I get it. I do. In your elementary school gym class, your teacher (well qualified to be an educator, but not an athletic trainer) taught you to hold a series of standard stretches for a few seconds each before you all started tearing around the gym bouncing off the gymnastic mats or throwing the dodgeball. You, and 90% of average humans, have continued to do the same, without questioning, ever since. It’s no great surprise, then, that I see lots of derby athletes doing the same things today, even though loads of research has shown this approach to be at best ineffectual, and at worst detrimental and potential cause for injury. Essentially, we have all mentally lumped together two very separate goals into a single catch-all bucket. Rather than thinking of it all as “stretching,” we should approach preparing for sport (“limbering up”) differently than flexibility training. Here’s why your stretching routine probably sucks:
1) You stretch before you’re warm
If your muscles are like rubber bands, imagine removing that rubber band from the freezer, and then pulling it taught. It’s likely to stretch less, and be more likely to snap instead of flexing, right? Same with trying to stretch cold muscles. INSTEAD: You should stretch after a workout (flexibility training), or after a short warmup (preparing for sport). Your heart rate should be elevated and you should have broken a light sweat, to ensure you’ve got good blood flow to your muscles before extending them into an increased range of motion.
2) You “stretch” before practice
I know. I KNOW! everything you’ve been taught and what feels right to your body is to ‘get limbered up’ before practice. But holding static stretches prior to vigorous exercise has been shown to be detrimental to athletic performance in a number of ways. For one, studies have shown slower sprint times and 20-30% reductions in leg strength* from athletes who have just stretched their muscles. In other words, the exact opposite of what you want at the beginning of a practice or a bout. INSTEAD: do your sustained stretches AFTER practice for flexibility training, and to counteract the effects of your workout, and a dynamic warmup beforehand (see below for more on dynamic stretching).
3) You’re stuck on static stretches
Static stretches are like those ones from elementary school gym class – holding a muscle in a stretch for a period of 20-30 seconds. There’s nothing wrong with a static stretch, per se, as a post-workout flexibility training. However, it’s just one tool in the toolbox for increasing flexibility and reducing damage done by athletic activity. Outside of or after practice time, there are a number of different ways to train for flexibility, including static stretching. INSTEAD: In addition to static stretches after practice, try rolling out your muscles on a foam roller, or using a stick roller (sold under various names, including The Stick, Tiger Tail, and probably others) to work out kinks and lactic acid, increase blood flow to the muscle, and act like a deep tissue massage. Try yoga for a multitude of benefits.
4) You don’t stretch at all
And who can blame you, with all the conflicting information out there? Better off to just avoid it altogether, right? Plus, practice ends late and you’ve got to get home and pack lunches, clean house and get to bed, so who’s got the time anyway? Mmmmm, probably not. Flexibility is still a very important part of athletic function, and injury prevention. Having a wide range of motion in your muscles and joints can allow you to be more resilient to the weird hits and freak falls that we all see from time to time – more bounce than crack, if you get my meaning. Not stretching after a bout is also a no-no, especially during tournament play. But even after a one-off bout, you KNOW you’ll regret it if you don’t spend some time stretching out those battered muscles before hitting the after party. We’ve all been there, we’ve all been guilty of this one! We feel invincible, especially after a win! And we’ve all paid the price the next day, with lactic acid buildup and that ‘run over by a truck’ feeling. INSTEAD: Fit in at least the major lower body muscle groups after every practice. Try some post-bout drinking stretches! Put your beer on the ground so you have to reach and touch your toes before every sip… get creative with your teammates.
5) Your static stretches are skimpy
When is the last time you timed your stretches? Medical experts all agree you should hold a static stretch for 30 seconds for the maximal benefit, but most of the time we get bored after about 10-15 seconds and move on to the next one. INSTEAD: practice discipline with your flexibility training. Use a timer or count it out. Do it. So what’s a dynamic stretch (aka dynamic warmup)? It’s a sequence of movements designed to warm your muscles and joints, and get them moving through an increased range of motion in preparation for sport. Especially in sports like roller derby where lateral movement and bursts of speed are required, dynamic warmups are essential for reducing injury and preparing you to perform at your body’s highest level. Stay tuned to this blog – a dynamic warmup video is coming soon!* the weakness lasts about 20-30 minutes after stretching. Don’t worry – it’s not permanent!