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Injury prevention: How to stretch properly

Preventing athletic injuries and keeping your body fit must include stretching—the right way.

Stretching is commonly misconstrued as using a certain muscle group often or a quick tug on the muscle. Many of my patients state that they are surprised their muscles are tight since they "remain active," "run often," or "stretch a lot." When I ask them to demonstrate their stretches, they generally show a poor form hamstring stretch held briefly and maybe show one or two other ineffective stretch positions.

Preventing athletic injuries and keeping your body fit must include stretching—the right way. As we play sports and participate in regular workouts and athletics, some muscle groups continue to strengthen and, thus, shorten. We must be aware of this change so we can incorporate an effective stretching routine to prevent muscle imbalances from developing and causing injuries.

It is also important to consider postures we typically hold ourselves in while working 40 hours per week. Commonly, we sit in the car to get to work, sit a computer for several hours, sit for meals and relaxation, all contributing to common patterns of muscle tightness.

Once you identify which of your muscles are tight, you can begin putting together a daily stretching program to target these muscles. Commonly tight muscles I see are hip flexors (upper front of thighs), quadriceps (front thigh to knee), hamstrings (back of thighs to knee), neck and chest muscles. If you need help identifying your specific tight muscle groups, your local Physical Therapist can assist you and provide specifics on proper form to effectively stretch these areas.

All stretches should be held at moderate intensity (approximately 6-7/10 intensity) for at least 30 seconds. Bring the muscle into the stretched position and hold steady (no bouncing) while deep breathing. After 30 seconds, remove pressure for a few seconds and then repeat the stretch at least three times. Our muscles have elastic properties that respond quickly to steady, consistent stretching. You will notice the intensity of the stretch reduces during the hold, allowing you to stretch a little further with time and subsequent repetitions.

Stretching should not be confused with "warming up." While warming up is critical to prevent injuries as well, it does not involve stretching the muscles as I have described above. Rather, an effective warm up is a lighter version of the activity in which you are about to engage. For example, walking briskly or light jogging before a run. Usually 10-15 minutes of this light activity is an effective way to bring blood flow and "warmth" to the muscles required for the higher level activity. I recommend the actual stretching to be completed after the warm up or after your workout when the muscles are their loosest.

Your stretching routine can be completed in less than 10 minutes at the end of your workout. Another great method of exercise that focuses on stretching and complements all athletes' workouts is yoga. Completing this on a weekly basis is an effective way to stretch and maintain lengthened, balanced muscles. Neither requires a lot of time to add to your current workout routines when you consider the pay off of preventing an avoidable muscle strain injury, tendinitis, bursitis or even a complete muscle tear requiring surgical repair.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.