FLEXIBILITY AND SPEED
Flexibility exercises are often too closely linked with warm-up. As a result, athletes make the mistake of stretching cold muscles rather than warming the body first with large muscle activity to elevate core temperature 2-4 degrees so joints can be safely stretched. Athletes warm-up to prepare to stretch, they do not stretch to warm up. In a question-and-answer format, this article clarifies other misconceptions and covers all aspects of a sound flexibility program for team sport athletes.
Why is stretching necessary?
Daily stretching increases range of motion, conserves energy, increases fluid motion, aids muscle relaxation, supports good form, and helps cool the body at the end of a workout. Increasing overall range of motion (ROM) may also improve speed by slightly increasing stride rate and decreasing energy expenditure and resistance during the sprinting action. Chu (The Development of Speed in Athletics, Web Article, 2004) identifies four specific areas where flexibility plays a key role in optimum sprinting speed:
1. In sprinting, flexibility and elasticity in the gluteals and hamstrings can benefit the athlete during the knee lift and help to produce a longer stride.
2. Flexibility in the quadriceps is essential for maximizing the recovery of the leg during the swing phase.
3. After take-off, the further the legs can be separated, the more the elastic recoil can help in closing the angle at the point of landing to maximize stride length.
4. An optimal degree of shoulder flexion and extension is needed to match that required of the legs.
When should Stretching occur?
Stretching exercises are used after a general warm-up routine before each workout, during the cool down phase at the end of a workout to increase ROM and to help muscles return to a normal relaxed state, and whenever time permits to improve ROM in key joints.
What stretching techniques should be used?
Dynamic stretching exercises are completed in the beginning of each workout immediately after a general warm-up to prepare the body for vigorous activity. A second stretching session involves the use of static exercises as part of a cool-down at the end of the workout and is designed to improve range of motion. The use of both techniques meets the objectives of a sound stretching program.
How is this approach used in a typical workout?
Dynamic Stretching. As presented in an earlier issue of Sports Speed News Bulletin (August, 2006), research indicates that static stretching, once the most common type used in the beginning of a workout session may harm muscles, ligaments and joints, decrease the force output of stretched muscles by as much as 15% for as long as one hour, and increase the chance of injury. Although the findings of one study do not merit a complete change of tactics, this is not the first
time static techniques have been questioned. The NASE combines dynamic stretching and several sprinting form exercises for use immediately following the eneral warm-up period. Exercises move from slow movements to medium to near maximum speed in 2-3 sets of ten repetitions. The following exercises described in a previous issue are used: Jog-stride-sprint in place, Sprint-arm-movement, Butt Kickers, Shoulder Twirl, Single Leg Cycling, Pull-throughs, Down-and-Offs, and African Dance.
Static Stretching. This technique is designed to increase ROM at the end of a workout. Two phases are emphasized: easy stretching for one repetition, moving slowly into the stretch and applying mild tension with a steady, light pressure, and 1-2 repetitions of developmental stretching that increases the intensity for an inch or less. Slow, relaxed, controlled, and pain-free movements are made as athletes learn to judge each exercise by the “stretch and feel method,” easing off if the pain and strain is too intense.
The position at the end of the stretch is held for a minimum of 30 seconds to allow the stretch to progress from the middle of the muscle belly to the tendon. Athletes begin with a 15 second hold and add 2-3 seconds each workout.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). This two-person stretching technique, based on a contract-and-relax principle, is used by some coaches in lieu of traditional static techniques. PNF stretching requires a partner to apply steady pressure to a body area at the extreme range of motion until the person being stretched feels a slight discomfort. When stretching the hamstring muscle group, for example, lie on your back with one leg extended to 90 degrees or a comfortable stretch. Have a partner apply steady pressure while attempting to raise the leg overhead further. As pressure is applied, begin to push against a partner’s resistance by contracting the muscle being stretched. This isometric hamstring contraction produces no leg movement because a partner will resist whatever force is applied during the push phase. After a 10-second push, relax the hamstring muscles while a partner again applies pressure for five seconds to increase the stretch even further. Repeat two to three times.
The PNF method involves four phases: an initial easy stretch of the muscle, an isometric contraction with resistance provided by a partner, relaxation for five seconds, and a final passive stretch for five seconds. As a variation, a partner may allow the leg to move slightly downward during the push phase. PNF stretching relaxes the muscle group being stretched, which produces greater muscle length and improves flexibility.
How much Intensity should be used?
Regardless of the technique used, proper stretching should take the form of a slow, relaxed, controlled, and relatively pain-free movement. Too much discomfort is a sign of overloading soft tissue and increases the risk of injury. After only mild discomfort, relax the muscles being stretched prior to the next repetition.
How long should athletes stretch?
Total workout time requirements for static stretching will increase from the beginning to the advanced stage as the length of the “hold” reaches 30 seconds. Stretches that are longer than 30 seconds only slightly increase the benefits and may be impractical. If the main purpose is to prepare the body for exercise and to maintain the existing range of motion in the major joints, 6-9 minutes of static or PNF stretching is sufficient. Athletes who want to increase ROM will need 15-30
minutes of careful stretching daily.
How flexible should athletes become?
The gymnast, ballet dancer, and hurdler must be more flexible than sprinters and athletes in most team sports. Orthopedic surgeons are treating more injuries related to excessive stretching than injuries due to a failure to stretch. This increase may be partly due to the popularity of yoga and misuse by some athletes who try to reach a range of motion not needed in most sports.
What exercises should be avoided?
When a joint is bent beyond the body’s ability to control it with muscle strength, there is a risk of tearing muscles, tendons, or ligaments that support the joint or of damaging the joint surface. Decades ago, Orthopedic surgeons developed a “hit list” of commonly used exercises that could produce such injuries from over stretching.
Most of these risky movements described below have been eliminated and replaced with a similar, safe exercise that stretches the same muscle group:
• Yoga Plow–Athletes lie on their back, arms to the side, and bring both legs straight overhead until touching the ground. Football players are often asked to dig the tips of the shoes into the ground with a running motion. This is one of the most dangerous exercises ever used that puts stress and strain on the blood vessels to the brain, the upper spinal cord, and spinal disks and ligaments.
• Hurdler’s Stretch–Athletes sit on the ground with one leg extended in front and the other at right angles to the side in the hurdler’s position and attempt to bend forward and lay the chest on the thigh of the lead leg. This exercise over stretches the muscles and ligaments in the groin and can cause chronic groin pull, injure the knees (meniscus cartilage and the medial collateral ligament) and irritate the sciatic nerve.
• Knee stretch–Athletes rest on their knees with the lower legs underneath, then lean back until their head is on the ground. This stretch exceeds the skeletal range of motion of the knees and over stretches the patellar and collateral knee ligaments, destabilizing the knee.
• Duck walk and deep knee bend–Walking like a duck in a deep knee bend position is very likely to damage the knees.
• Straight-leg toe touching–This over stretches the posterior longitudinal ligament, a main supporter ligament of the spine. Disks can also be damaged. The back muscles provide little support during this movement and the sciatic nerve is in danger of being stretched beyond its normal limits.
• Ballet stretches–Placing an extended leg in front of the body resting on a bar and bouncing forward is hazardous to the sciatic nerve, low back ligaments, muscles, joints and discs.
• Straight-leg raises–Raising a fully extended leg overhead while lying on the back stretches the sciatic nerve beyond its normal limits.
• Straight-leg sit-ups--This exercise is similar to the standing toe-touch except that one begins in a sitting position. After sitting up 30 degrees, a hip exercise is being performed, not an abdominal exercise. Beyond that point, abdominal muscle strength is not improved.
• Fast neck circles--Increases the risk of pinching discs and over stretching delicate ligaments.
• Straddle jumps–Jumping jacks that cause the feet to land further apart than shoulder-width can strain the knees.
What static stretching exercises are recommended for sprinting?
Alter i(Sports Stretch. 1998. Human Kinetics) describes 12 key static stretching exercises designed to increase ROM for sprinting.
Arms and Wrists: Sit with one arm behind your lower back as far up on the back as possible. Place the other arm overhead while holding a folded towel and flex your elbow. Grasp the towel with the lower hand and inhale while you pull the hands toward each other.
Pectoralis: Kneel on the floor facing a chair. Interlock the forearms above the head, bend forward to rest them on top of the chair with your head dropping beneath the surface. Exhale and let the head and chest sink to the floor.
Neck: Lie on the floor on your back with both knees flexed. Interlock the hands behind the head near the crown. Exhale and pull your head onto your chest while keeping the shoulder blades flat on the floor.
Shoulders: Sit or stand with one arm raised to shoulder height, flex the arm across to the other shoulder. Grasp your raised elbow with the opposite hand, exhale, and pull your elbow backward.
Lower Torso: Stand with the feet together, 3′ from a supporting surface about hip to shoulder height, arms overhead. With arms and legs straight, flex at the hips, flatten the back, grasp the supporting surface with both hands. Exhale and press down to arch the back.
Upper Back: Kneel on the floor with the legs slightly apart and parallel and the toes pointing backward. With both hands on the upper hips, arch the back, contract the buttocks, and push the hips forward. Exhale, continue to arch the back, drop the head backward and slide the hands onto the heels.
Hips and Gluteuls: Sit on the floor, legs extended, palms flat on the floor, fingers pointing toward the feet. Flex the right knee with the right foot on the floor with the heel touching the left knee. Inhale and extend the leg behind you. The front of the left thigh, kneecap, shin, and instep rests on the floor as you exhale and push your right hip into the floor.
Quadriceps: Lie on your back on the edge of a table. Flex the inside leg and slide toward the buttocks. Grasp the underside of your flexed knee with the inside hand. Exhale, lower the outside leg off the table at the hip, grasp your ankle and pull the heel toward the buttocks.
Adductors: Stand with one foot on top of a chair, slide the rear leg backward while holding onto the chair. Exhale and lean forward and downward while bending the knee of the leg resting on the chair. Sit on a bench with one leg extended, opposite leg on the floor, hands behind the head. Exhale, extend the upper back, flex at the hips, lower the torso onto the thigh with the knee slightly bent. From a push-up position, with the hands close to the feet, raise the hips and form a triangle. At the highest point, press the heels to the floor or alternate flexing one knee and extending the other.
Feet and Ankles: Keep on all fours with toes underneath the body. Exhale and lower the buttocks backward and downward.
Hamstrings: Sit on a bench with one leg extended, opposite leg on the floor, hands behind the head. Exhale, extend the upper back, flex at the hips, lower the torso onto the thigh with the knee slightly bent.
Lower Legs: From a push-up position, with the hands close to the feet, raise the hips and form a triangle. At the highest point, press the flexing one knee and extending the other.
SOURCE: National Association of Speed and Explosion, Sports Speed News Bulletin Volume 5, Issue 23 (July, 2009) Exerpts from: The Encyclopedia of Sports Speed: Improving Playing Speed for Sports Competition, by George B. Diintiman and Robert Ward, ©2011