Your body relies on three main types of tissue when it comes to movement -- muscles, ligaments and tendons. However, these tissues can become tight over time, resulting in a reduced range of motion and a higher risk for injury. Stretching can help remedy this problem, when used the correct way and at the correct times within your weekly workout schedule.
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One of the main long-term effects of stretching is an increase in your overall flexibility. When you make stretching a habit, you slowly stretch out the connective tissues of your body. Over time, this lengthens the tissues, improving the range of motion in your joints, and in turn your overall ability to move. Stretching these muscles and connective tissues can also help relieve muscle stiffness and reduce the risk of joint degeneration, according to the American Council on Exercise.
The increase in flexibility and range of motion can also translate into better athletic performance. A wider and freer range of motion can assist in how an athlete throws, hits, swings or moves in general throughout practice and competition. However, keep in mind that static stretching, or stretching used to stretch muscles while the body is at rest, right before a game or practice may actually hurt athletic performance, suggests Dr. L.W. McDaniel. The negative effects of static stretching before athletic competition can last up to an hour after the stretching has been completed.
More flexibility may also decrease the risk of injuries related to overstretched or overextended muscles and other connective tissues. This is true as long as stretching is thought of as a regular routine, instead of acute stretching directly before exercise, sports practice or a game. Stretching after exercise can also help reduce aches and pains, according to the American Council on Exercise. This is due to stretching's ability to reduce the shortening and tightening effect of tissues that occurs after exercise and leads to aches and pains. More comprehensive research needs to be performed on the actual effects of stretching on injury reduction to provide a more definitive answer on how exactly stretching may help or hurt.
Before or After Exercise
Stretching should always be thought of as an exercise to be performed on a regular basis, scheduled at times other than directly before an exercise session, practice or game. Stretching can be performed after an exercise as part of your cool-down routine, or can be done at other times during the day that are unrelated to exercise or physical activity. Instead of stretching before exercise, use a simple warm-up to prime the muscles and other tissues for exercise. Examples include a short jog, 10 or 15 minutes on the elliptical at a low resistance, or performing other exercises at a lower intensity level and working up to a higher intensity.