Stretching: the Truth!


When people are under a lot of stress during a sedentary desk career, a natural outlet is sports.  Which is ideal, as long as you don’t hurt yourself.  But while stress relief is only a jog or a bike ride away, it is good to prepare for the possibility of injuries.  People who don’t often end up in sports clinics like mine.  One of the most common injuries in weekend athletes is to their “soft” tissues.    In other words, injuries to muscles, tendons and ligaments.  In most cases a simple routine of prevention would go a long way to avoiding these.

First, let us define terms here.  In medicine, the suffix “itis” is simply “inflammation”, and it is at the cellular root of all diseases or injuries.  This completely demystifies medical jargon; consider dermatitis (inflammation of skin), pharyngitis (throat), bronchitis (bronchial tubes), arthritis (joints), and so on.  

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So if you tell your doctor that you have “inflamed your hamstrings”, and your doctor tells you that you have a case of “tendonitis”, then all that has been accomplished is to translate an English complaint into a Latin diagnosis.   Once a treatment plan is in place, then it would be most helpful to see how to prevent such injuries in the first place.


Soft tissues, as the name implies, are pliable, and they usually have a good memory.  So if we sit all day at a desk, with our legs folded up like a card table, then the muscles learn to stay in this position.  This means the hamstrings for example will “learn” to stay in their shortest length, and thus to become very likely to suffer when asked to perform long strides in running.   Same point for the calf muscles, and the Achilles tendons.  If these muscles are used to being not-used, they retract into their shortest length, until asked to push off in whatever weekend sport is being asked of them. 

A classic response for these cases has been to have a pre-exercise “stretch” routine.  Every morning I see joggers out in their short pants pushing against the side of their house with their hands, while stretching one leg out behind them.   Then they bounce as they try to touch their toes, and, for a grand finale, yank their heel up to touch their buttock for a few seconds per side. 

The problem here is this cold-stretch is a real injury producer, and should be completely revisited.

THE TURKEY MODEL: We all know that a turkey leg is easy to move when served hot on a festive platter.  That’s because warm tissues have natural elasticity.  However, served cold the next day, the ligaments and muscles all stiffen up dramatically.  Therefore, consider the cardinal rule of human soft tissues to be “Never stretch (or exercise) COLD tissues”. ( So much for the weekend-athlete leaving four skid marks in the parking lot as they race in to the gym or golf course).   


THE HEAT MODEL:  The soft tissues can be heated by gentle exercise, like the skipping motion that boxers do before their fight.  Or, one could do as many coaches are now advising, and save the  stretches til the END of the exercise, not at the beginning.   If you have access to full facilities, consider taking a whirlpool before you start exercise, then use your warm-up pants as their name implies, until you are fully sweating in your chosen exercise.  One example of this was a squash court I used to belong to in Canada, where there was no heat overnight.  In the winter the air was so cold the ball would behave like a bean-bag, and not bounce at all.  In frustration we solved the problem by taking the ball with us into the sauna, where we sat, fully clothed in our warm up gear, waiting for the ball to become bounce-able.  Once the ball was ready, so were our muscles! 

For a more comprehensive look at specific muscle stretches:

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