I see it happening way more often than I would like — on the court before basketball games, at the starting line of a 5K and over in the dimly lit corner of the gym by the treadmills.
Everywhere I turn in any place or space designated for physical activity I see people purporting to stretch, folding and bending their bodies in ways that are likely to do as much harm as they might have done had they chosen to skip “stretching” altogether.
Yes, taking a moment to do some warm up stretches before moving on to the more intense part of your activity or workout is a very wise decision. Fitness experts have been diligently advising this as a best practice for years now. But, while much has been made about the importance of stretching, not enough has been said about how it should be done. And here’s a quick tip, swinging your leg to perch on top of the first bar, bench or chair back you see and aggressively launching your body forward in an effort to touch your toes isn’t how it should be done.
Your stretching regiment should promote your body’s natural movement and range of motion. The act of forcing your body to move in ways that are not naturally accessible in the name of stretching can cause injury and will, more often than not, reinforce tightness and imbalance. In other words, if you can’t normally, in your everyday life, bend over and touch your toes, hurling yourself forward hard to make it happen before your race won’t help you run any faster. It will only increase the possibility of trauma to all those muscles that do the things that make it possible for you to run at all.
Here are a few dos and don’ts for helping you ensure that stretching isn’t doing more harm than good to your workout:
- Don’t rush. You might see this is as valuable time being taken away from your “real” workout but, take time to ease your way into each position.
- Do picture a rubber band. Picture a rubber band’s elasticity being pushed to the brink and then popping, snapping in your hand. Imagine the unpleasantness of that. Imagine your hamstrings, quadriceps, triceps and calf muscles as that rubber band. Proceed with caution.
- Do listen to your body. Pay attention to your body’s signals and warning signs. Know the difference between the sensation of a deep stretch and the pain of a potential injury.
- Don’t get outside yourself. Stay within your body’s natural motion and alignment. If you have to round excessively in your upper back-compromising your spine- in order to touch your toes, back off a little. It’s not worth it.
- Do stick with it. Hey, it’s not about becoming a human pretzel. It’s about finding a healthy balance of strength and flexibility in the body
Here’s to a healthier you,
Rosalyn R. Ross is a yoga instructor and media professional based in Memphis, Tennessee. In addition to her group yoga classes, Ross also works one-on-one with athletes seeking to expand their practice of yoga. She currently works with the University of Memphis men’s basketball team and is a sought after freelance sports journalist specializing in print and radio.