Stretching out…. Good or bad for performance? (March 2015)

Stretching out…. Good or bad for performance?

We have all heard about using stretches, and whether for ourselves or our horses, stretching is IN! However, there are times when stretching is good for you and your horse, times when its effect is negligible and times when it may be detrimental…. So how to decide when and how to use stretches?

Firstly, let’s look at what is happening when we stretch a muscle. Inside the muscle are lots of muscle fibres, connective tissues and proprioceptors which measure what is happening in the muscle and relay that information back to the central nervous system. When we apply a stretch, the muscle fibres are first to elongate to their full length. Next the surrounding connective tissues are encouraged to lengthen and where adhesions or fibrous scar tissues are present, the collagen fibres will respond by gradually aligning to the direction of the stretch, thereby reducing the area of adhesion and scar tissue. Finally the proprioceptors are trained to allow the muscle to relax and lengthen. Those proprioceptors will initially cause the stretched muscle to contract slightly against the direction of the stretch. This is a protective mechanism to prevent muscle damage. A quick stretch may elongate the muscle fibres and connective tissues but will have little effect on the proprioceptors, hence the conventional wisdom which states a stretch should be held for between thirty and sixty seconds to have a chance to work. A steady slow stretch gives the proprioceptors time to reprogram their response to the muscle’s new length and reduces the number of signals sent back to the central nervous system to initiate muscle contraction.

So that’s the mechanics of stretching inside the muscle…. But why do we need to stretch at all? Well, a tight shortened muscle is unable to generate the full power it is capable of when operating from a normal length and tone. Stretching allows the muscle to find its natural length and regain the powerful contractibility necessary for good performance. Stretching can also influence joint range of motion, improving flexibility and producing a more athletic individual. So surely it makes sense to stretch, stretch, stretch….

Actually no! Research has shown that stretching PRIOR to athletic activity in humans can result in LESS powerful muscles than if no stretching is performed before exercise. Last month we talked about the effect of high and low muscle tension. To summarise, high muscle tension produces greater power but greater risk of injury whereas low muscle tension results in slower contraction of the muscles but better recovery. Stretching muscles which are already at optimal length may actually reduce the level of muscle tension, and therefore affect the amount of power which can be generated. On the other hand, using stretching exercises POST exercise can increase the recovery response by facilitating a lower muscle tension.

So it seems we should all stretch AFTER exercise rather than before…. As a general rule yes, but many horses and riders do benefit from PRE performance stretching and in these cases, it is often noticeable that the horse or rider are stiff and lacking general flexibility. For the best results from stretching, use the questions below to guide you…

  1. Are you/your horse stiff when warming up?

YES – for your horse, spend ten minutes using walking, trotting and transitions to get the blood flowing into the muscles and the temperature within the muscles elevated slightly, before applying gentle thirty to sixty second stretches to those areas where the stiffness is most evident. As a rider, use active walking, kick your feet up to your bottom and do high steps before using targeted stretches and then mounting up.

NO – use dynamic stretching movements such as lateral exercises in walk and trotting in a long and low outline to warm up your horse before concentrating on the tasks specific to the discipline you compete in. For riders, do some fast or active walking, kick your heels up to your bottom and take high steps to get yourself warmed up before mounting.

  1. Are you/your horse stiff after exercise?

YES – warm down using lateral movements in walk and gentle trotting exercise for five to ten minutes, then dismount, remove the saddle and stretch your horse using a range of carrot and limb stretches for all over body flexibility. Rug your horse up immediately afterwards if the weather is cold. Riders should walk actively for five minutes before stretching the calves, quads and inner thighs at least.

NO – warm down as above and use stretching exercises once a week to monitor overall flexibility rather than performing them every day.

Which stretches to use?

For your horse, use carrot stretches round to the girth and back to the flanks on each side, and down between the fetlocks, (not knees) to obtain all round lateral and dorsal flexion of the spine. Limbs can be stretched forwards and backwards, but make sure you do not place your hand under the hoof at any time, and avoid these stretches if you have any back pain or issues yourself.

For you as the rider, use hamstring stretches (standing on a step on the balls of your feet and allowing your heels to drop down), quadriceps stretches, (by bringing your foot up towards your bottom), and lateral hip stretches, (by bending one knee and moving your body to one side to stretch out the opposite limb).