S-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g it out

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Last week, I adopted a rescue dog named A-O Wubba.

Last Sunday, my 14-mile training run turned ugly eight miles in as calf cramps dogged every stride and threatened to make me stop completely.

These two facts are not unrelated.

You see, A-O’s long legs and abundant energy have added about seven miles of walking to my daily routine. My pup’s constitutionals are not the problem. The problem lies in my being a dog guardian who didn’t see the need for stretching after a walk. I mean, come on, I was only walking. Why would I need to stretch?

Simple…my muscles and ligaments take on the physical properties of fully cured cement if not stretched regularly and thoroughly.

I know that the jury is still out on stretching. One group of studies report that stretching helps prevent injury, eliminate muscle waste products, reduce or delay soreness after exercise, increase range of motion and boost blood flow. Another set of studies advises that stretching has little to no effect on preventing injury or post-exercise soreness and may reduce athletic performance. Yet another collection of studies informs us that stretching – for some athletic pursuits – may actually be detrimental and lead to injury.

Whatever the current favored theory, I will continue to stretch because it works for my body. When I stretch, my range of motion increases. A handy thing to have when reaching to that top shelf or tying shoes. Stretching also helps me balance muscle groups. Relaxing tight areas often flashes big, neon arrows toward reciprocal muscles in need of tougher workouts. Staying flexible keeps me from freezing in the posture or musculature of a single sport and helps me transition smoothly from one activity to another. Stretching also calms me after training and helps me return to a state of physical and mental ease. And unlike last Sunday’s run, stretching keeps me a person capable of joyous self-locomotion.

Based on my far-from-scientific experience as well as A-O’s frequent, luxurious and unprompted stretching routines, I say, “Stretch it if you want to keep moving it.”

There are some situations when pre-exercise stretching is called for, but almost universally it is best to stretch muscles already warmed by exercise. If you are done growing, you make the most of your effort by holding stretches for at least 30 seconds. This hold allows for a better release of tight muscles and connective tissues.

As we age, our tendons, ligaments and fasciae become less extensible and begin to shorten. When this occurs, it can place pressure on nerve pathways and result in nasty shocks of pain when we bend our joints. I personally work to stave off this ravage of time with deep static stretches held for two to three minutes. Static and/or passive stretches are ones that move through an axis of rotation using no active movement, just continued gentle pressure usually supplied conveniently by gravity or other external force.

If you hold any stretch for an extended period of time, you are lengthening muscle as well as supportive and connective tissues. These tissues don’t spring back as quickly as muscle. So once they are stretched, give them proper recovery time before demanding that they support weight, perform sudden movements or make quick changes in direction.

I have been reading up on – and even trying – some dynamic and/or active stretches. Unlike passive stretching, active stretching does not involve holding a position. Instead it uses muscle movement, momentum and speed to induce a stretch; the way walking lunges stretch hip flexors. Dynamic stretching prepares muscles for exertion and performance, but it is not for everyone. If you’ve never tried active stretching, find a good coach or trainer to help you understand what is safe and beneficial for your goals.

Some will notice that I have said nothing about ballistic stretching, which is stretching that uses bouncing to force muscles into an extended range of motion. I mention it now only to say that in some instances athletes use it. However, it is not a form of stretching I recommend or believe should be attempted without proper conditioning and professional instruction. Though ballistic stretching is out of vogue for its potential dangers, keep in mind that any stretching style of that employs excessive force to lengthen a muscle is apt to cause injury.

A-O and I head out for our first tandem trail run this Sunday. I have planned a relatively short route to avoid stressing his muscles or footpads. However, I have a feeling that my caution is unwarranted and that I will be the one left panting. That is what a good training buddy does…pushes you a little further or faster than you thought you could go.

If you’re looking to up your game, I wholeheartedly suggest adopting a dog in need and rewarding it with the movement it craves. Or dust off that leash and water bottle for your current canine best friend and get going. Movement is the best reward for both of you. Whether you are into slow walks or distance runs, there is a dog out there waiting who is just your speed.

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