To Stretch or Not To Stretch

Should I Stretch Before I Hit The Trail?

For years, the first 10 minutes of every Phys Ed class in America consisted of Hurdlers, Windmills and other stretches. Some of those stretches stuck, and as we aged they became rituals before tag football, morning hikes or swimming a few laps. But recently, questions about when to stretch, how to stretch and if stretching is even necessary, fill the conversations of those who are active.

Stretching and Warming Up Are Different

Many instructors of the past didn’t emphasize the difference between stretching and warming up, or the order for participants. Warming up involves elevating heart rate and blood flow through muscles. It also generally includes body temperature increasing. This makes your blood vessels wider, so your muscles can get more oxygen. A slow and steady warm-up also causes less stress on your heart.

Are there different types of Stretching?

Much of the stretching of our youth is known as Static Stretching. In this common form of stretching you engage the muscle by shifting your position and maintaining that new position. Huddlers and Butterflies are examples of this “Stretch and Hold” approach. The proper length of each stretch is also frequently debated, as research is emerging about the difference between shorter stretching (about 30 seconds or less) and longer stretching that was popular previously. The longer stretching involved a single stretch for about 1-minute and often caused the participant a slight discomfort toward the end of the stretch. 

A Time And a Place

Many experts now suggest Static Stretching after a workout. It is most effective in elongating and increasing flexibility once a muscle experiences more substantial blood flow. In the most simple terms, the muscle is more receptive to the stretch after activity.

Other’s suggest stretching before a workout does not hurt performance so long as each stretch is 30 seconds or shorter.

Still, others suggest different sports or workouts may require different approaches.

The New York Times summarized all the thinking concisely:

“Hockey goalies, gymnasts, cheerleaders and dancers [who demand a greater extent of static flexibility] should be stretching before workouts or performances. The rest of us are unlikely, the latest findings show, to sustain any harm from brief spurts of static stretching — but equally unlikely to gain much advantage.”

So, for those getting out on the trails, there’s no need to stretch before you head out. Furthermore, hikers, mountain bikers, walkers, runners and other outdoor enthusiasts shouldn’t be stretching for 1-minute intervals under normal circumstances. A simple warm up that engages the whole body and graduates from a rate just above resting to just below the average threshold of the activity is adequate. 

Some Helpful Tools For Stretching

  • A Curb or Step – “Drop A Heel” to stretch your calves, and potentially your hamstrings by reversing your planted foot.
  • Towel – Use the towel as an extension of your arms or legs to reach a better anchor point. Stretches are deeper and more controlled.
  • Wall – Work with your back against a wall to ensure your body remains square.
  • Mirror – Watching yourself go through the movements helps show inconsistencies and areas that may need more focus to remain loose, limber and healthy.
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