Everybody knows that stretching before and after exercise helps increase flexibility, improves our range of movement and most importantly, reduces the chance of injury. (And if you didn’t, you do now.)
So what happens when we get to a point where we don’t feel the stretch anymore, or our leg is already next to our ear and there is nowhere for it to go?
Having worked as a professional dancer and now working as a Sports Massage Therapist, treating a number of dancers, I get asked this question a lot.
However, just because you’re not a dancer (and I’m sorry, but Saturday nights after a few too many doesn’t count) it doesn’t mean that the advice I give them won’t be useful for you, too.
After all, everyone’s body is different, and even if you’re not supple enough to touch your toes (let alone stick them in your ear), you may have reached a limit that you’ll find difficult to bypass on your own.
Progression is a very important part of stretching. For this reason I would encourage you to set yourself realistic goals. The trick is not to overstretch; pulling yourself into the stretch so far that it’s painful and then giving up. Instead settle into the stretch just far enough that you feel the tension in the muscle and – at worst – some mild discomfort. Then hold, exhale into the stretch and allow your body to release the muscle when it is ready. Don’t force it, and don’t expect to make too much progress each time.
Little and often will give you the increase in flexibility that you’re looking for. You’ll also find that you don’t regress anywhere near so far if you miss a few stretching sessions.
If you’re not making the progress you’d like by yourself, then massage can help. A course of a few treatments can encourage the muscles to release sooner (think of it as a gentle nudge in the right direction). There are also muscles that are hard to stretch on your own due to the anatomical make up of our bodies – that’s where a good Massage Therapist’s expertise (and thumbs) can make all the difference.
And don’t just think about the need to stretch before or after exercise. It’s also important to ease the muscular tension in your neck, back and shoulders that builds up after a day in the office. A few hours spent staring at a computer is giving those muscles quite a workout, whether we realise it or not. So just like any workout, they need a good stretch to keep them flexible and the joints they support mobile.
Let’s face it, we’re all prone to those niggly little aches and pains. But just because our bodies are very good at putting up with them, doesn’t mean that they should. Or that it’s any kind of a good idea to allow them to.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, one of the key benefits of importantly stretching is that it reduces the chance of injury. Left to it’s own devices, that niggly little ache will get bigger until it gets unbearable or you get injured. And when either of those things happen, chances are you’ll have to stop exercising for a while, which neither of us want.
I much prefer treating little aches or pains to actual injuries, for two reasons. First, they’re easier and quicker to deal with. And second, I really don’t like telling my clients that they have to stop exercising.
So let’s get those tight muscles loosened before they become a bigger problem.