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Stretching: Athletes need more than gear for injury prevention

Published by , on May 24, 2017

As your kids gather their gear and lace up their cleats for outdoor sports this spring, our sports core committee wants to remind all athletes and their families about the important role that stretching plays in protecting a child’s body from injury. Incorporating stretching exercises that increase flexibility is one of the American Academy of Pediatrics top sports injury prevention tips1 for 2017.

There are multiple types of stretches that are beneficial to include during sports or exercise and it can be helpful for athletes, parents and coaches to have a good understanding of the ways to incorporate stretching in the midst of training. Two types of stretches that are commonly used to reduce injury and increase flexibility are dynamic stretching and static stretching. Physical therapist and sports core committee member Jan Taylor shares more about when and how to perform these stretches in the exercise overview below.

Dynamic stretching is a form of active muscle movement that is specific to the upcoming exercise. The purpose of dynamic stretching is to gradually increase the mobility and demand on the muscles. Dynamic stretching uses sports-specific, controlled movements to prepare the body for practice, play or a performance.

Static stretching is a form of passive muscle movement that involves holding a muscle at its end-range of motion. Static stretching increases flexibility by placing a muscle into this lengthened position which helps make a lasting change.

Dynamic stretching = Reduced muscle injury risk

Prior to a sport or exercise, a warm up is necessary. A warm up can consist of very light jogging. Taking at least 5 to 10 minutes to warm up will increase temperature of muscles and minimize possible tearing or tightness.2 After a warm up is when dynamic stretching can best be incorporated. Dynamic stretching should be specific to the sport or exercise:

-In a sport, such as soccer or track & field, requiring running and quick footwork, dynamic stretching can consist of jogging and variations of high knees, karaoke steps3 and straight leg kick-ups.

-For a sport such as lacrosse, requiring both upper extremity and lower extremity involvement, try performing karaoke steps as described above with the emphasis on arm movements (side to side from left to right) across the trunk.

-For sports that predominately require the upper extremities, like golf, baseball or softball, dynamic stretching may consist of large arm swings during a jog. Swing one arm above head in circular motion as the other arm stays parallel to the trunk and slowly alternate arms, moving in a forward direction for a few repetitions, then backwards for a few repetitions. For an arm swing that brings arms across chest, move left arm toward right arm as right arm moves beyond right side of trunk, then switch arms to other side.

– Dancers should begin with simple full body movements that are specific to the style of dance to be performed, for example, completing a sequence of barre combinations before a ballet class or ballet performance. The dancer can then progress to more complex movements within their style of dance.

When dynamically stretching prior to sport or exercise, change it up by doing the movements forward and backward or in left and right directions. Complete dynamic stretches with the focus on gradually increasing heart rate and muscle activation.

Static stretching = Increased muscle flexibility

Static stretching is the most beneficial if it is done immediately after a cool down, following completion of the sport or exercise, for a total of 5 to 10 minutes. At this stage, the muscles are not at their resting state yet and they continue to be slightly elongated.4 Therefore the muscles can be stretched gently within this elongated alignment to sustain or facilitate an increase in flexibility. This elongated alignment lasts for a short period, a few hours, and for that reason it is important to complete the static stretching within this period after the muscle has actively attained that length.

Static stretches should be held consistently at the end range of each muscle’s flexibility, without pain, for at least 30 seconds. Static exercises can consist of:

Standing quadriceps: Stretch while standing next to a counter or another stable surface of a similar height with left hand on the surface for stability. Have right hand hold right foot behind hip, keep hip and knee in a line parallel to standing leg without letting knee move too far forward and gradually bring foot towards hip until stretch in front of upper right leg is felt. Be sure to repeat with each leg.

Standing hamstrings: Stretch with right foot propped on a low surface, such as the lowest step on stairs. Keeping knee straight, gradually bend trunk forward until stretch is felt in back of the upper right leg. Do not forget to repeat with left leg too.

Standing gastrocnemius: Stretch standing at a wall with left foot slightly in front of right foot (toes pointed towards wall) and both hands on the wall. With left knee bent and right knee straight, slowly bend forward (may need to move right foot back) until stretch is felt in the back of the right lower leg. Then repeat with left leg.

Focus on stretching muscle groups that were activated throughout the sport or exercise that was just completed. Be sure to hold static stretches steady and limit movement (i.e. do not bounce) in order to prevent poor postural alignment or injury.

Alignment, technique and timing

It is key to perform stretches without pain and in good alignment during both dynamic and static stretching. Having a professional educate and demonstrate techniques to achieve the correct alignment and form can be helpful. Overall, think dynamically prior to sport or exercise and think static afterwards.

If an injury does occur, our therapy experts are here to help. Call one of these locations to schedule an evaluation:

Contributors:
Courtney Lynch, occupational therapist and sports core committee member
Jenna Saunders, physical therapist and sports core committee member

References:

  1. “2017 Sports Injury Prevention Tip Sheet.” American Academy of Pediatrics, 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
  2. Mitchell, Tamara. “The Great Stretching Debate.” N.p., Mar. 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2017.
  3. “Karaoke Steps.” Physitrack. Physitrack Limited, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
  4. Bernhart, Cassandra. “A Review of Stretching Techniques and Their Effects on Exercise.” Diss. Liberty U, 2013. A Review of Stretching Techniques and Their Effects on Exercise. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.

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