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By Brian M. Torpey, MD, FACS

 

Exercise training that focuses on maintaining good muscle tone and flexibility can help an athlete perform sports activities at the most optimal level. Stretching and preloading of muscles and joints allows athletes to condition themselves and, thereby, prevent overload injury when they perform competitive and training exercises. Several interesting facts concerning flexibility include:

  • Females, especially children, are typically more flexible than males.
  • Flexibility decreases with age.
  • Strength training does not limit flexibility.

Athletes who do strength training and flexibility training can maintain good flexibility. The enhancement of flexibility is perhaps best attained by performing a regular stretching routine. This will allow the athlete to reduce muscle tension and make the body feel relaxed. Coordination will also be enhanced by an athlete's ability to obtain freer range of motion. Injuries such as muscle strain and shin splints are examples of sports-related problems that respond well to the use of good flexibility and stretching techniques.

The following guidelines for stretching are strongly recommended. Typically three stretching repetitions should be performed for the specific muscle grouping targeted. When stretching, hold the stretch for at least six seconds (although some experts recommend up to 30 seconds). Stretching should be performed both before and after sporting activities. Slow stretching, when the muscle is slowly stretched out, has a much less associated injury rate than active, jerky stretching motions, such as jumping jacks.

When performing stretching activities, a good rule of thumb is to try not to force any motion. Do not bounce up and down or stretch to the point of pain. Finally, remember that stretching becomes more important as the athlete's sport season progresses. Athletes with persistently fatigued muscles that are repeatedly exposed to strenuous activities are more apt to experience a muscle strain injury if they have not maintained their flexibility.