If you run or ride, you’ve certainly seen this: Someone pulls up to a park or trailhead, plops a foot on a vehicle bumper and leans forward to do a couple of quick hamstring stretches.
That’s bad, according to Dr. Massimo “Max” Testa, a physician at Intermountain Health & Fitness Institute in Salt Lake City. Testa, who is also an internationally known cycling coach, is currently team doctor for cycling’s BMC Racing Team, which won 2011’s Tour de France. He works closely with local cycling champion Levi Leipheimer, who has won both the Tour of Utah and Tour of California races. Testa was also previously a trainer for Lance Armstrong.
Despite working with the best athletes on the planet, Testa says that in his 30-year career, he’s learned things that apply to every athlete, from novice to elite. “First, don’t stretch when you’re [not physically warmed up],” he says. “Do five or 10 minutes of easy exercise to prepare the muscles for stretching, especially if you’re over age 35 to 40, even more when stretching your hamstrings. The hamstrings are very sensitive, a small muscle size in respect to the tendon length. If you don’t warm up enough to get blood into the [actual] muscle, it will tighten up more; you won’t get the benefit you are looking for,” he says.
Stretching is not the cut-and-dried subject many people believe it is. There’s static stretching, where one position is held and slowly extended; and the dynamic method, where momentum is used to stretch and increase range of motion, as well as other categories. Testa says, “The problem is, sometimes when we talk about stretching, we’re not talking about the same thing. It’s a topic that is still an open debate.”
But there’s no debate about the importance of a pre-stretch warmup. “We see patients who get injured because they stretch when the muscle is too cold, or they stretch too aggressively,” Testa says. “When you stretch, you want to be in a comfortable position … because if you’re trying to stretch one muscle while other muscles are contracted and not relaxed, you won’t get the benefit.”
While you might feel pressure when working on muscles, a stretch should never be painful. In addition, just like a sport, there’s a proper technique. Do the research or have a trainer show you stretching technique. For example, in a hamstring stretch, the upper body should bend from the top of the femurs, not the lumbar spine.
Certain stretches take on elevated importance depending on your sport and lifestyle. Those whose weekdays are spent behind a desk and riding to and from home to get there spend most of their days sitting in a static position. That shortens muscles in the back and lower body.
Testa’s advice for active day-sitters: “You definitely want to stretch your hamstrings, iliotibial band [the thick band of supportive tissue stretching from the top of the pelvis to just below the knee that helps stabilize the knee], hip flexors and also the back—all the back muscles, including low, mid and upper back.”
Many athletic folks have no idea which specific stretches are important for their activity. “If you play basketball, stretch the calves,” Testa says. “Calves and hamstring stretches are for anybody who does a sport with running and jumping. Those muscles are where we see most of the injuries for basketball, soccer and lacrosse players. Cycling tends to be pretty nice on your muscles and joints. For cyclists, we worry more about the neck, because on fast bikes they are leaning forward, stretching their shoulder and neck.”
A 10-minute warmup will get enough blood in the muscles to make them warm and lubricated, ready to be stretched. Yoga also offers good stretching routines; some pose sequences will stretch all the main muscles in just a few minutes.
There’s a library’s worth of stretching information on the web. Again, use research to create a personalized routine for your sport, age and lifestyle. But for those who’ve been physically hibernating over winter and are now emerging at the first hint of spring, Testa offers a warning: “If you haven’t exercised in a while, you need to work on everything—your cardio, your strength, your core muscles that give stability of the body—and then you have to do stretching to increase the range of motion of your joints,” he says.
For those interested in a personal evaluation, Testa and his staff can be contacted at 801-408-1396.