The Importance of Stretching

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female soccer player stretching on field before a game

By: John Gallucci, Jr., MS, ATC, DPT

President, JAG-ONE Physical Therapy

Medical Coordinator, Major League Soccer

 

It is widely accepted across the world of athletics, to include soccer, that stretching or a flexibility program is the main component of one’s warm-up and cool-down. It’s the reason why we ask our athletes to show up to practice thirty minutes early and the reason why they stay are asked to stay fifteen minutes after the last minute ticks of the game clock, right? However, in my days as a physical therapist, athletic trainer, coach and parent I have had the opportunity to stand on the sideline and watch how flexibility programs are being conducted and although everyone is running through the motions I am not sure if they understand the importance of what they are doing!

Why is stretching important?

Simply put, stretching and flexibility programs are just as important as a strength and conditioning program and should not be taken lightly or skipped over due to a shortage of time in the schedule. Think about your team’s stretching program… Do you break a sweat? Are you focused rather than catching up with friends about the day’s events? Are the motions similar to that of the activity that you are doing on the field? If you answered no to any of these questions, then it is time to re-vamp that program and to understand the benefits (see below) of a properly executed program.

Benefits

  • Improves athletic performance due to increased muscle readiness
  • Decreases risk of traumatic or overuse injuries
  • Helps joints move through their full range of motion
  • Enables muscles to work most effectively

 

Why do we stretch?

Daily stretching is the only way to ensure that we are keeping our muscles strong, long, lean, and flexible. Without stretching, muscles can shorten, tighten and are more susceptible to tearing. Soccer athletes due to the repetitive nature of their sport are at an increased risk of sustaining a muscular injury, especially if they are not focused on flexibility. Think about it, soccer athletes ask their body to perform at a high level for 90 minutes where they run, cut, jump and backpedal on average 7 miles per game, which does not include the time they spend on the practice field. This strenuous workload that is placed on the soccer athletes muscles causes’ muscular damage and breakdown and ultimately pain and tightness due to new cellular growth.  To combat the pain and tightness that is felt following soccer activities our cool-down sessions should gradually lower the heart rate back to normal and should include static, or stationary, stretches that focus on the muscle groups utilized during the activity.

In terms of a proper-warm up, it is important that we are readying the body for the motions and actions that we will soon be asking our body to perform. Think of your muscle as a rubber band; if it is warm outside and you pull a rubber band it stretches very easily. If you stick the rubber band in a freezer and try to stretch it, it will break beyond repair. The same rules apply to the muscles in the body. Performing a dynamic, or active, warm-up prepares the body by getting the blood pumping to the muscles, which in turn warms them up (temperature wise) and leads to a decreased risk of muscle tears during activity.

 

How can I improve my flexibility?

In order to increase one’s level of flexibility, I recommend that every athlete perform some sort of flexibility workout every day. However, it is important to note that flexibility does not happen overnight and that the athlete must stay committed to the process. During static stretching, which is typically performed following activity, each major muscle group should be stretched slowly and with control, holding each stretch for 1 to 3 sets of 30 to 60 seconds. Hold each stretch at the point of mild tension or tightness, not to the point of pain. Static stretching should not be done as a warm-up to an activity as you could injure your muscles if stretching them when they are cold.

During dynamic stretching, which is typically performed prior to athletic activity, the athlete should be actively engaged in activities such as jogging, sprinting, cutting and jumping as a means to increase their heart rate and get the blood pumping to the muscles. An example of a dynamic warm-up program that is currently utilized at the youth, recreation, club and professional level is the FIFA 11 +. This program generally takes no longer than 20 minutes and consists of 15 dynamic exercises of running, strength, plyometrics and balance. The FIFA 11+, when performed properly and consistently, has been proven to reduce injury risk in the youth soccer athlete by 30-45 percent and the severity of injuries by 20-30 percent.

For more information in regards to stretching and flexibility, please be sure to check out Soccer Injury Prevention and Treatment: A Guide to Optimal Performance for Players, Parents, and Coaches written by John Gallucci Jr., MS, ATC, PT, DPT.