To stretch or not to stretch?
Ed Scully -Soft tissue and rehabilitation specialist
Have you a feeling of tight calves, hip flexors, hamstrings, quads, upper back when training? I want to run but my muscles are just too “tight”. I want to go to the gym today but I have that niggle; maybe I will wait until next week? So, does this mean your muscles are tight and need a vigorous stretching regime? Absolutely not!
The feeling of tightness is actually a perception just like thirst. I bet there will be a lot of people reading this blog thinking, “I have a tight hamstring and I have been stretching it for God knows how long, but yet it still feels tight”. This is due to a muscle imbalance! Your hamstring is probably too long and needs to be shortened. Our muscles have sensory receptors that respond to pressure and change in length. That feeling of tightness may actually be your muscle saying “please help, I am hanging on for dear life!”. The key here is if you have a feeling of tightness get it checked out by a physiotherapist or athletic rehab therapist, it could be as simple as getting a deep tissue massage, at the right time, in the right place.
One of the fundamental concepts of strengthening a muscle is to increase the cross-sectional area of the muscle fibre. This will make the muscle bigger, stronger and create more force. A muscle that is in a shortened or lengthened positioned will never reach optimal performance. Movement requires the contraction of an agonist muscle and the relaxation of the antagonist. An example is; to contract the quads (agonist), the hamstrings (antagonist) needs to relax to a certain degree to allow the movement to commence. Without the relaxation of the hamstring, walking would be impossible.
I got into rehabilitation because I had a keen interest in the gym, but was constantly hitting plateaus and getting overuse injuries. I now know what the problem was; I was feeding a pattern of pathology by strengthening my muscles in a shortened position. Without checking their antagonist. Now, for some, who have been training for years this may seem like basic knowledge, but don’t judge me yet! Have you ever had a chronic or overuse injury? Well, if the answer is yes, you too have had training errors. According to Sports Medicine Australia, “Up to 70% of recreational and competitive runners sustain overuse injuries during any 12-month period”, this information was gathered in a survey in 2006. This is an astonishing statistic; the vast majority of these injuries could have been avoided. There are two major outliers here; muscle imbalance and training errors.
So, for anyone hitting that plateau with your lifts or trying to get that 5k time down, ask yourself Is that muscle really tight or are you making yourself pathological? Either way, you need to be advised correctly. Just think this year you could be faster, stronger or injured! The choice is yours.