All too often I have been asked and talked to about stretching and how to get better flexibility. Like any form of physical conditioning, flexibility is all about consistency. If you are not consistent with training (yes flexibility is as much training as doing sprints or lifting weights) then you will not achieve gains.
When I first began dancing (age 16) I was as stiff as a board. Unable even to touch my toes with relative ease. Upon entering University I seriously had concerns when I was sent to the physiotherapist for assessment and my hips revealed 15 and 20 degrees lateral rotation (dancers need closer to 90). I approached a lecturer who suggested a series of 4 stretches to do on each side to increase my general flexibility and rotation. I was religious in my approach, every evening spending 15-20 minutes on the floor administering stretches to myself. In 6 months I was doing full splits and able to execute my technique more efficiently because of increased flexibility.
Flexibility needs consistency to address the Stretch Reflex Cycle (the body's system to maintain muscular length and tension) and the Golgi Tendon Organs (nerve cells in muscles) to increase flexibility and Range of Motion (ROM). Like any long term benefit in training, you will see results around the 4-6 week mark that will motivate you to keep going.
There is much debate on the value or lack of value stretching has on
athletic performance, too much debate in fact to discuss in this
article. So we will not delve into that argument in this instance, but suffice to say that I am speaking from a close personal experience with flexibility and I know the benefit I have enjoyed from following the regimen.
Stretching has various applications and purposes in a training schedule and this means that different types of stretching should be done at different stages to maximise benefit and avoid injury. Tendons can be likened to elastic bands - they will stretch and extend and under different circumstances, will perform and adapt differently.
Stretching in the warm up phase is meant to move the muscles and joints through the range of motion which they are about to perform, such as hip flexion and extension for a runner. Pre-event stretching should be brief, not sustained so as to encourage the tendons to lengthen and contract through the arc of movement which is about to be performed. Getting blood into the muscles and tendons and ensuring they are sufficiently lubricated with enough tension to perform quick contractions from both extended and semi extended positions. Timeframe is approximately 15-20sec for this 'active stretch'.
Stretching in the post event phase is meant to lengthen and 're-set' muscles/tendons that have been contracting and extending during movement. This type of stretching should be sustained so as to 're-set' the Golgi Tendon Organs at their maximum length, thus ensuring that the joint space does not become restricted as the body cools down and the recovery phase heals tendons and ligaments. Time for these stretches should be minimum of 45secs with 60-90secs preferable. This is particularly important if you are trying to increase your flexibility.
LIke an elastic band, sustained stretching will make the band lax, giving it a relaxed consistency. Quick and sharp stretches means the structure will stretch to the desired length but still return to the 'tight' or 'activated' state which is required for contraction and quick explosive movement, without tearing. Cold and heat have a similiar effect, with cold conditions creating more risk of tearing than warm conditions.
With all this in mind, you can see how important the difference between sustained and active stretching makes to muscles/tendons and how you can maximise your performance and recovery according to which type of stretching you employ.
Often you hear the excuse that 'I don't have time to stretch after my workout'. Simple - find a creative solution. Post event stretching at the end of the day has just as much benefit as if you do it directly after your exercise. Obviously for reducing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), the more stretching you can do straight after exercise, the better you will feel in your recovery. Stretching down at the end of the day is the perfect way to address post event recovery and assisting with continuous training. For those wanting to increase their ROM and flexibility, this scheduling of stretching in the evening is the best way to achieve results.
Even if you are rushing after your training to something else. Do it in front of the TV. Do it with the kids on your back. Do it after dinner - JUST DO IT.