Stretching to Prevent Soft Tissue Injury: Tips for the Weekend Warrior and the Competitive Athlete

Marc Margiotta, DN, DAAPM

 

With the holidays approaching, many of us are looking forward to using our limited free time for recreational activities. Regardless of your level of activity, be sure to take steps to avoid injury.

 

Research shows a clear association between athletic activity and increased risk for muscle and tendon injury. Stretching exercises-when performed properly and timed correctly-can improve flexibility and help maintain the muscle-body balance to reduce soft tissue injury risk. Yet, many athletes neglect to use them.

 

 

Most patients I see typically fall into one of three common scenarios:

• Warm-up, no stretching

• Stretching, no warm-up

• Warm-up, stretching

 

Step 1: The warm up


Incorporating an adequate warm-up and stretching session before physical activity yields the most benefit. This includes enhanced muscle, ligament and tendon elasticity, and increased range of motion.

 

This works because a light warm up before exercise can increase the temperature of the blood by 1-3 degrees, increasing muscle elasticity by 20-30 percent. A warmer muscle is more flexible than a cold one. The enhanced flexibility theoretically reduces the risk of muscles tearing under tension.

 

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a warm-up of easy activity (running in place, walking briskly on a treadmill) for five minutes before stretching a muscle. Warm up alone without stretching is acceptable but not ideal because of benefits specific to stretching.

 

Step 2: Stretch it out

 

Stretching before exercise without a brief warm up period is common. This is not recommended, though, and can increase injury risk. Remember: the length of a muscle is directly proportional to the power that muscle can produce.

 

The most effective form of stretching has been shown to be the static method. Static stretching involves slowly stretching a muscle group to a lengthened position and holding the position for 30-45 seconds with three to four repetitions per stretch. For the average person who participates in regular physical activity, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends static stretching two to three times per week.

 

Always remember that stretching should produce a feeling of mild discomfort only. If you feel strong discomfort or pain, muscle and/or tendon damage is likely.

 

Overall, a consistent and comprehensive stretching regimen combined with an adequate warm-up period can increase flexibility, muscular force and reduce injury risk in any athlete-recreational or competitive.

 

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