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Stretching is an important part of any exercise program or athletic competition. Whether you are starting a fitness program at a local fitness center or are a recreational or professional athlete, stretching is crucial to your success.

There are two basic reasons that explain why stretching is so important to any activity. Muscles that are tight (shorten) cause increased joint compression because of decreased joint mobility. For instance, with less hip joint mobility there is an increase in hip joint compressive loads transmitted over a smaller surface area while running. This can lead to decreased performance, injury and arthritis over the long term.

The second reason that stretching is important is that it allows for maximal muscular power and endurance. Muscle fibers are composed of contractile units called sarcomeres. Sarcomeres have what’s called a resting length. At normal resting length, sarcomeres produce the most power when they contract. However, if the muscle is tight, then the sarcomeres are tight, or shortened, and will not produce as much power.

Stretching should occur prior to and after any exercise program or athletic competition. A warm-up of at least ten minutes (30 min. in cold weather) should precede the competition. Otherwise, the athlete could sustain an injury during the stretching routine. A warm-up routine increases blood flow to the body and specifically to the muscles that will be involved in the activity. This increases body heat and improves muscle elasticity. Think of bending a cold, versus a warm, piece of plastic.

The warm-up activity should be similar to the exercise routine or competition. A brisk walk with a good stride is an excellent warm-up exercise prior to a running event. It incorporates all the major muscle groups that will be involved while running. The walk prepares the athlete’s nervous and muscular systems for the event. Many people jog for their warm-up but this is not as good as walking. Jogging actually increases lower extremity joint loads because it is performed with a shorter stride length.

  • Stretches should be performed slowly and gently.
  • The stretch should be felt as a mild muscle tension that resolves in 30-60 seconds.
  • Do not bounce during the stretch as this can cause overstretching and injury.
  • If you are preparing for a run, do not forget to stretch your trunk, chest and shoulders. All these areas are important for efficient running.

by Scott McDonough PT, MPT
Adirondack Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy Center

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