Stretching & Body Awareness are the Missing Link to Becoming an Elite Athlete.
I say “Link” singular because stretching and body awareness are one, which is why stretching is so important. What stretching provides in the form of body awareness and control gives all who practice it a big-time edge on the competition who don’t. This enhanced body awareness is the missing link for most people trying to achieve elite, physical performance and it puts a new spin on why people should spend more quality time stretching.
Please keep in mind that I train athletes of all ages, sports and abilities, not to mention being one myself for over 20 years while reaching a junior Olympic level in two different sports; so this info is based on proven techniques and successful results, time and time again.
There is a common theme among ELITE athletes of all ages (past age 14), sports and gender that sets them apart from the non elites – STRETCHING and body awareness. This is not to be confused with natural flexibility which takes no additional time to practice and therefore does not create an advanced muscle-brain relationship while the muscle is in its lengthened position. Ummmmm what?
Let’s just say that I have seen kids and adults who are at a very high level for their sport although not quite elite and despite their great coordination and ability within their sport, their overall body awareness is absolutely terrible. Do you know what all of them have in common? They don’t stretch much at all. And if they do, it is half-hearted or inappropriate. This leads to a body awareness that is lacking compared to those who do spend the time stretching and getting to know their body.
Yes this “body awareness” thing that yoga people talk about sounds a little hokey, until you see it day after day affect people who don’t have it. It is virtually impossible to find an elite athlete who has poor body awareness, and invariably these athletes ALL spend quality time stretching.
What I mean by this awareness is that if I ask someone who doesn’t stretch properly to perform a certain exercise that they have never done before, they have very little coordination to do it. The elite athlete can pick up the same exercise instantly with no hesitation and has amazing form, even though they have never done it before. So what does this mean?
It means that a person who spends enough time stretching properly will improve their brain’s relationship with the muscles and joints (especially in a lengthened position) and its ability to monitor every receptor and reflex involved with muscular coordination and function. This gives new hope for all those people who are not natural athletes.
The word stretching as used above is referring to a specific act of stretching, which does not include simply going through the motions to get it over with, as most people do. Instead, it consists of:
- Proper breathing techniques
- Relaxation, patience and enjoying the process
- Knowing when to back off and when to relax into a position
- Clearing one’s mind and focusing solely on the task at hand…stretching and body awareness
- Practicing body awareness by listening to when a muscle is tensing up and then easing up exactly enough so that the muscle can stay relaxed in the lengthened position and improve to a new and longer length
- Letting go of tension, not creating more
- Using proper posture while stretching and not slouching or sagging – stretching should utilize proper core activation and encourage efficiency against gravity and joint stability at all times, otherwise it is useless flexibility
- Making sure a muscle actually needs to be stretched – some muscles should first be strengthened to maximize joint stability
This affects everybody, not just the elite.
Why? Because it allows the brain to control and experience what is too much tension in the muscles and what are dangerous positions. Only patience and practice of proper techniques can teach these lessons.
What follows are the nuts and bolts of stretching. What you just read above is why stretching is so important for athletes and everyday people.
The Physical Aspect of Stretching
Thinking about it energetically, the brain sends impulses to the muscle telling it to move; receptors in the muscle are constantly sending impulses back to the brain informing it about the muscle’s position, speed of movement, length, and tension.1,2 Receptors in the muscle also send signals back to the spinal cord that shoot right back to the muscle, totally bypassing the brain. These are reflex arcs, the simplest being the stretch reflex.1,2
The stretch reflex increases tension in the muscle being lengthened and has a static and dynamic component.3,5 So as long as the muscle is moving, it will have some tension in it that interferes with its passive stretch potential. This tension will increase proportionally with the speed of the stretch.3,5 Therefore, a slow stretch should be applied to inhibit tension in the muscle (autogenic inhibition) and facilitate its elongation.4 Also holding the stretch for at least twenty seconds will stimulate the golgi tendon reflex and inhibit the muscle spindle’s stretch reflex, which will create an adaptation in the muscle spindles and allow the muscle to stretch further without initiating the stretch reflex.5
These reflexes help the body function on a daily basis (maintaining posture and muscle tone) 1,2 but can limit stretching if they are not understood. If the reflexes are not taken advantage of, then stretching is just like any other movement; it will move the muscle without any affect on its long term length.
Experience leads me to believe that the reflex arcs are hypersensitive when the mind is busy, therefore allowing a smaller stimulus to activate the reflex and decrease the muscle’s stretch potential. In order to best override the stretch reflex, the mind must be relaxed. When the mind is focused on body awareness the muscles can relax along with the reflex arcs, allowing for a maximal stretch. Injuries and sharp pains are exceptions; even if they can be tuned out, they shouldn’t.
While relaxation is often a goal of stretching, the rest of the body should not be limp during the stretch. For instance, while stretching the low back it is often beneficial to activate the abdominal muscles in order to stabilize the intervertebral segments against excessive motion.
The Mental Aspect of Stretching
Stretching is best done with a quiet mind and some knowledge of how the muscles respond to lengthening. The mind and body are always communicating, and when the mind is busy their connection is weakened. What one did and what one has to do are thoughts that often cause a level of anxiety; undetectable to a busy brain but are enough to interfere with the reflex arcs.
Stretching can act as a time out from the daily routine and unite the physical with the mental. Instead of the muscles reacting to the brain (stress), the brain should interact with the muscles when stretching. For instance, during a stretch if it becomes uncomfortable, one can back off, breath through it, or hold it anyway while gritting the teeth and hardly breathing (yes you). This last technique usually adds more stress than it takes away.
Instead, interact with the muscle by breathing smoothly and clearing the mind. This takes practice. Then it is possible to feel the muscle and each tightness surrounding it. Without reacting to the tightness the breath can be used to soothe the muscles and establish a new and improved length that wasn’t possible with the old reflex arc, not to mention increase circulation and body awareness.
This doesn’t have to be an enlightening experience, rather a timeout from the outside world and a union with the inside. This moment should be enjoyed; it’s a great thing to be able to improve health just by breathing and paying attention to the body. Without this “timeout”, stretching is just another movement that can add stress to the body.
This is of course an ideal way to stretch that is not always possible, but time should be taken to have ideal sessions whenever possible.
~In general, if stretching is not the mind’s focus and enjoyable, then it will not fully benefit the body. ~
Types of Flexibility
Passive, self-myofascial release, active, isometric, and active assisted stretching techniques are all non-dynamic. This type of flexibility is less complex and usually achieved in one movement plane, sometimes two, and is best used to correct posture imbalances and elongate muscles because of its relatively simple methods. It does not transfer very well into dynamic or multi-planar flexibility because it lacks the neuromuscular coordination. Non-dynamic flexibility is the foundation of stretching and should be the first goal of any novice or injured person.
Dynamic techniques, like yoga movements, are the only way to achieve dynamic flexibility. This type of flexibility is controlled by the neuromuscular system and allows the muscles to elongate while controlling the body’s speed, direction, balance, and coordination. Therefore, coordination is required to avoid injury. All three planes of movement should be challenged in a way that prepares the body for real life situations, such as reaching behind the washing machine to pick up fallen clothing. Dynamic flexibility cannot be totally converted into non-dynamic flexibility because the maximum length allowed by the muscle is rarely reached in a dynamic stretch.
- Both types are needed for overall flexibility.
Example: An athlete has a daily routine of non-dynamic stretching for the entire body and can pass every basic ROM test there is but he/she does not do any dynamic stretching. If they are blessed with great coordination and flexibility it is possible to escape wear and tear or clumsy injuries. But if they are like most people, they will need to practice dynamic flexibility otherwise a situation will eventually occur that puts the body into a position it has neither the strength, flexibility, or coordination to control, all of which could have been trained through dynamic stretching.
How far is enough to get a good stretch?
The goal isn’t to go as far as one can, rather as far as one should. The end-feel of a stretch is the best guide to how far and even if stretching should be done. If the end-feel is a structural blockage or sharp pain, then stretching can do more harm than good. But if the end-feel is a leathery restriction, like muscle, then stretching should help the limitation.
Stretch the muscle to the barrier (first point of moderate tension), hold until the muscle “let’s go” which is usually about 20-30 seconds, then relax it or gently stretch it to the next point of noticeable tension. More is not always better when it comes to twisting, bending, pulling, pushing, and everything else that is possible to do to the body. It can be a fine line between injury and improvement depending on the condition of the surrounding tissues and the stretching techniques used.
Stretching to the limit will often create instability in the involved joint(s) due to surpassing the ability of the antagonistic muscle to stabilize the joint(s). A great way to prevent overstretching is to stretch slowly and smoothly, get the muscles warm, and make sure the surrounding muscles (especially the antagonist) can support the joint in that position.
If breathing isn’t relaxed and synchronized with the stretch, then results will be poor. The exhalation helps relax the muscle and is most beneficial during the elongation phase. While holding a stretch for the appropriate time, the inhalation should be similar to the exhalation in force and duration (3-5 seconds in, 3-5 seconds out, with a pause in between). This isn’t always possible at the beginning of a difficult stretch but by the last few seconds a rhythm should be achieved, otherwise the muscles won’t completely relax and accept the new length. At first it will seem impossible to relax in some of the new positions, but by focusing on proper breathing it is possible to reach the muscle’s greatest stretch potential.
Stretching is good for you: DO IT.
- Sherwood, Lauralee. Human Physiology: From Cells to Systems, ed. 2. West Publishing Company, Minneapolis/St. Paul. 1993
- Marieb, Elaine. Human Anatomy and Physiology, ed. 3. The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc.,California. 1995
- Alter MJ. Science of Flexibility, ed. 2. Human Kinetics. 1996
- Basmajian JV. Therapeutic Exercise ed. 3. Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore. 1978
- Clark,MA. Integrated Flexibility Training.NationalAcademyof Sports Medicine (Publishers).Thousand Oaks, CA. 2000