April 24, 2009

How many times have you heard the advice Don't forget to stretch!? But when it comes to stretching, there are so many mixed messages from when you're supposed to do it (before exercise? after? before and after?), to how long to hold a stretch, to the best ways to do it, to why to do it in the first place. Heres a primer to help you get to the bottom of all those claims and unanswered questions.

Why stretch?

•A systematic review of studies that addressed the impact of stretching on sports injury risk published in the March issue of Medicine &Science in Sports &Exercise notes that the jury is still out on whether or not stretching can prevent injury among competitive or recreational athletes. However, flexibility exercises when done after a workout or at least after a brief cardio warm-up do help to maintain circulation around the joints, keeping muscles healthy where they're most apt to get injured.

• Stretching allows the body to move more efficiently and perform at its peak. According to Jim Wharton, musculoskeletal therapist and owner of Wharton Performance in New York City, during the course of a workout, muscles begin to shorten as they fatigue. This impedes your ability to generate speed and power and leads to a less efficient, shorter, more shuffling stride. Stretching keeps muscles elongated, reducing this tendency.

•It can make you stronger. According to research conducted by Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., fitness research director of the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass., stretching after a workout or even between resistance exercises can increase strength gains by up to 20 percent.

•Its an incredibly soothing way to connect your mind and body, and it simply feels great!

When to stretch

You can stretch anytime you feel like it, or you can do so in conjunction with other activities. Just remember: Stretch after any type of physical activity: cardio, strength training or sports. Muscles are warmer and more pliable then, making it easier to lengthen them. According to Westcott, vigorous stretching before exercise, when muscles are cold and less pliable, will produce less benefit and may leave tendons more susceptible to injury. A good rule of thumb is to start your workout with a five-minute cardio warm-up, stretch gently, follow your usual routine, then do more serious stretching after.

Mistakes to avoid

Don't bounce. Using momentum to increase your stretch can activate the body's protective reflex, causing the muscles to contract instead of stretch, which can lead to small tears.

Don't stretch to the point of pain. While you may experience a little discomfort in an area that is tight, actual pain is your body's way of letting you know something is wrong.

Don't forget to breathe. Not only is oxygen exchange necessary for the muscle to respond in a beneficial way to a stretch, but holding your breath may temporarily increase blood pressure. Focus on inhaling as you get in position for the stretch and exhaling as you move into it. Keep your breathing slow and regular.