Dec 2013 07

Good stretch, bad stretch (1) - stretching before sport

By: Dave Wheeler

Most people understand the need to warm up their muscles before doing heavy exercise: a short jog to warm up before a race, match or game is a great way to loosen the joints and warm up the muscles. Often the best way to warm up is to do your sport sport gently, carefully & slowly for 10 minutes

Once you've done that though, is it worth doing any extra stretching before you start your sport proper?

There’s still a lot of controversy about the subject of stretching: pretty much the only Facebook post that I’ve put up that’s ever been challenged was one last June on the subject of stretching.

I’d like to suggest a couple of guiding principles (feel free to dispute them):

1.      Warm-up stretching is about being flexible enough for your sport.

2.      Over-stretched muscles lose power.


Guiding principle 1: warm-up stretching is about being flexible enough for your sport

A climber who’s getting ready to push her grade on a climb will warm up her hands by rapidly flexing her fingers several times through the full range of movement. The footballer who’s warming up for the match will bounce up and down on his toes to warm the ankle joint and run on the spot with knees being brought high to warm up the hip joint. As the blood begins to flow and the muscles begin to loosen up, the range of movement gradually and naturally increases without him forcing it.

This is called dynamic stretching.

Whether you’re a runner or a badminton player, the best stretching that you can do as part of your warm up routine is dynamic stretching which increases blood flow to the muscles that you use in your sport and prepares them for the precise activity that you’re about to do. 

Because your muscles are warmed up to just the degree that they need to be for your sport, you are much less likely to be injured than if you exercised straight-off on cold muscles.


Guiding principle 2: over-stretched muscles lose power

Ask a boxer, if you want to achieve a powerful punch, one of the things that you need is mass: muscle-mass.  What you don’t want is to stretch out that muscle-mass immediately before a fight.

If you’re used to doing static stretches before your race or match (in other words holding a stretch and counting), what you’re actually doing is elongating muscles and lessening the power that’s immediately available, which is probably the last thing that you want.

Save those static stretches for later when you need them – after you’ve finished your event. Before you exercise stretch the muscles that you’re going to use for your sport with dynamic stretches.  But don’t overstretch them.


An example: pre-race warm up stretching for runners

Let’s assume that you’ve done a general warm up (a gentle jog for 10 minutes would be a good idea to get the heart rate up and loosen up your legs and arms), it’s a good idea to do some dynamic stretches before you start the main run. Why? -

  • Your warm up jog is likely to contain only a subset of the terrain (e.g. hills and turns) that you’ll find on your full run, so your joints won’t necessarily be fully mobilised.
  • Dynamic stretches will restore a full normal range of movement to your joints (ankle, knees, hips) in all the planes movement that you’re likely to use.
  • You’re less likely to pull a muscle or injure a joint that’s been properly warmed up in all directions.


The key to remember is don't force it. Dynamic stretching involves taking your body to its range of movement, not beyond it.  As you do more reps, you’ll find that the range of movement increases.  Once you’ve reached the range of movement that you need or that’s normal for you, then stop! You don’t want to tire the muscle out. 6-8 reps of each dynamic stretch is usually enough.


1.  Hips

a.      Do the toy soldier walk (I could call it the goose-step, but that’s probably politically incorrect these days).

b.      Butt-kicks – with each step, on the back swing, swing your heel to your backside.


2.  Knees

Walking lunges – take a big step and lunge forward on your knee; keep going.


3.  Ankles

Standing still, swing up on your tip-toes, then back onto your heel; repeat.


Where the rubber hits the road

Incorporating dynamic stretching into your exercise warm up is good stretching. What you do after your sport is another story (or at least another blog post). Your trainer, coach, PTI or sports therapist should be able to help you more if you need it.

If worst comes to worst and you still feel the twinge of soft tissue injury, give me a call.