You arrive at a race and find yourself engulfed by runners bouncing like boxers, lunging around the parking lot, trotting down the road to bring blood to the muscles, and then you spot them. They are deliberate and methodical in their approach. They appear confident and convinced of their routine. You may even feel as though perhaps you should adopt their pre-race procedure. Stretchers. Tugging and twisting, bending and folding. People who still believe cold stretching is a quick and efficient technique to prepare the body for exercise.
For ages static stretching (holding a stretch position for 30 or more seconds) was the star of many warm-up programs. From dancers to wrestlers, it was a general understanding that this type of stretch was the standard way to lengthen and loosen muscles, providing the blood flow necessary to contract with more force and speed. It was only a few years ago when a 2013 New York Times article stunned the exercise community with research suggesting that stretching unready muscles actually decreases strength by nearly 5.5 percent, the effect being even more profound when a stretch is held for 90 seconds or longer. (Some researches have found little benefit to stretching beyond 45 seconds.) An athlete will likely experience less explosivity and force when they engage in a static stretch regimen than not warming up at all.
Stretching a muscle without adequate circulation also increases the risk of over-stretching and injury. It is difficult to target the muscle belly, and as a result, other soft tissue gets pulled on. And because ligaments and tendons have less elasticity, stretching them too far can cause instability and expose the athlete to joint pain.
When done properly, stretching is highly beneficial to sports performance and overall movement, as it extends range of motion allowing more torque and flexibility. It is an important preventative measure against injuries, such as ankle and hamstring sprains from tripping or leaping too far. Because static stretching has been determined counterproductive unless you are warm, researchers recommend the more balletic, yoga-style approach: dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching keeps the muscles moving as you move through the positions. It should be an extension to a warm-up, not the warm-up itself. If you are crunched for time, skip stretching until after your workout. Whether done before or after (or both) the workout, it is best to ease into the stretch slowly, feeling for any twinges of pain and adjusting the depth as you need.
One of the best ways to warm up is it to begin with shallow squats and/or lunges and jumping rope. Once the legs feel warm you may begin to add in some leg swings and extensions. Aim for at least 5 minutes, but ideally a 10-15 minute warm-up is necessary if you are racing or heading into an intense workout. Increasing flexibility takes time and it needs to be completed with intention. Stretching once a day will not be enough to see results; stretching for a couple of minutes several times throughout the day will prevent muscles from seizing up or shortening. Focus on the muscles that are the most tight and consequential to your activity, and do not concern yourself with hyper-extension. It’s a fun party trick to fall into the splits, but if your goal is to improve in your sport, only do the amount that will enhance your skills.
Sample 5-minute dynamic stretch routine:
Plie squats – 30 seconds
Begin by lightly bouncing into the squat, getting deeper as you feel the muscles begin to warm up. Do not stick out your butt! These are performed with an erect torso and neutral pelvis.
Walking lunges or split lunges – 20 steps (10 per leg)
Do not hunch over, keep the pelvis centered between the legs and the chest lifted. Do not let the knee go beyond the toes and make sure to track straight ahead.
Side-to-side leg swings – 30 seconds per leg
Standing on one leg, swing the other leg across the body and back out, starting low and getting higher every few swings.
Lunge into downward facing dog – 8 per side
Step left leg back into a lunge, bend down and place both hands on the floor, place the right front foot back alongside the foot behind you, bending into the downward dog yoga stretch/pose. Breathe into the stretch for 10 seconds then bring the left leg back into a lunge, lift hands off the floor, using your core, and reach them up toward the sky. Breathe for a few seconds, continuing to reach before moving back into the downward dog. Alternate legs as you complete 8 on each side.
Jump rope – 20 seconds
Small jumps or bounces simulating jumping rope.
Plie into leg extension – 16 per side
Stand with heels touching, bend the knees while keeping heels on the ground, as you straighten the left leg the right leg extends up into the air to around 45 degrees. Your goal is to get the leg as high as you can without lifting your hips or bending the knees. Bend both knees again and repeat.
High knees – 20 seconds
Front and back leg swings – 20 seconds per side
Note: Pilates, yoga, and dance are three activities that will enhance your range of motion while also building strength, and I encourage all athletes to either take a class or perform the work at home to supplement training if you have the time.