By Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist |
For certain individuals, stretching can be the missing link to the injury prevention puzzle.
I have used the term ‘certain individuals’ as research has highlighted the fact that stretching may not actually provide as much protection from injury to as was originally thought for some (Thacker et al., 2004; Pope et al., 2000).
However, we certainly shouldn’t dismiss stretching as pointless, but rather think whether it will be suitable for us as individual athletes or trainers!
The Benefits of Stretching
Firstly, it’s important to understand what stretching actually achieves. There are two main different effects of stretching; these are termed viscoelastic effects and neural effects (McHugh & Cosgrave, 2010).
Viscoelastic effects account for the increased range of motion at a joint and decreased resistance to stretch after a bout of stretching. Viscoelasticity basically describes the fact that when lengthened for a sustained period (stretched), a muscle will remain in that lengthened position before slowly returning to its original length when the stretch has been removed.
The viscoelastic effects can be split into three parts.
This is the term given to the process by which muscle tissue elongates over time as a constant load is applied to it.
2) ‘Load relaxation’
This describes how less force is needed to keep a muscle at a certain length as it was to get it to that length in the first place.
This describes to what degree the tissue can maintain its increased length, and explains why we can maintain increased flexibility after a stretching session (Magnusson et al., 1995).
The neural effects of stretching describe how there is decreased contractile activity in a stretched muscle and motor neurone excitability (stimulation from nerve endings) is also reduced (Ryan et al., 2008). This allows further relaxation of the muscle and hence less resistance to lengthening.
Higher levels of flexibility have been shown to be associated with lower risk of injury (Pope et al., 1998).
Is stretching effective at reducing injuries for all athletes?
To answer this question, we need to understand the way that muscles produce big, powerful movements such as jumps and rapid changes in direction. This occurs through use of the stretch-shortening cycle which is defined as a stretch of a muscle followed immediately by a shortening phase, or concentric contraction.
Think squatting down really deep, and then jumping as high as you can from that position.
Now, stretching has the potential to allow greater force production from the stretched position of this movement, as the muscle should now be more compliant from this position (Herda et al., 2008) due to the viscoelastic properties and neural changes mentioned earlier. This can also mean that injury risk is reduced in big explosive actions as the muscle experiences an enhanced ability to resist excessive elongation (McHugh & Cosgrave, 2010).
Benefits of Stretching for Athletes
So when we look at the studies on stretching in endurance athletes and military cadets that show very little benefit to stretching in terms of reduced injury risk, it is probably due to the fact that these individuals tend to perform more low-impact repetitive tasks such as pounding the pavement.
It seems now that the individuals who will gain the most benefit from stretching are the power athletes, such as footballers, rugby players, dancers and athletics competitors, as these are the individuals that need really compliant muscle-tendon units in order to maximise rapid stretch-shortening cycles (Witvrouw et al., 2004).
So if you are an athlete or trainer that uses big, powerful movements, then read on for a quick 5-minute stretching programme that you can throw in at the end of each workout!
Leg Stretching Exercises
✓ For each of the following stretches, I recommend holding for 20-seconds for 3-4 sets.
✓ Take each stretch to a point where you feel a pulling sensation which may be uncomfortable, but not painful.
Hip flexor stretch
In the above picture, the left leg is the one being stretched. Lean forward slowly whilst keeping your knee on the ground and hold.
To increase the emphasis on one of the most commonly tight hip flexor muscles, rectus femoris, pull your heel up towards you using a towel as shown. Rectus femoris is one of the quadriceps and so works to extend the knee as well as flex at the hip.
This stretch is one of the most comfortable to hold for the hamstring muscle group.
Aim to reach further towards your foot week on week to measure progress.
Glutes stretch 1 + 2
The left glutes, and particularly gluteus maximus, are being stretched in this picture. The aim is to pull the knee towards your opposite shoulder whilst hugging the leg close to your chest. You should feel a pull around the buttock area during this stretch.
Alternatively, performing the above stretch will place more emphasis on gluteus medius and minimus and also piriformis, muscles that can all be commonly tight around the hip, particularly after running.
Calf stretch/Soleus stretch
The key point to remember when stretching the calf is to make sure both feet are facing forward at all times.
Alternatively, to place more emphasis on the soleus rather than the gastrocnemius, bend the back leg slightly as shown below while making sure to keep your heel flat on the floor.
Take Home Message
Whether you’re an athlete or simply want to benefit from regular leg stretching to promote injury prevention, give this short programme a go!