Today I want to talk about one of the most important areas of fitness. It is important for everyone from the elite athlete to the complete newbie when it comes to exercise. And yet, it is one of the most neglected areas! That is stretching!!
In December 2010, when I was several months into losing weight and had started a fitness program, I found a Pilates kit on a clearance rack and bought it without knowing too much about it. It came with a stretching strap, a small inflatable ball, and some instructional cards. I started going into an unused conference room during my lunch hour and started experimenting with stretching and doing some simple Pilates and Yoga moves.
Remember, at the time I weighed around 275 pounds. I had a huge stomach and was not all that flexible. So I modified some moves and did the best I could. Even though I was far from a yoga master, I noticed that I was re-invigorated after a session of stretching. I felt good and had renewed energy for the afternoon.
As my fitness improved and I started doing more and more intensive exercises, my stretching went a little by the wayside. I would ALWAYS do some courtesy stretching after a run, and usually did a Yoga DVD once a week. But I didn't devote the time to stretching that I should have. And then I had IT Band issues and Achilles Tendonitis and I wanted to improve my squat form. I had to incorporate some stretches and it instantly reminded me about how important stretching is.
So I am back on the stretching train so to speak. I have my alarm set at work to go off to remind me to get up and do some simple stretching exercises. And I am concentrating more on stretching the muscles after a run.
Why? What is the deal with stretching? Well, it helps improve athletic performance. It decreases the chances of injury. Stretching dramatically increases the flow of blood to the muscles - it feels good and improves muscle and tendon health. It makes you more functional in every day life - to reach and twist and squat down. Ever see these body builders with giganto muscles but they can barely move because they are so inflexible? That's not good!
There are 2 different type of stretching - DYNAMIC and STATIC. Dynamic stretches are those done where you are moving the muscles - like lightly kicking your legs back and forth. Or swinging your arms in a hugging motion and back. Static stretching is the more conventional stretching where you pull a muscle and hold it.
NEVER NEVER NEVER statically stretch muscles when they are COLD! It doesn't help and can injure you. Make sure that your body is warmed up - even if you just walk around a little - before static stretching.
So what stretches should you do? Well it depends. The stretches that I do after running are different then what I do during my mid-morning stretching. In general, you want to focus on large muscle groups - specifically ones that get tight. That includes your quadriceps (front of thighs), hamstrings (back of thighs), calves, upper back and shoulders. Getting a book on stretching is a great idea.
Also a stretching strap in invaluable. It allows you to extend your reach - for example if you can't reach your foot while sitting down and stretching out a hamstring, this allows you to loop around your feet and pull. My flexibility is dramatically improved from where I started, but I still use my strap every day.
From there, you might want to move into Yoga which is an advanced form of stretching and is good for mind, body and soul. There are a TON of beginner Yoga DVDs out there, as well as Yoga DVDs specifically designed for people with specific health issues.
One great thing about yoga is that you just challenge yourself but make it about feeling good and enjoying the journey. There is no competition to see who can best downward dog! It's about improving your health and wellness. So have at it!!
Today I am thankful that every single moment in time gives me a chance for new decisions, a new path, a new way to be!