My mother-in-law jokes that I’m going to be the grandma in this picture one day: stretching anywhere and everywhere I can.
And I quietly think: “I hope so! And I will be!”
Research has shown that consistent stretching increases strength and decreases pain. Some studies even indicate that you can use stretching to prevent injuries in different sports. I like Kristian Berg’s1 Four Main Principles to adhere to when stretching:
It’s important to remember that stretching is the opposite of stress. It is relaxing, peaceful and non-competitive. Accompanied with deep breathing, it’s like pulsing meditation.
Flexibility is one of several important components of physical fitness and successful performance in many sports, dance and movement disciplines. As we get older, muscles (and joints) can become stiffer and tighter. Keeping that in mind, it’s important to stay active and fit in a way that’s preferable and unique to you. And in an effort to improve range of movement around a joint, go slow, be gentle and most importantly be patient and kind to yourself. Your flexibility will improve over time.
Whenever I teach yoga, there is often someone new who approaches me before class with the ‘disclaimer’ that they are not flexible. I love this (and love them for embracing the tightness and showing up to a class!). I often reply, “Even better! Flexible people have further to go to feel sensation. The less flexible you are, the sooner you discover what’s going on in your body, feel sensation, and simply breathe into the tightness. Less flexible means more reason to show up. Yay for you!” #sensation
Firstly, if you exercise regularly: Bravo! [insert clapping hands emoji.] There is no general rule as to when to stretch however, stretching during training is as beneficial as before or after. For example, if you are lifting weights: performing biceps curls - then stretching both biceps (agonist) and triceps (antagonist) may allow for greater flexibility and pliability plus decrease the risk of injury. And stretching your calves after your warm-up and before a run can also help avoid injury since tight, shortened calf muscles often affect your stride.
Stretching after a workout is also a plus, since your muscles are warm and it’s a great way to gently cool down as you hold stretches for longer periods. So the short answer: before, during and after are all perfect times to stretch!
I often stretch bedside before sleeping and find it essential to synchronize my stretches with breathing. As an example, if my heel is up on the bed and I lean forward, I’m stretching hamstring muscles of the raised leg. I take a deep breath in, then exhale and extend forward deeper. To deepen the stretch more, I pull my toes back toward my face, and (hello!) calf muscle stretch kicks in (this is not for everyone as my abs are strong and hamstrings flexible!). I have to admit that in that moment of forward bending over one leg, I should be closing my eyes to surrender, however you’ll probably find me scrolling through emails. And when I switch legs, I spend a few more minutes on social media. This, for me, is a good trick for staying in a stretch without coming out early due to boredom! However if no phones in your room, even better…feel free to just relax into the stretches, 10-20 seconds with eyes closed and no bouncing. Slow, rhythmic breathing is key.
Another beautiful way to stretch (or at least I think it’s beautiful) is to attend a yoga class. Look for a specific class like Yin Yoga or a group session with the word ‘stretch’ or ‘restorative’ in it’s title.
If I could gift you with anything, it would be yoga and I can honestly say that you could start where you are and yoga would meet you right there. But that said, yoga is not for everyone simply because of preference, and that’s all good. For those that are willing to try a mat yoga practice, you can find abundant classes in your neighbourhood or there are also many online yoga membership sites like “Yoga Download” and “Gaiam” that offer a range of classes from beginner to advanced and you can even choose the length, level or teacher you want to learn from.
When you stretch regularly and exercise frequently, you’ll truly learn to enjoy movement all around. Beyond stretching for sport, it’s also beneficial for maintaining general flexibility for daily activities and as preventative maintenance in repetitive motion activities. I swear by stretching because I feel limber getting down on the floor to play with my toddler then hopping up to do a chore the next. From gardening to golfing, stretching can be one way to feel good all around.
The bottom line with stretching is that you have to schedule it in like you would your workout or any other activity or meeting in the day. This can be a minimum of a few minutes, and extend to an hour (in the example of attending a Yin Yoga or other mat yoga or specific stretch class).
Finally, stretching feels good when performed correctly and there’s no need to push limits or attempt to go further each day. It’s completely adjustable to each individual and gives you freedom to be more of yourself. (I go deeper into the types of stretching: static, dynamic, assisted, etc., and flexibility in My Stretch Glossary post << so check that out if you’re curious.)
I know deep down that being pain-free and injury-free with great mobility is a benefit of having stretched and practised yoga daily for over thirty years. I feel that stretching likely even helped when I had a baby in my late forties.
Remember to seek professional help if you cannot stretch due to severe aching or sharp pain, and if you are hypermobile, pregnant or have had a recent injury, it’s best to get doctor or a health professional’s advice.
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Reference 1: Berg, Kristian, Prescriptive Stretching. New York: Human Kinetics, 2011. Print.
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