Give your­self a good stretch

For­mer ath­lete and rugby coach Phil Mack ad­vo­cates stretch­ing as key to good health in our seden­tary so­ci­ety

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Fitness - George winter

Our cat Saffie agrees with what the Earl of Derby, Ed­ward Stan­ley, said in 1873: “Those who think they have not time for bod­ily ex­er­cise will sooner or later have to find time for ill­ness.” Al­though Saffie hasn’t en­dorsed the earl ex­plic­itly, she im­plies it by ex­am­ple: proper sleep; eat­ing spar­ingly; reg­u­lar phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity; and – she’s do­ing it now – stretch­ing.

Some­one who knows a lot about stretch­ing is for­mer in­ter­na­tional triath­lete and duath­lete Phil Mack, who rep­re­sented both Great Bri­tain and South Africa. He was also strength and con­di­tion­ing coach for the South African rugby team, spent three years in Belfast with Ul­ster Rugby, and con­sulted for Derry GAA.

Mack told The Ir­ish Times that stretch­ing helps main­tain good health: “We live in a seden­tary so­ci­ety, which en­cour­ages stiffer bod­ies, poor pos­ture and loss of joint range of move­ment, all of which can lead to in­jury or pain. Stretch­ing, which comes in many forms – yoga poses, Pi­lates tech­niques and dynamic or static stretch­ing – can all play a role in main­tain­ing or im­prov­ing joint and mus­cle range of move­ment.

“When com­bined with light ex­er­cise for 30 min­utes a day and with a sen­si­ble diet, stretch­ing will help pro­mote a healthy life­style which is re­al­is­tic and sus­tain­able.”

Pos­tu­ral pain

One out­come of our seden­tary so­ci­ety men­tioned by Mack is an in­creased preva­lence of pos­tu­ral prob­lems, some­times ac­com­pa­nied by neck and shoul­der pain.

In a re­cent ran­domised con­trolled trial re­ported in the jour­nal Clin­i­cal Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, Thai re­searchers al­lo­cated 96 of­fice work­ers with mod­er­ate to se­vere neck pain to one of two groups. Both groups re­ceived er­gonomic ad­vice on po­si­tion­ing, seat­ing, and so on. How­ever, the treat­ment group was in­structed to per­form neck and shoul­der stretch­ing ex­er­cises twice daily, five times a week for four weeks.

The stretch­ing group re­ported sig­nif­i­cantly greater re­duc­tions in neck pain, and the re­searchers stated: “A reg­u­lar stretch­ing ex­er­cise pro­gramme per­formed for four weeks can de­crease neck and shoul­der pain and im­prove neck func­tion and qual­ity of life for of­fice work­ers who have chronic mod­er­ate-to-se­vere neck or shoul­der pain.”

For those with more ac­tive life­styles, such as run­ning, the im­por­tance of stretch­ing has evolved from my cross-coun­try rac­ing days many years ago, when the pre-race warm-up en­tailed sit­ting in a car with the heat­ing on. To­day, there is hardly an as­pect of run­ning with­out a cor­re­spond­ing ev­i­dence base, and that in­cludes the warm-up.

A warm-up pre­pares the body for the phys­i­o­log­i­cal chal­lenges to come, aims to en­hance per­for­mance and helps re­duce the risk of in­jury.

The tra­di­tional el­e­ments of any warm-up are sub-max­i­mal aer­o­bic ex­er­cise, sport-spe­cific move­ments and static stretch­ing or dynamic stretch­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2014 re­view in Cur­rent Sports Medicine Re­ports, “Static stretch­ing in­volves length­en­ing a mus­cle and hold­ing it in a mildly un­com­fort­able po­si­tion for a pe­riod, usu­ally some­where be­tween 10 and 30 sec­onds.

“Dynamic stretch­ing uses mo­men­tum and ac­tive mus­cu­lar ef­fort to lengthen a mus­cle, but the end po­si­tion is not held.”

The re­view cites stud­ies of ath­letes run­ning dis­tances greater than 200m, which show that “static stretch­ing prior to ac­tiv­ity has been found to be detri­men­tal to per­for­mance. How­ever, other data in­di­cate that static stretch­ing has no ef­fect on en­durance per­for­mance . . . But it is no­table that no study shows a per­for­mance ben­e­fit from static stretch­ing per­formed prior to these ac­tiv­i­ties.”

And when re­searchers in­ves­ti­gated the “Ef­fects of Static Stretch­ing on 1-Mile Uphill Run Per­for­mance”, they re­ported in the Jour­nal of Strength and Con­di­tion­ing Re­search that “ath­letes may be at risk for de­creased per­for­mance af­ter a static stretch­ing bout. There­fore, static stretch­ing should be avoided be­fore a short en­durance bout.”

stretch­ing should not be painful or rushed, and never over-stretch as you’ll prob­a­bly do more harm than good

Prac­ti­cal level

So what should we be do­ing at a prac­ti­cal level? Mack, whose in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion in the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of in­jured elite and recre­ational ath­letes en­sures he is kept busy at his chain of sports in­jury and phys­io­ther­apy clin­ics in Ed­in­burgh and the Scot­tish Bor­ders (the­p­hys­io­ther­a­py­clin­, says: “How you stretch can be as per­sonal as the type of ex­er­cise or sport you choose. The key is find­ing what works for you, and if you are not sure, try out a yoga or Pi­lates class as a start­ing point. This will give you a feel for what stretch­ing can do for you.”

Dynamic stretch­ing, says Mack, is typ­i­cally used be­fore ex­er­cise, as part of a warm-up: “It helps to stim­u­late the ner­vous sys­tem, brings blood to the mus­cles, raises the heart rate and gen­er­ally helps pre­pare the body for func­tional move­ment. Static stretch­ing is typ­i­cally used af­ter, or sep­a­rately to, a workout. How­ever, al­though it may be ben­e­fi­cial for in­creas­ing flex­i­bil­ity, it tones down the ner­vous sys­tem and pre­pares the body to re­lax and re­lease rather than stim­u­late.”

What­ever your goal, sug­gests Mack, warm­ing up cor­rectly can give you an edge by help­ing you pre­pare phys­i­cally and men­tally for the race ahead: “Prac­tise dif­fer­ent sport-spe­cific warm-up strate­gies to find what works for you. En­sure you pro­gres­sively in­crease your heart rate us­ing sim­i­lar ac­tiv­i­ties to your race and cou­ple this with dynamic stretch­ing of the main mus­cle groups in­volved. Fin­ish your warm-up with a cou­ple of short high-in­ten­sity bursts a few min­utes be­fore you start.

“How­ever,” adds Mack, “stretch­ing should not be painful or rushed, and never over-stretch as you’ll prob­a­bly do more harm than good.”


As we age, de­creas­ing flex­i­bil­ity presents an in­creas­ing chal­lenge to our health, and stretch­ing is im­por­tant in ad­dress­ing this prob­lem. Tra­di­tion­ally, static stretch­ing helps im­prove flex­i­bil­ity. But re­cently, the Pi­lates ap­proach to ex­er­cise has en­joyed in­creas­ing pop­u­lar­ity, where dynamic stretch­ing is favoured.

Writ­ing re­cently in the Jour­nal of Body­work & Move­ment Ther­a­pies, Brazil­ian re­searchers de­scribed their “com­par­i­son be­tween static stretch­ing and the Pi­lates method on the flex­i­bil­ity of older women”. Thirty-two healthy women aged over 60 years were sep­a­rated into two groups – static stretch­ing or Pi­lates – and ex­er­cised for one hour twice a week for three months.

The study con­cluded that “[F]or some body seg­ments, Pi­lates may be more ef­fec­tive for im­prov­ing flex­i­bil­ity in older women com­pared to static stretch­ing.”

I could con­tinue, but that would be stretch­ing a point.

For­mer in­ter­na­tional triath­lete and duath­lete Phil Mack, left, be­lieves stretch­ing helps main­tain good health.

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