What usually makes for the most interesting science reading? Usually, it’s when you come by something that turns conventional wisdom on its head. For instance, imagine yourself sitting in the stands at a high school track-and-field event. Most of the athletes you see are going around doing a couple of stretching exercise routines for flexibility. You look on approvingly, knowing very well that stretching and flexibility are key to performance on the track. And then, there is that loner out there, stiff as a board, who doesn’t seem to buy into the whole flexibility belief system. What on earth is wrong with him?
Researchers at the Nebraska Wesleyan University, have actually found that athletes who don’t do too many stretching exercises before, actually stand a far better chance of performing well than those who wring their muscles as much as they can in the name of flexibility. What goes on here?
Researchers who study the body’s mechanics from the perspective of athletic ability usually pay a lot of attention to something that they call economy – a person’s ability to perform with the least amount of oxygen possible. The more efficient a person’s body is in its use of oxygen, the better the shape is that it is going to be in when the going gets tough. The best African marathon runners usually have better oxygen economy than the best Western runners. Researchers have found that inflexible and non-stretched muscles usually have better economy – they make far better use of oxygen than floppy and flexible, stretched muscles.
Tight and stiff muscles, the researchers have learned, give better rebound energy. You get faster race times when you’re inflexible. And this happens to be true for both men and women.
We look at how flexible little children are and how flexible yoga practitioners are; and we tell ourselves that that’s the way nature meant for us to be. No one’s ever really paid attention to how exactly the whole flexibility thing is supposed to benefit us.
This is not to mean that people who are so inflexible they can’t touch their toes, are going to make great runners. As in everything, moderation makes a lot of sense. You do need a certain amount of flexibility so that you have range of motion. And stretching exercise or two can help. That should help you avoid injury. You don’t want to go all out with the flexibility thing though. You’d be surprised how long you need to stretch to actually make a physical difference to your muscles. Usually, it has to go on for three hours every day for months on end before your muscles will actually change. A small amount of stretching usually makes you feel flexible because your brain is programmed to feel that way. There really is no physical change going on in your muscles. For most of us, all we need is enough flexibility that we don’t get injured doing what we do. As for those Olympic level athletes, they have their coaches working on ways that will reduce how flexible they are.