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Why Stretching Matters

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Summer brings warmer weather, longer days of light, and for many of us, a renewed urge to get outdoors, be more active, or hit the gym a little harder.   For me, summer is a great time to re-evaluate some of my old goals and make some new ones.  While I made a lot of the same goals I do each year (to get more sleep at night, to manage money more wisely, spend more quality time with family, to lose five pounds) this year I added a new one to the list:   to spend at least ten minutes a day stretching.   Why?  I had a revelation.  Last year for reasons my doctor couldn’t explain, an old Achilles tendon injury flared up.  This was a mystery to me.  I hadn’t done anything radically different in my work out routine and I hadn’t fallen or twisted my ankle.  We could find no obvious culprit behind the aggravating pain, but there was no denying that I was walking with a noticeable limp.  My well-meaning friends who had been long time distance runners assured me that with Achilles tendons, there wasn’t much anyone could do:  I should just be glad that mine hadn’t snapped or unraveled.  But my doctor suggested physical therapy, so off I went.

Stretching Allows for muscle growth

During my first session, the therapist asked me what some of my health goals were.  First on my list:  I wanted my Achilles tendon to calm down so that I could keep going to the gym.  Secondly, I wanted to grow muscle.  “Good goals,” she said.  “But where does stretching fit on that list?”

“Um.  It doesn’t, really.”  I said.

She smiled.  I had the feeling I wasn’t the first broken down would-be athlete who had given her that reply.  Then she gave me a crash course in muscle anatomy.   The muscles, she said are sheathed in a tough connective tissue called fascia.  Fascia is what holds muscles in their proper place.  Imagine fascia as being like the casing of a hot dog.  It’s the “skin” holding the meat in place.  Or think of a balloon full of air.    The fascia is the balloon and our muscles are the air filling it up.  But fascia is tough—it doesn’t want to yield.  After all, its job is to hold muscles firmly in place.  “And that’s a problem,” she said, “if you want to grow muscle.  You can lift weights and eat all the protein in the world, but a fascia-constricted muscle won’t expand unless the fascia expands.”    So how do I make my fascia expand?”  I asked.  Again with that smile.  “By stretching.”

Stretching improves flexibility and mobility

Stretching, I soon learned, carries other benefits.  In my case, stretching improved mobility in my ankle, which released some of the tension on the Achilles tendon.    I learned, too, how interconnected the muscles and tendons are.  Stretching calves and my hip muscles, which are nowhere NEAR my ankles, helped to unlock tightness in the posterior chain.  Not only did my ankles and tendons feel looser and more fluid, but so did knees and hips.  For months (years even?) I had been unable to squat and get my hips at parallel or below parallel positioning.  For the first time in a long time, I was able to squat.

Stretching prevents Injury

 In my younger years of gym going, I focused primarily on “getting a burn” or hitting a set mileage or number of calories on the treadmill or the stationary bike.  I’d go before or after work and in either case, I was on the clock.  I had sixty minutes and no more than that to log in the hardest most intense workout I could manage.  With such a tight schedule, I told myself, I didn’t have time to stretch.  Stretching during or after the workout would eat away at precious time I needed for more crunches or curls or more something  that would sound or look impressive and burn calories. Now that I’m older, and I hope, just an ounce or two wiser, my approach to each session at the gym is a little different.  Each visit starts with a warm up and then at least five minutes of stretching.  Every person’s body is different and some people need more time to get their muscles warmed up and ready for a workout.  I’m learning to listen to my body.  Right now, it needs more time to warm up and cool down.  That means making time to stretch.    But I’ve learned that this is not wasted time.  On the days when I stretch before working out, I’m more focused and I’m able to work out harder.  And when I include stretching as part of the cool down, I experience less muscle pain and soreness the next day.    And while there are some days when my body has its complaints, I have noticed that stretching has a way of quieting some of those complaints.   In short, whereas for many years I considered stretching as unnecessary, even a waste of time, I’m now seeing that it is an essential part of any workout regimen.