Stretching: An Essential Aspect to Athletic Training- Part I
Updated: Jun 22, 2019
If stretching isn’t a big part of your training routine, then you’re simply not maximizing your athletic development. And stretching for 10 minutes after a workout doesn’t count as a big part. The amount of both physical and mental benefits for stretching are overwhelming, but when it comes down to it, most athletes do not spend enough time (if any) on incorporating a comprehensive stretching routine that will make them better athletes and better at their sport.
The Benefits of a Solid Stretching Regimen
When we take a look at all of the benefits of stretching as it relates to athletic training, we can break them down into two categories: physical and mental. Physically, stretching improves an athlete’s:
Flexibility and range of motion
Resistance towards injury
Overall strength and functional movement
Overall muscular health
On the flip side, when we take a look at how stretching positively impacts athletes mentally, we see that stretching improves the:
Ability to reduce performance anxiety
Ability to develop mental toughness
Confidence on the playing field
Improved Flexibility and Range of Motion
Numerous studies have been done to see what stretching physically does to muscle. Unlike what you may think, stretching doesn’t permanently lengthen the muscle fibers even though muscle fibers and tendons are elongated. Rather, stretching trains the nervous system to appropriately respond to a greater range of muscle extension. The more the nervous system is trained to tolerate these greater ranges of muscle extension, we can adapt to movement patterns that were once restricted or painful to us. When we consistently go to certain ranges of motion through stretching, we are essentially telling our body that our muscles have enough strength and pliability that can safely handle the force loads we are placing on them. Unfortunately, when we don’t regularly go through movements, the nervous and muscular systems become habituated to limited range of motions. Like most things, it is the consistent, dedicated approach that leads to the achievement of increased flexibility and range of motion in a safe and constructive manner.
Resistance Towards Injury
With increased flexibility, we can strengthen muscle fibers through a greater range of motion than before. By having this ability, you create healthier joints and muscular attachment and insertion points that are stronger and more pliable. The nervous system is more responsive as there is less restriction on nerves and nerve endings from tight muscles. The skeletal system also experiences more limited amounts of stress as muscles do not strain the tendons that are attached to the bone from the muscle. Athletically, you can handle movements that you may once have not been able to handle without pain or injury. Overall healthier muscle, skeletal, and nervous systems all play a valuable role in keeping athletes healthy.
Overall Strength and Functional Movement
As mentioned previously, increased flexibility allows there to be less restriction for the nervous system to communicate with the muscles to contract and extend. It is important to note, that this also increases our ability to recruit greater amounts of muscle fibers to perform a given task, translating to more explosive power and static strength. A tight muscle is a weak muscle, but with more flexibility, we have the ability to add more strength. Athletes, please note, that solely increasing flexibility without strengthening can be a problem as we decrease the elasticity and support of the muscles, especially at the attachment points to the joints. However, with more flexibility and strength, athletes can explosively get to positions that are required to better perform sport-specific tasks. Muscles are prepped for action, especially in extreme ranges of motion, ready to be used when required. Athletes need to be functionally strong. Simply put, restricted movement limits functional athleticism.
Stretching, especially after workouts and athletic performances, and during off days, dramatically improves recovery time. One reason for this is an increase of blood flow to the muscles due to better circulation. The oxygen-rich blood delivers necessary nutrients for the body to recover that stimulate cellular repair and metabolic waste excretion. In turn, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) may be lessened. During workouts and athletic competitions, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is engaged, releasing hormones like norepinephrine and adrenaline to spike performance. However, this environment created by the SNS is demanding to the body and we do not want to be in a perpetual state of high stress. The nervous system is taxed less during stretching as the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is engaged, promoting the recovery process. Optimum recovery, therefore, allows for more growth as less time is spent recovering from stress.
Overall Muscular Health
As athletes, there tends to be muscular imbalances throughout the body. You may have noticed that one side or part of your body seems stronger than the other. You may also have noticed that certain sides or parts of your body are more flexible than their counterpart. This holds true for movement patterns to one side or off of one side that are stronger, more powerful, or more fluid as opposed to the other. Stretching allows your body to get back to a balance and equilibrium. Proper muscle function, movement patterns, and even posture increase the effectiveness, efficiency, and longevity of your athletic actions. As a well-trained athlete, you want all parts of your body operating at the highest level of capacity to maximize your levels of strength, power, speed, agility, finesse, conditioning, and athleticism.
Reduction in Performance Anxiety
As a higher-level athlete, pre-game or pre-competition routines are commonplace. Much of these routines include a stretching warm-up filled with dynamic movements. Not only does this stretching prep the neuromuscular system for action, but it also allows the athletes mind to get to their mental competition zone. You no longer are consciously thinking about every moment you are making, but rather are letting your unconscious mind dictate your trained body’s movements. There is no worry or angst about the upcoming event, just a quiet, but intense focus in the present moment. With the body and mind warmed-up, there is just action left to be taken.
Mental Toughness Development
A comprehensive full-body stretch ends every single B Sports Performance workout at our facility. At a minimum, they last for 30 minutes, but can last as long as an hour and a half. This post-workout stretching isn’t solely designed to make sure that we continue to develop healthy muscle fibers, but it is also to develop mental toughness. Very few people initially love stretching; you’re physically and mentally tired after a workout and want to go home to eat. Mental toughness isn’t about showing strength or being committed during the easy times. It’s about doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, how it’s supposed to be done, no matter what the circumstance. One of my athletes described stretching like this: “Stretching is the most mentally trying thing. To will yourself through discomfort that you know you will experience takes fortitude.” As we all know, being physically talented is great, but being mentally resilient is vital for athletic success.
Confidence on the Playing Field
As mentioned previously, pre-competition stretching gets your muscles and mind primed and ready to go for top-end performance. All of your training (both on-the-field practice and off-the-field conditioning) is allowed to be maximized and can be translated to in-game action. With this comes confidence; confidence that your mind and body can handle anything. You can physically go after things at 100% intensity without fear from injury. You can rely on your body to perform as it is needed. You experience no hesitation or mental doubt attacking situations as they come. Your success keeps building, allowing you to reach your athletic goals.
With stretching comes many athletic benefits, both physically and mentally. In the next blog, we will take a look at all of the different types of stretching, what they aim to do, and how you can successfully implement them into your routine to be the best athlete you can be.