In our zeal to promote fitness, several aspects of the healthy lifestyle are often emphasized. Strength and endurance training are the cornerstones of fitness. However, there are several other important aspects of health that aren’t talked about as much but are equally important.
One of the most important things that athletes should remember but often neglect is flexibility. Ideally, flexibility should be stressed in any training program along with strength and endurance. There are several reasons to focus on flexibility in virtually any training regimen. The first of which is that it can actually improve performance in more ways that you might think. Obviously, this improvement is more pronounced in certain sports such as gymnastics and martial arts but the benefits extend to other sports as well.
There are several studies that indicate that athletes participating in flexibility training actually improve their subjective and objective performance in a variety of sports including tennis and swimming. One biomechanical study in particular detailed an upper extremity flexibility regimen that when used by freestyle swimmers produced a marked improvement in their performance.
Flexibility also reduces the incidence of injury in many cases. Traditionally, this benefit was thought to primarily involve injuries such as muscle and tendon strains. While these benefits are intuitive and fairly indisputable, other injures can be prevented in a similar manner. Joint injuries can actually be reduced with an adequate stretching routine. Ankle sprains and knee ligament injuries have been shown to decrease in athletes who actively and properly stretch as part of their training. Some ongoing studies are investigating the effects of stretching on reducing marathon and other endurance injuries. Some of the initial results seem promising.
In addition to preventing injuries, flexibility training can actually be therapeutic for certain injuries. For example, the most common cause of heel pain is called plantar fasciitis. Among the most effective therapies for this problem is heel cord stretching. In fact, stretching, orthotics, and anti-inflammatory medicines alone can cure the majority of plantar fasciitis. Only a minority of patients will require more invasive treatments.
Just a few minutes of stretching prior to or after your regular training or exercise are enough to see marked improvement. There are people who advocate stretching before exercises and others who think that afterwards is better. In reality, there is evidence and logic to both theories. To realize maximum benefit, a few minutes before and after training spent stretching could make a significant difference.
Flexibility training is not just for trained athletes. People who are early in their training or people who don’t exercise regularly at all can benefit from increasing flexibility. For the “couch potato”, the reduced injury argument probably isn’t particularly motivating. However, regular stretching can help to reduce muscle strains and tears. Other chronic injuries like shin splints, lateral knee pain (iliotibial band friction syndrome), knee cap pain (chondromalacia patella) also respond well to therapeutic stretching.
Other flexibility options are gaining popularity recently. Though certainly not for everyone, yoga and other similar exercises emphasize the marriage of flexibility and strength. Though the practitioners of yoga suggest that there may be other non-physical benefits from participation, the health benefits are fairly certain.
Flexibility is an important part of my training regimen and can be a great way for the uninitiated to begin to do something to improve their own health.