You see many people stretching before taking part in an exercise program. In conjunction with a run, a tennis match, a bike ride or many other types of physical activity, stretching has positive benefits. The greatest is that it may reduce the incidence of injury. I've had many people ask me if they should stretch before or after a workout, or both. The answer may depend on the intensity and mode of exercise.
With more than four million copies sold in 25 languages, Bob Anderson's book, Stretching, has been the bible on this subject since it was first published in 1975. Anderson, an avid runner and cyclist, has kept himself in top shape well into middle age. He recently shared with me some of his advice and insights on when to stretch.
Stretching, Anderson notes, can be done both before and after a workout. But he takes it a step further. It can and, in many cases, should be done during exercise as well. "If you're running and you start to feel tightness somewhere, there's no reason why you can't stop what you're doing and stretch," he explains. "You can always get back to what you were doing once you're limber again."
Or, if you're running and start to feel some part of your body giving out, slow down to a walk, Anderson advises. Walk until you feel better, then start running at a comfortable pace again.
"You need to get a feel for your own body and work on those areas that are used most in the particular exercise you're doing," Anderson further advises. "If you're cycling and you feel tension in your neck, for instance, your body is telling you to work on it. You want to be as flexible as possible in whatever you're doing." And whatever stretching you're doing should be putting the least amount of stress on you. "You don't want to get hurt stretching. It's not exercise. That would defeat the whole purpose of it," he adds.
Anderson advises a three- to six-minute stretching routine prior to any exercise period of 30 minutes or more in duration. Then, at the end of the exercise, he recommends a "cool-down period," during which time the body needs to gradually return to its normal circulation and heart rate. Some light stretching should be done on the parts of the body that are tightest at the end of the exercise. "That will make your next workout easier," he says.
"Stretching is all about relaxation with a certain amount of tension," Anderson says. "If you can touch your toes at (the age of) 30, you should be able to do it at 50. Some people are naturally tight and others are more flexible, but the more you stretch and limber up, the more supple you should get. It's all about finding the rhythm that works best for you. Develop your own formula and don't work out too hard if you're tired."
Recent research has demonstrated that static stretching before explosive-type sports (such as short sprints) may reduce explosive capabilities. In this case, a dynamic stretch, one that mimics the activity involved, might be better suited as part of the general warm-up. However, until the research is conclusive on the proper timing of stretching, it is best to follow Bob Anderson's advice. For more information, go to his website at www.stretching.com.
Mackie Shilstone is Ochsner Clinic Foundation's performance enhancement expert. He is the author of two books, Lose Your Love Handles (Perigee Books) and Maximum Energy for Life (John Wiley & Sons). His next book, The Fat-Burning Bible (John Wiley & Sons) is due out in December. He can be reached at 842-9110 or through his Web site: www.mackieshilstone.com.