Okay, so you might not want to hang upside down from a piece of cotton attached to the ceiling but it might be nice to be able to touch your toes right?!
There are very few people who wouldn't benefit by improving their flexibility but sometimes its hard to know where to start. And also, why would you benefit from being able to hook your fingers round your big toes with straight legs, or get your elbows on the ground whilst in a lunge position?
Also I will link this to what I offer as an online fitness coach - how does being more flexible help with your participation in boardsports?
First up the basics......
Why Do We Lose Our Flexibility?
As youngsters we are loose, supple and mobile and our joints and muscles have a huge range of motion that allow us to bend, squat, crawl, jump and, luckily for all the accidents, bounce pretty well too. Have you ever seen a more perfect squat position than on a two year old that's just learned to walk?
We can maintain a lot of this flexibility as we get older if we are constantly active but todays modern, highly sedentary lifestyles have lead to huge numbers of people becoming stiff and tight through driving to work, sitting at a desk for 8 hours, driving home and then sitting watching TV for the rest of the evening.
When we do this some of our muscles shorten and tighten and some become weak and relaxed and a combination of both leads to big deficits in the true range of motion around our joints.
Added to this inactivity your body naturally dehydrates and stiffens with age anyway. Upon reaching adulthood your tissues have lost about 15 percent of their moisture content, making them less supple and more prone to injury.
A good description can be found in the Yoga Journal:
"Your muscle fibers begin to adhere to each other, developing cellular cross-links that prevent parallel fibers from moving independently. Slowly our elastic fibers get bound up with collagenous connective tissue and become more and more unyielding. This normal aging of tissues is distressingly similar to the process that turns animal hides into leather. Unless we stretch, we dry up and tan! Stretching slows this process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants. It pulls the interwoven cellular cross-links apart and helps muscles rebuild with healthy parallel cellular structure".
Why Get Flexible?
Stretching and becoming more supple, especially as we get older, has numerous benefits to our health and well-being:
Improved posture and balance
Less aches and pains
Improved range of joint motion / Less risk of injury
Improved athletic performance
Improved state of mind
Improved muscular co-ordination
Better circulation and healing
Let's look at the points above in a little more detail......
* Improved Posture and Balance
With our tight muscles becoming loose and our weak muscles becoming strong the balance of our bodies returns to an optimal condition. The classic 'desk workers' position of rounded back and hunched over shoulders can be corrected and we can stand tall with our shoulders back and our chests up once more. We will feel more centred, grounded and in alignment and will therefore move better.
* Less Aches and Pains
A lot of our general aches can come from tight muscles. Sore, stiff lower backs from sitting down all day, an aching neck from looking up at a computer screen or tight calves when you jog even a short distance. Muscles are meant to be soft and supple and years of under-use will make them sore when they are called upon to work.
* Improved Range Of Joint Motion / Less Risk Of Injury
When muscles, tendons and ligaments become tight they restrict the natural range of motion across our joints. Knees that are designed to fold back around 135 degrees can get restricted to 100 degrees or even less which causes problems when the body is called upon to adjust for a misstep or fall. A smaller joint range in knees, hips, ankles and shoulders can all cause problems if we lose our balance. Quite simply, stretching tight muscles to give a bigger range of motion across our joints and strengthening weak muscles where needed will mean less risk of injury if we do fall or slip.
* Improved Athletic Performance
The bigger range of motion across you joints will very likely lead to increased performance in most athletes. You will be able to generate more force, more speed, more power and more strength to enable you to run faster, jump higher and lift more. An article by the American Council on Exercise suggests that a flexible body improves overall performance by creating more energy-efficient movements and a flexible joint requires less energy to move through a greater range of movement.
* Improved State Of Mind
You only have to look at how popular Yoga has become in the last 30 years to realise there is a benefit to people who regularly take part in it. The zen-like calm that a lot of Yoga practitioners aim to achieve through stretching, mindful breathing and meditation has benefits of lowering blood pressure, heart rates and stress levels. Being flexible and loose just feels nice! And if your body feels nice, its likely that your mind will follow.
* Improved Muscular Coordination
When all of our muscles and joints are working in harmony we will find our movements become smoother and more controlled. Different groups of agonist and antagonist muscles (opposing muscles around a joint such as the hamstrings and quadriceps around the knee or the biceps and triceps around the elbow) will work more efficiently together when they are at optimum lengths and strengths and will apply the correct forces of contraction to allow for precise, accurate movement.
* Better Circulation and Healing
An article in the Journal of Physiology found that tight muscles can affect circulation and blood flow which can prevent nutrients and oxygen from properly moving through the body. When muscles are more flexible they relax and let the blood flow more freely to the muscles and joints. Increased blood flow equals more oxygen and nutrients which promotes cell growth and proper organ function and also more toxins and by-products of metabolism get removed helping you to heal quicker.
How Does This All Apply To Boardsports Specifically?
Improved balance, improved athletic performance and improved muscular coordination will all help massively to ensure you get even more out of your time on the water or the snow. You will move more freely, have more power and strength for turns and paddling and have better balance for dealing with sudden changes to the surface you are riding on. With increased blood flow and better healing you will also be quicker to recover from your session.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of stretching though to boardsports in my mind is a reduction in the chance of injury. Boardsports naturally take place in extreme conditions and at fast speeds, with flat water paddleboarding being the exception. Your muscles face great forces when duck diving under a big set when surfing or when being pulled by strong winds across open water. And of course we all fall off from time to time. Anyone who has taken a big spill whilst hurtling down a mountain on their snowboard or gone over the falls on a big wave knows how much turbulent force the body is put under whilst cartwheeling down that hill or not knowing which way is up deep under water.
Being flexible may not eliminate the risk of injury completely, but sprains and strains happen when ligaments and muscles respectively get stretched beyond what they are used too. Start off with a greater range of stretch in those muscles and ligaments and you will reduce the chances of any of them getting into over-stretched positions when taking a fall.
How To Stretch?
There are quite a few types of different stretching techniques. For most purposes however it can be helpful to think of just four types.
This involves initiating a stretch and holding the position for a certain period of time using either gravity, another part of your body or an outside force (such as another person).
An example of this would be a seated, straight leg forward fold holding onto your feet with your hands or having a friend gently apply pressure to your back.
To benefit from this stretch a hold of between 30 - 90 seconds is most beneficial.
This involves holding a stretch using your other muscles to hold you in position. The tension of the agonists in an active stretch helps to relax the muscles being stretched (the antagonists) by reciprocal inhibition.
An example of this would be the Warrior Yoga poses and indeed a lot of Yoga poses are active stretches.
10 - 15 seconds is the optimal time to hold active stretches for.
Dynamic stretches are usually used as 'warm up' stretches. They take a joint through an increased range of motion through a controlled movement.
A gentle forward/backward leg swing is an example of a dynamic stretch. On each rep the range of the hip movement would be increased and at the same time the hamstrings and quadriceps would be being stretched to greater lengths.
A few sets of 8-10 reps is usually the prescribed range for dynamic stretches. They also have the benefit of raising the heart rate ready for an activity to follow.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF or contract-relax) stretches involve contracting the target muscle isometrically for 10 seconds or so before relaxing it for a few seconds and then stretching it for around 20-30 seconds. After another brief relax, the cycle is repeated again usually for 3-4 rounds
A very common PNF stretch is done with a therapist or partner and targets the hamstrings.
This can also be done on your own, although perhaps not as effectively, by lying on your back with a band or strap around your foot and alternatively pulling your foot towards you to stretch the hamstring and then pushing your heel towards the floor by contracting your hamstring.
PNF stretching has been around for quite some years and is still often thought to be the fastest and most effective way to increase flexibility.
There are many different ways and means in which to improve your flexibility through stretching but the most important one in my book is consistency. Although at first stretching can seem hard and even after a few weeks you might not notice much of a difference, you will if you keep going!
Some points to remember:
Don't jump straight into a tough stretching session. Ease yourself in slowly. Muscles like to be warm when they are being stretched so go for a brisk walk, light jog or 5 minute row before you begin.
Focus on the biggest muscle groups. Look to improve your flexibility in your hamstrings, quads (thigh muscles), lower back, hips and shoulders.
Don't bounce excessively. Bouncing into a stretch can lead to injuries, especially if you are cold. Ease into and out of a stretch, even if it is repeatedly, in a smooth, controlled manner.
Look for symmetry. Learn if you have joints that are uneven on each side of your body and try to stretch specifically to get them even. This will help you move better and prevent further imbalances.
Hold your static stretches for at least 60 seconds each, if not longer. And repeat this amount of time for a few sets.
Don't let it be painful. Don't hold a stretch to the point where you are in pain. If you take it this far your body will actually tighten up to prevent you from stretching further, thereby defeating the object. Take the stretch to your furthest point, then back off a little.
Remember to breathe! This goes hand in hand with the point above. If you take it too far you will find you will be holding your breath and likely screwing your face up in pain! You should be able to comfortably breathe in and out in a regular pattern whilst you hold your stretch.
Be aware of any injuries. You never want to make your situation worse so if you know of any old or existing injuries be aware of them whilst you stretch. You may want to avoid that area, but as stretching can help rehabilitation then just an adjustment of intensity might be required.
Use movement to help you stretch. Rather than always holding static stretches find a routine that moves in a series through numerous stretches. An Ashtanga Yoga class is a good example of this.
Take up Yoga! There is nothing that will help you become more flexible and increase strength and mobility than regularly attending a yoga class. 60 - 90 minutes of stretching 2-3 times a week and you will feel fantastic in a very short space of time. Add to this the benefits of relaxation and meditation that goes along with a lot of classes and you are set for a full mind-body experience.
CONSISTENCY. Stretching out old, tired, tight muscles takes time and you have to stick with it to see any difference. You will not become flexible in a few weeks. Also, it will be better to stretch every other day for 10-15 minutes than for an hour once a week.
Anyone can become more flexible with consistency and a bit of effort and I hope you can see from all the points above what great benefits can be gained from a consistent stretching routine. I'm afraid it isn't that easy to gain even a few inches more reach on your seated pike stretch but it is definitely possible for most people.
Work out a routine that focuses on your tightest/weakest areas and stick with it. Perhaps take a photo of yourself in a stretch position and then compare it to another one every month or so. This will help you see there is progress and keep you motivated to keep going.
And who knows, maybe those splits aren't that far away after all.
If you'd like to know more about my online fitness coaching then take a look at around the rest of the website and especially the 'How It Works' page.