To Stretch or not to Stretch- that is the question…

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Static stretching gets such a bad rap. but I think if people critically analyze the current information out there,  they can find ways to still incorporate this time-tested tool.  Stretching shouldn’t be an automatic one-size-fits-all time filler in your workout, but it can definitively have a big benefit to you if used correctly.

Maybe you’ve heard that static stretching pre-exercise slows force production.  (In young males on the knee extension machine, but I will leave my feelings about scientific subject selection for another post.)  You may have also heard that pre-session stretching has no change on injury rates.  Or even that prolonged static stretching makes no difference in flexibility over time.  The evidence is in & it has found that static stretching is ineffective on all accounts.  Or is it?  Then why does it feel so good?  And why do some people- runners, yogis, dancers- still stretch in what looks like traditionally static positions?

I think people can analyze the current information out there and still find ways to incorporate this time-tested tool.  Stretching should NOT be an automatic one-size-fits-all time filler in your workout, but it still can definitively have a big benefit to you if used correctly. The difference between the two choices is intention- find out what static stretching is good for & what it’s not good for- and use that to your body’s advantage.

 

 ~ Stepping on the brake~

I picture static stretching as stepping on a brake to the muscle you are stretching.  Yes, it slows down force production, but sometimes that’s just what you need.  A study of college-aged males proved stretching the Quad before a knee extension machine strength test significantly reduced the power output of the Quadriceps- yes, I agree with this conclusion. But I could bet money that most of these young males have a hard time reaching full knee straight while locked into a seated position because of flexibility issues in their HAMSTRINGS.  So what if instead of stretching the quads, those athletes stretched their hamstrings with the goal of making knee extension while seated more fluid & flexible? And perhaps did some activation techniques for the Quad immediately after?  That way, you are slowing down the muscle fighting your efforts, while revving up the muscles you want to exert the most force.  In this way, you can use the “braking” motion of a static stretch to your advantage, no?

As a real-world example: if you overuse your calves for push off when running, try stretching your calves in a static stretch before a run.  It can slow down your natural inclination to use your calves, thereby easing use of other muscles & improving your biomechanics.  Another real-world use is if you are overly quad dominant and you are trying to alter your squat form to recruit more hamstrings & glutes.  Why not stretch the quads (in isolation) prior to a training session to slow them down and make the other muscles more easily active in comparison?  You may have a harder time lifting in the short term (when you are still trying to use the slowed quads.)  But if you continue to focus on posterior chain effort, it can help you be successful in changing a very stubborn & very common biomechanic.

 

~More range? Only in the short term~

Static stretching can also improve joint ROM, but only in the short term. This increased range is useful as long as you prepare to activate them immediately after.  I like stretching the hamstrings pre-run in order to improve stride length. But I am aware that the longer you stretch, the sleepier/slower and “deactivated” you are making that muscle. I don’t hold these stretches until all tension is gone, only until movement is a little freer, and that’s what I suggest to patients as well. While I generally recommend 15-20s per stretch for everyone, for the slower runner (10-13 minute mile) I recommend alternating but repeating the stretch for more repetitions; for the faster runner (6-10 min mile) I might only recommend one or two stretches per side so as not to put too much brake on their muscle. The slower runner needs slow & steady muscles, the faster runner needs fast & responsive muscles.  The overall effect is increased volume of hamstring stretching for the slower runner, minimal stretch for the faster one.

Following up static stretches with progressively shorter holds for all athletes is equally important to activate a quick response in the new range. You want your body to be able to get into the loose position easily, but also quickly.  If you are holding the static stretch for 20s on the first two reps, try then holding only for 10s for another 2 reps to speed up your body’s relaxation response.  Then move to dynamic mobility drills after these stretches to move the muscles in common movement patterns.  The pre-workout goal is long & loose, but strong & quick.

    ~Stretching after exercise~

The general population has given up on pre-workout stretching, but wonders if it’s best to wait until immediately after exercise, when you are “already warmed up”.  When questioned about their why, it’s usually in order to “gain flexibility” or in order to prevent soreness.

While I do incorporate the stretch “when warmed up” philosophy in my practice with patients, it is only when the primary goal of the session is to regain lost range of motion or when their range is severely limited.  For people with normal ranges of flexibility who want to get stronger, it is counterproductive to stretch immediately after exercise.  If your session’s goal is strength, use all of your time towards your primary goal that day- strengthening.  Spend those extra 15 minutes doing another round of pushups or squats, or both.

It’s still not a great idea to go from high intensity to full stop (& sitting at the computer the rest of the day) though.  Try some deep breathing in the bent over position (child’s pose for instance) to slow down your breathing and CNS, returning your body and mindset to a calmer state.  Walk slowly to the locker room, have a drink of water and think peaceful & relaxed.  Take your time getting to the office.  If you are coming off the field, or after a race, standing knee to chest and modified downdogs holding into a gate works well, but be sure to breathe deeply, and try to slow your talking and thinking. I’ve very rarely recommended stretching after exercise, and when I have it’s been for patients who have had severe difficulty returning to a normal muscle state after a workout- maybe one or two times in my entire career.  If you notice body tension that cannot relax for days after every workout, try static stretching after the breathing technique and see if that helps, but know that this is the rare case.

 

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But what about stretching to prevent muscle soreness? In my 15yrs as a fitness professional, I have yet to notice a difference in onset of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) when stretching immediately after exercise.  Why not save the static stretch for DOMS for when it begins to set in- usually later that night or the next day?  That has helps a bit in reducing the intensity of muscle soreness and maintaining range of motion after overdoing it. You can also use static stretching once DOMS has hit its maximum discomfort, performing the stretch slowly and lightly,  followed by light effort of the same exercise that made you sore.  Now that’s the REAL recipe for minimizing soreness. you’re welcome.

 

~Already warmed up~

If you are stretching to get more range of motion, best to spend a separate session dedicated to flexibility.  You can do this with a yoga class or self directed yoga positions or mobility drills. Warm up, and stay at a much lighter intensity needed to work on range and make this the goal of the whole session.  You are still moving, but at a much lower intensity.  It may feel weird that you’re not “doing anything” or “fat burning” that session, but know that you can’t do everything in one session. If you separate the two goals (strength & flexibility) into 2 different sessions, you can have a clear intention for each one & be more successful all around.  Plus you get to call the flexibility session by a cool name, “Recovery Day.”  Boy, do I love a cool marketing strategy.

 

~In Summary~

The “When and What” of Stretching:

  1. Before exercise:  Try a short period of static stretches to the muscles you want to slow down or improve length in, followed by dynamic or ballistic stretches to activate quick recoil of those muscles prior to exercise.  Think “Long & loose, but strong & quick”
  2. After exercise: try to slow down mentally and physically.  This is best accomplished with deep breathing & bent over positions.
  3. For Muscle soreness: try light static stretching at the initial onset of DOMS, and static stretching followed by light exercise once the muscle soreness has reached its peak.
  4. To improve overall flexibility: best to dedicate an entire session to “stretching”.  Think active mobility drills and yoga positions for the most effective way to gain mobility. Pay attention to what positions you’re trying to get into, where you are feeling the stretch and actually “try”.  Don’t just lay there and talk or think about other things- mobility requires effort too.
  5. The common goal: No matter where you are on the athletic scale, the goal is to ramp up and ramp down mind & muscle excitation- some people can use a quick ramp up or down, some people need longer time to focus on the optimal energy state.  Notice where you are per, post & during your chosen exercise and modify accordingly.

 

~Knowledge, Body Awareness and Intention are the best methods for physical success~

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Just eat that Strawberry

As a mom, I’m surrounded by fruit. I’m always washing grapes, cutting strawberries, slicing mango.  I love fruit, it’s super healthy, and I want my children to appreciate the gentle sweetness that fresh fruit provides.  So then why is there a part of me, that holds back for myself?  There’s an inner voice that says “Save the fruit for the kids..” and “Not now, maybe later”….after I’ve given IT all and MY all, to the kids.  A noble thought for sure, but is it a good thought?  If fruit is “so great”, don’t I deserve some too?

                              fruit

If thought through a bit more, is enjoying simple food, and enjoying unfocused, non-rehearsed movement, only for the young? Is simple fun for kids, and adults are only allowed sitting calmly, eating dinner out & drinking?  I say NO.  There’s more pleasure in life than just that.  And so, when I recognized this thought pattern awhile ago, I made the decision that every time I cut fruit, I will take at least one piece for myself.  Maybe more if I want it, but never less.  I deserve a slice of life’s gentle pleasures too. And so do you.  

 

 

 

From sleepy to stressed- how does this effect my workout & recovery?

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I often evaluate athletic arousal levels on a scale from 0-5:

At Level 0, mental thoughts are sleepy, reaction time is extremely slow and muscle tone is soft.  On the other end of the spectrum (Level 5), mental thoughts veer towards unfocused & easily distracted, reactions sometimes occur before the prompt & are often exaggerated, and muscle tone is taut & mostly unpliable. 

Most of the time, we prefer a middle of the road, level 3 or 4, with the goal of “Calm but Focused”, or “On but Smooth” to accomplish performance tasks. This works best for athletics, but also for “Flow” when at the office.  It correlates with the top of the bell curve in the picture above, and it has been shown to be the most optimal state in order to perform at your best.

However- in my practice, I’ve found many people like one arousal level and try to use that one for all types of activity- either using slow & calm, or extremely excitable for all athletic activities.

But learning to experience all levels of the arousal scale can help you stay in control of your mental & physical body both during and AFTER exercise.  The proper level needs to change depending on the situation- getting a massage, doing yoga, going for a walk, learning a new sport, strength training, taking HIIT classes, going to Crossfit all require different arousal levels. 

If you can ramp it up and you can ramp it down, you can also stay at the level of excitability you feel is most appropriate for that moment, becoming more adaptable to life’s demands. There are many techniques to move from level to level, but the first step is awareness of your own response. 

Give a gift to yourself

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Here are 5 gifts to give to someone who will be with you forever- Yourself!

1-    Find ways to stretch every day.  Particularly your hip flexors, glutes & hamstrings.  They seem to get the most tight when we sit all day.  And muscle tightness in these areas can lead to back pain, knee pain and a myriad of other complaints.  You don’t have to lie down on the floor by your desk to do them either- a lot of stretches can be done in sitting or standing.

2-    Get to know your body better.  The human body is a never-ending complexity- you can always learn more about it.  Take a new class at your gym, or investigate a new fitness fad.  You don’t even have to leave the house- get a DVD or read a fitness book!  There are a million ways to “keep the spark alive” and find news ways to understand how your body works.

3-    Make a positive change in your diet.  Love is never about restriction, only generosity!  So make a commitment to ADD something to your diet that will improve your health.  Drink MORE water, eat MORE fruit, add MORE protein- you choose the “gift”- surprise yourself!

4-    Be kind to your body.  Working out shouldn’t be about pain and punishment.  If something hurts, stop!  You will only do damage if you work through pain.   If you can’t seem to do something without hurting, then it’s time to see a physical therapist or your doctor.

5-    Share your commitment to yourself with your friends and family.  Letting people know you have a fitness goal can give you the support you need to stay committed.  It can also start a conversation about health & fitness that will teach you something new, find a new workout buddy, or inspire someone you know to love their body too!

Is there room for a new definition of athlete?

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I have often wondered what makes people consider themselves part of that special group of people called “athletes.”  Usually it’s some sort of external identification, such as being picked for the high school basketball team.  But as years pass, coaching stops and the years of parental influence & rides to practice fade into yesteryear, the playing field can level somewhat.  It is at this point, that the effort and consistency of training is placed squarely on the individual.  And it also the time that most people come to see me.  It’s ironic that those old highschool players have not given up their “athlete” membership even though they haven’t picked up a ball in over 10 years.  On the other side, I hear frequent patient comments that “I’m not very athletic” even though they are very active in exercise routines. Strange…

Someone once told me that unless you are at a certain performance level, you aren’t an athlete.  In other words, unless you are able to win a contest against someone else, you aren’t an athlete.  This person happened to be a former football star, but kept his “athlete” membership card even though he stopped working out.

I have a very inclusive definition of athleticism.  I believe an athlete is someone who challenges him/herself physically- systematically & repetitively for the goal of improving their performance.  This means the obese runner is an athlete, the bodybuilding weight trainer is an athlete, a golfer is an athlete, a bowler is an athlete.  The former football star WAS an athlete but is not one now if he doesn’t challenge himself anymore.  Being an athlete isn’t a lifetime membership card you are given once, but a membership that must be continually renewed.  It’s not based on type of sport, or your physical look, even your current physical ability.  It’s just based on the fact that you create effort to rise to a physical challenge & that you are consistent in that effort.

It’s this attitude of “in or out” that is a barrier to fitness for a lot of people.  At the very minimum, it is the “noise” that people hear in their head as they are trying something new physically.  And that “noise” can be very distracting, sometimes to the point of making the person stop.  I’ve seen it often in my patients- it’s the feeling that you have to already be “fit” in order to try anything physical, that you have to do it right & look good doing it the first time.  In short, it’s this “in or out” mentality that causes people to lose confidence in their ability to challenge themselves physically.  And in self-fulfilling prophesy, their performance suffers.

I try to urge people of all ages and abilities to push this thinking out of their head and regain confidence in their bodies.  Every body has the capacity to improve in strength, endurance and agility if challenged.  You may not look good the first time you try something new, but with practice and focused effort, everyone gets better- I swear!

Kneecap pain has nothing to do with your knees?

In most of the cases I’ve seen, the cause of kneecap pain has very little to do with your actual kneecap. Sure, it is the kneecap that is hurting, and x-rays may prove that there is some wearing of the cartilage there. Your doctor or physical therapist may even show you that the kneecap is not in alignment with the rest of your leg. But the truth is, the most common causes of kneecap pain are poor hip strength, quad dominance, foot over-pronation or poor training techniques-usually of a combination of the four.

http://www.jospt.org/issues/articleID.231/article_detail.asp
http://www.jospt.org/issues/articleID.2427,type.2/article_detail.asp

Barefoot for the Flatfoot

More on the Harvard study:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100127134241.htm

The study DOES have some useful info for the heel striker and flat footed person. If you run, try leaning slightly forward to move the weight forward on your foot.  Try not to land on the heel, but rather, flat footed or in the middle of your foot.  You can do this in your regular pair of running shoes.  It is good to absorb some shock in the foot, because it “spreads the wealth” if you will- it gives the body more joints & muscles to absorb force with.

For flat-footers who have foot pain & are looking to improve their arches, walk around barefoot as much as possible at home.  But if your feet start to hurt, by gosh, put on shoes!!!  It takes time to strengthen up those arches.  FYI- flat footers are notorious for weak calf muscles- so try some barefoot calf raises every day to strengthen your calf muscles & help re-create an arch.  You should be able to raise your heel 20x in a row (no rest) when standing on one leg- Try for a couple sets of these each day. Go up as high as you can with each rep.  If daily calf raises cause foot pain, you may be strengthening too aggressively.

Good luck!