or aid in warm-up?
Sports require a high degree of joint mobility in the shoulders, spine and hips. Increased joint mobility will help improve technique and power because you gain strength through a larger range of motion. Due to the ballistic nature of many rotational sports like tennis or golf in which we rotate our bodies quickly (dynamically) we must be aware of the need for a certain amount of "flexibility reserve." This is a protective reserve that ensures our flexibility is higher than that required for the normal stroke or swing. Developing a reserve of muscle strength and flexibility is beneficial and will allow you to perform an unaccustomed movement with less likelihood of injury. Compromising or changing technique based on limited joint flexibility or mobility may allow you to perform in the short term but for further improvement and sound joint mechanics general mobility must be increased.
WHAT LIMITS FLEXIBILITY?
Joint mobility or flexibility is affected by the bony structure of a joint and the ligaments, capsule, tendons and muscles around it. The more elasticity there is in the soft tissues, the larger the amplitude of available movement. Co-ordination of the muscles also play an important role in flexibility. In any movement, the contraction of a (agonist) working muscle is paralleled by the lengthening (relaxation) or stretching of the (antagonist) opposing muscle groups. If the antagonistic muscles yield easily, less energy is spent to overcome the resistance and the movement is more efficient.
Age, gender, temperature and time of day affect flexibility. Younger individuals and females are generally more flexible. Research also shows that an increase of muscle temperature by a few degrees can improve flexibility by 10-20 %. Unfortunately the opposite is true and cold muscles are similarly less flexible. As well research indicates that the highest flexibility occurs for most people between 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. and 16:00-17:00 p.m. while the lowest is early morning. These differences reflect the changing state of the central nervous system and muscles tonus. Fatigued muscles also tend to be less flexible.
BENEFITS OF FLEXIBILITY TRAINING INCLUDE:
- improvement or maintenance of optimum sport specific range of motion (ROM);
- reduction of injuries due to tearing of tight soft tissues;
- promotes muscle relaxation and mental relaxation;
- increases metabolism in muscles, joints and associated connective tissue;
- enhanced physical fitness and improved body awareness;
- reduce the problems associated with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Guidelines for Warm-Up & Cool Down
Do we stretch or play to warm-up or warm-up to stretch and play? Experts generally agree, that a warm-up prior to stretching is best. Warm-up with any activity from the 5 R's (run, ride, roll, row or skip rope) until a light sweat is achieved. This ensures that the temperature of the joints and soft tissues is increased without the deleterious effects of lactic acid build-up. Slowly warming the body up helps prevent injuries caused by going too hard and too fast with cold, un-lubricated muscles and joints. Appropriate warm-ups are type of activity, duration and intensity specific. As a guideline, use a less intense version of the activity you're going to do. If you're running, start off at half-speed, add large circular arm swings, skipping, crossovers and side shuffle steps to warm up the upper body, trunk and lower body muscles.
A cool down gradually takes your body back to its resting state, helps clear lactic acid and other waste products from the muscle working and helps prevents "DOMS" delayed onset muscle soreness and "RMT" residual muscle tension. Try 8-12 minutes of moderate to light activity followed by an easy, general stretch.
Different Stretching Techniques
Physiotherapists at City Sports & Physiotherapy Clinic's in Vancouver recommend the following stretching techniques.
Slow, static stretch – "3-S"
Hold each static stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds (it takes at least 20 seconds to overcome the bias from the protective stretch reflex) and repeat each stretch a minimum of two times. More significant gains in flexibility will be made if the stretches are held for 40 seconds to 2 min or longer and repeated 3-4 times. Stretch the tightest areas first. Be progressive in your stretching. Exhale as you stretch further into the range and then breathe normally as the stretch is held at the point of tightness. NB: This type of stretching should be organized in a separate routine from training and is used to increase soft tissue length. Caution must be used when doing this type of stretching prior to hard training as it may weaken the muscle and leave it prone to injury. Instead use a "facilitated" or" dynamic" stretch.
Facilitated Stretch: Hold Relax & Contract Relax
Facilitated stretches make use of the "inverse myotatic reflex", where nerve receptors in the tendon are sensitive to isometric contraction and relax the muscle when it occurs. Two methods may be used:
i) contract – relax: tighten the same (agonist) muscle, then stretch it
ii) hold -relax: tighten the opposite (antagonist) muscle, then stretch it
Use a partner you can trust who takes the muscle slowly to the point of tightness, applies appropriate resistance (approx 25-30%) for 6-8 seconds then assists you to stretch further into the range. Many traditional static stretches can also become facilitated stretches by using a towel, wall or your hands to apply resistance. This type of stretching will help increase range of motion and strengthen the muscle.
Utilizes controlled combined joint movements to push the limits of optimal range of motion prior to activities that are dynamic in nature (all sports activities and specifically tennis). Examples of this are shoulder and arm swings, hip and leg swings, lunges, squats and torso twists. A dynamic warmup helps normalize joint mechanics, increases the dynamic ROM, improves joint position sensors (proprioception), and improves the "relaxation contraction" coordination. This type of stretching is appropriate prior to beginning any activity and must be included as part of the warm-up.
This is a fast stretch that increases flexibility through a series of bouncing movements that violently try to lengthen the muscle group. This type of stretching should be approached with extreme caution and limited to high-level athletes under the direction of a strength and conditioning specialist as the stretch reflex will cause increased tightness of the muscle to protect it. This type of stretching is not suitable for recreational athletes. Instead stick with the static, facilitated and dynamic stretches.
WHAT IF I AM TOO FLEXIBLE?
Normally you can never be too flexible. However, there are individuals who lack a certain amount of joint stability and may suffer from loose (subluxing) shoulders, loose ankles or pelvic mal-alignment syndromes. Maintaining a balanced flexibility and strength program will ensure the joints have equal support. In addition, agility and balance drills will ensure that the joint sense of position (proprioception) is working well and reprogrammed with your new muscle length.
REGAIN THE "EVOLUTIONARY" POSITION
Training for sports (or sitting behind a desk all day for that matter) often puts the body in an "unathletic posture" (i.e. the shoulders are rounded forward and the head pushed forward). As well, the hip flexors are in a shortened position and the gluteal muscles are on stretch. Think the "P's" of posture, pelvic tilt (thin tummy), and pectoral stretch. Focus on muscles that tend to be relatively short and stiff. This includes the pectorals, hip flexors, hamstrings and calf muscles to name a few.
RULES OF STRETCHING (DO'S AND DONT'S)
Sport Science consultant Dr. Istvan Balyi recommends:
- Do stretch dynamically before each training session.
- Do "conform" stretches after hard exercise. Conform stretches are easy, low range of motion, moving (dynamic) stretches that take the muscles and joints through a comfortable range of motion. They are not aggressive enough to tear or aggravate muscle fibres that are already shortened or injured due to hard exercise.
- Do establish optimal sport specific range of motion prior to competition season.
- Do self monitor optimal ranges of motion.
- Do ensure that warm up is used to prepare for activity to follow.
- Do utilize a separate time and routine for static stretching (4-6 times per week, and wait several hours after hard exercise to do them).
- Don't do static stretching or facilitated stretching prior to high quality power or speed training. Instead use dynamic stretches.
- Don't do static stretching or hold-relax stretching immediately after maximum strength training, jump training, high quality speed training or competitions "conform stretch" instead.
- If a particular stretching exercise causes discomfort, try an alternative one.
- Try to include one stretch for each major muscle group targeted on the stretching session.
- If a particular muscle group is stiff stretch it first and last.
- Allow a minimum of 10-15 minutes for stretching. A more comprehensive stretching session will take from 30-60 minutes.
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