Stretching not only stretches the muscles, but the term itself is also flexible because the when and especially the how are often subject to interpretation. These are the most important points to bear in mind when stretching.
Should you do any stretching at all? Does it achieve anything? And if so, when and how exactly? The scientific community has investigated questions about stretching in various studies but so far has not found any uniform answers. The topic is also handled very differently in the everyday lives of athletes. Before they start, swimmers do a swinging type of gymnastics with stretching elements, sprinters do explosive hop-jumps, racing cyclists sit on the roller, and long-distance runners tend to stretch their thighs after training. If you ask ten athletes how they stretch, you will get 11 different answers. In the following we will therefore attempt to bring some kind of order to the topic of stretching. There are basically three situations in which stretching can be performed:
- Before training = pre-stretching.
- After training = post-stretching.
- Stretching as a stand-alone training unit.
Karin Albrecht, one of the most famous stretching and flexibility experts from Switzerland, recommends «post-stretching» after each training unit. The stretch «should last between 12 and 90 seconds, according to the feeling», unfortunately no one has more exact information than this. After a very challenging running competition, on the other hand, one should not stretch the muscles because they are already heavily stressed and at best the structures may be partly damaged.
The type of stretching to be done directly before a sporting activity depends on the subsequent physical exertion. With explosive movements (team games, jumps, sprints) the muscle preparation should not be static. «Rigid, static stretching before training has no beneficial effect, and can even negatively impact speed-strength athletes», says Karin Albrecht. The muscle must not be relaxed before a load but should be prepared for the upcoming load with the appropriate exercises. This is why sprinters do explosive hop-jumps at the starting block or swimmers circle their arms energetically before the racing dive. For types of sports that require maximum flexibility (such as artistic or apparatus gymnastics), regular and intensive stretching is necessary and essential.
Continuous mode needs no pre-stretching
Endurance athletes and especially runners do not necessarily need to stretch before training. They can also just take off at a leisurely pace and warm up that way. On the other hand, there is also absolutely nothing against stretching in this instance. «If endurance athletes want to stretch before training or a competition, they can still do this provided they are used to it and feel comfortable doing so. However, dynamic stretching is then advisable», says Karin Albrecht.
It is recommended that all athletes do regular stretching to counterbalance their everyday training. It does not necessarily need to be done before the sport but can also be done in the evening in front of the TV. Basically, it is important to stretch the muscle groups that are heavily taxed both before and after the sport. For runners, this means: the anterior, posterior, and inner thighs, and the calf, chest and neck muscles. For cyclists, the hands and arms should be included.
Protection against injuries?
There is no scientific consensus as to whether stretching has a preventative effect on injuries. Until now it has not been proven that stretching can prevent injuries. On the other hand, it is evident that regular stretching can improve your flexibility and greater flexibility reduces the risk of exceeding your limits and pulling a muscle, such as when tackling during team sports, for example. For many athletes, stretching also means a rest period. Consciously listening to your body improves body awareness.
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