I’ve been getting asked the same question from many of my group fitness participants after class, “How do I stretch this?” as they point to an area on their body. While they may know that stretching is good for them, they may not know when it’s good for them!
When do you need to stretch?
Stretching before and after a workout is ideal. It is included in all professionally accredited group fitness classes for a reason! Research has shown us that stretching before a workout, helps ready the body for the movements to follow, and stretching afterwards, helps relax the body and bring it back to its original state.
There are a couple of different ways to incorporate stretching into your workout routine. You may start with dynamic stretching, where the end position is not held, (such as in walking lunges), or if you are a beginner, you may warm-up the body first, with cycling or walking for 5-10 minutes, then perform static stretching, where you hold a position, (such as a toe touch). Dynamic stretching kills two birds with one stone; that is it warms up the body and stretches your muscles simultaneously. However, beginners, who are doing this on their own, may feel more comfortable holding a position, as they will spend less time stumbling with the coordination demands of dynamic stretching, and more time on the actual stretch. Finally, including static stretching in your cool-down can help relax muscles that have tightened up from the load of the workout.
When don’t you need to stretch?
Whenever someone approaches me after class, asking how to stretch a body part, I first need to know why they want to stretch it. The response is usually that it hurts. Sometimes it’s a new pain that happened in class, sometimes it’s a reoccurring pain from an accident or other activity in the past, and sometimes it’s not paining them at the moment.
For example, at the end of one of my classes, a student wanted to know how she could stretch the front part of her lower leg (the tibialis anterior). After asking her a few questions, it turned out that it wasn’t hurting her at the time, but after her morning runs. She recently began running daily for the new year, and was doing so outside on cemented sidewalks and streets, with shoes that provided very little cushioning along the soles. I suggested running on a track instead, or changing her footwear to a more supportive running shoe, if she insists on running on cement – because of its convenience. Either change will help reduce the impact as the foot hits the ground, avoiding strain, thus avoiding pain.
Since my advice helped the student, stretching wasn’t the answer in that case. Lesson: You should not assume that because a body part hurts, you need to stretch it. That does not mean you shouldn’t ask me (or any of your instructors) questions, though. You may or may not ask the so-called “right” question initially, but it will alert me that you need help with something, and we can figure it out together. You will gain new knowledge, and I will gain satisfaction, not in answering your question, but in solving your problem!