For athletes, weekend warriors and anyone who wants to remain mobile later in life, there’s a key ingredient in our daily routine we simply can’t ignore: stretching exercises. Stretching and flexibility exercises are especially important as we age. Because, like it or not, our muscles, tendons and ligaments begin to shorten and our joints produce less of the fluid that keeps them moving smoothly.
For me, the simple task of folding forward and touching the ground with my hands flat has become a challenge as I age. The days where I was limber enough to hold a backbend may be long gone. Or maybe not! Stretching and flexibility exercises lengthen our muscles and create less restricted movement. What’s most important is that we commit to adding stretching exercises into our fitness routines.
Increase Flexibility at Any Age
Adrienne Leblanc, physical therapist and owner of Second Wind Holdings physical therapy services, says, “You can increase flexibility at any age. The key is practicing.”
She would know. At 48, she is a world champion and national champion triathlete in her age group. As an elite athlete approaching 50, she understands better than most the importance of making stretching and flexibility exercises a priority for long-term performance.
“It’s really, really important as we age to make stretching a part of our training because we have natural changes that occur in our tissues. They become more brittle,” she says. “Studies also show that a flexibility program can reduce the incidence of injuries.”
She points out that as we age, our connective tissue becomes more stiff and fibrous. And oftentimes, with athletes, previous injuries become laden with scar tissue adhesions that can also restrict movement.
Reduce Injuries With Stretching Exercises
Stretching and flexibility exercises can also prevent injuries and enhance recovery. When you’re more flexible, you create a wider range of motion in all movements. LeBlanc offers the example of a runner dodging an obstacle. “If you take a larger stride to jump over a curb and you’re muscles are too tight, you can tear a hamstring.”
Leblanc recommends warming up for 10 minutes or so by walking or on an elliptical machine if you’re at the gym. Follow this with a round of stretching exercises before you dive into your workout.
Stretching exercises can also aid in recovery. “Stretching at the end of a workout helps to relax the muscles and decrease tension, which is needed for proper recovery,” Leblanc adds.
When it comes to stretching, technique is everything. Dynamic stretching, or active stretching, is preferable, according to LeBlanc. In dynamic stretching, you work the muscles through their full range of motion, a process known as reciprocal inhibition.
The days of holding static stretches pre-workout are over, and may in fact cause injuries because the muscles are not properly warmed up. Static stretching exercises can be done post-workout. “Always make sure your muscles are warmed up before doing any kind of static stretch,” Leblanc warns.
One example of a dynamic stretch for the lower body is to simply stand on one leg and lift your knee toward your chest and hold for 1-2 seconds. Continue for 30 seconds to one minute and switch legs. Repeat two to three times on each leg. “With this exercise, you’re flexing the hip joint and the hamstrings are relaxing at the same time,” Leblanc says.
When stretching, remember to breathe through the stretches. “Really relax and feel the muscle as it relaxes,” Leblanc says. “Picture the muscle releasing tension and don’t over-stretch. You should feel pulling, but not to the point of pain. Keep the joints soft (don’t lock your knees). And don’t bounce.”
Make Stretching a Habit
Leblanc recommends incorporating stretching into your routine at least four to six times a week.
Optimally, you warm up and then perform a series of stretching exercises before every workout.
“It wakes up the body and the muscles,” she says. “Plus, if you want to make big changes in your flexibility, you have to make frequency a priority.”
Top 5 Stretches for Master’s Athletes
Leblanc recommends these simple stretches to hit key areas of tightness for most people. For each exercise, hold stretch for 10-30 seconds, release, and repeat 2-3 times on each side.
- Hamstring Stretch. Lay on back, knees bent. Maintain a neutral back and pelvis. One leg at a time, grasp knee and hug into chest. For a deeper stretch, straighten leg, grasp back of knee and pull gently toward chest.
- Quadriceps/Hip Flexor Stretch. Either standing or laying on one side. Raise foot toward glutes, grab ankle behind. Feel the stretch “forward” as you pull your foot upward. Keep knee parallel to opposite leg.
- Glutes/Piriformis Stretch. Especially effective for cyclists and runners. Lay on back, knees bent. Cross one foot over opposite knee and gently lift that knee upward to create a stretch through the glutes and piriformis.
- Pectoralis Stretch. Using a wall, place arm and elbow at a 90-degree angle against the wall. Push against wall and rotate body away from wall.
- Upper Trapezius Stretch. Sitting in a chair, grasp the side of the chair with one arm. Tilt neck away from the side you are grasping and feel the stretch through your neck and upper traps.