Flexibility Article – 11/08/2008 – By Stuart Wade

Flexibility Article

My name is Stuart Wade (Pete Wade’s son); I am 20 years of age and am a final year ‘Applied Sport & Exercise Science’ student at Northumbria University. My sport is Taekwon-Do; I hold the grade of 4th Dan Blackbelt after 14 years of training. I am an active competitor and hold numerous British and European titles and am a current World Champion (I will be representing England in the WKA World Championships in Orlando, Florida, in November- where I will attempt to win my second World title). I am sponsored by ‘Forgoodness Shakes!’ sports nutrition company.

Kev Lincoln has approached me about writing a few articles for the Doncaster AC website based around my studies and my sporting experiences. So, I thought I would write my first article on stretching, which is vital in my own sport, and will certainly be of benefit to all athletes at Doncaster AC.

Flexible muscles are essential for effective sporting performance. However, we still aren’t sure whether the risk of injury is lessened through stretching. Depending on the nature of a sport, the level of flexibility required will differ, and may differ within certain muscle groups. Sufficient flexibility of the muscle groups of the lower legs is crucial for successful running performance. The main methods of chronic (long term) stretching for improved flexibility are:

  • Static (active- using the tension of opposing muscles to maintain the stretch or passive- external force (e.g. the floor or a partner)). Below are examples of static stretches:

  • Dynamic (controlled ‘swinging’ movements, leg raises for example, using the entire range of motion of a limb).

The fastest way to increase flexibility is ISOMETRIC STRETCHING.

  • Isometric (voluntary contraction of the muscles being stretched, against an external force). This method of stretching is NOT recommended for anyone under the age of 16, or those whose bones are still growing/developing.

Isometric stretching is performed as follows. You should stretch close to your limit to start with, at which point you should contract (tense) the stretched muscle/s. The first tension should be held for around 3-5 seconds then within the first second of relaxation (after the 3-5 second tension is over) stretch further and repeat the tension once again. Repeat this cycle until you reach your maximum stretch, at which time the last muscle tension should be held for up to 30 seconds. Rest for one minute, then repeat the same stretching exercise again – complete three to five repetitions of this exercise.

Thomas Kurz wrote in his book of 1994 that using the above stretching methods in combination will produce the most effective, and rapid, improvements in flexibility. It is thought that dynamic stretching prior to exercise, as part of an active warm-up, prepares the nervous system to respond to the stresses on the muscles during the main workout/competition. A minimum of 10 repetitions of each dynamic stretch should be completed to ‘loosen off’.

After the main workout is done (before the ‘active cool down’), isometric stretches should be done. Only one stretch/exercise should be completed per muscle group (i.e. one for the hamstrings; one for the quadriceps; one for the adductors and abductors, respectively; etc).

Isometric stretches should be completed no more than three to four times per week.

Finally, relaxed static stretches should be done during the cool down, after a workout. The same holds used in the isometric part of the workout can be used, only this time with no contractions/tensions- just relaxation during the stretch.

Research has shown benefits and drawbacks of flexibility training, with many studies contradicting one another as regards the best method for improving flexibility- and the effects these have on performance. Running has been shown to reduce stiffness in the Gastrocnemius (Calf) muscles in the lower legs. Hamstring flexibility has not been shown to improve through running alone, although a stretching programme aimed at increasing hamstring flexibility may increase stride length and running performance.

Running economy, for instance, relies on a number of factors, one of which is flexibility. If the muscles in the legs are quite ‘tight’ this will negatively affect running kinematics (style and correct/most efficient running motion) such as gait technique, stride length and frequency.

Incorporating a stretching regime into your regular training will benefit your running performance no end. Improved flexibility will cause greater stride length, which, with training, may improve running economy and performance.