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Hockey-specific stretching beneficial to improving performance

By Peter Twist

To do static stretching, athletes select a muscle and gently move across a joint until they feel a comfortable stretch on the muscle. They then stop and hold that position for a short time. They are stretching the muscle in a static, or stationary, position. For athletes who lack flexibility in certain areas, static stretches are great for isolating muscles. They are easier to learn than proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretches and safer than ballistic stretches.

To clarify, players do PNF stretching with a partner. For a hamstring stretch, the partner moves the athlete’s leg into position to stretch the hamstring. Then the athlete contracts the hamstring, trying to push the leg back down, while the partner resists the movement. Next, the athlete relaxes the muscle, allowing the partner to move the leg deeper into the stretch. PNF stretching typically uses a stretch, contract, relax, and stretch deeper sequence. PNF is an advanced stretching method with an aggressive approach; care is needed to make sure that players do not stretch too aggressively, forcing a stretch beyond the capabilities of the tissue. In conjunction with joint mobility and myofascial release, I prefer gentle static stretching to hold more precise stretch ranges in an effort to tune up the body.

Despite all the potential benefits of a stretching routine, many of the players I’ve coached say that they have tried stretching but that their muscles end up feeling tighter or even strained. I tell them that warming up and stretching didn’t cause their discomfort—improper warming up and stretching caused it or, if they stretched before workouts, the timing of their stretching caused them to feel worse. To stretch successfully, players must do it correctly. After players learn to stretch properly, they are sold on the merits. For successful stretching, players must adhere to the following 10 guidelines for static stretching:

1. Stretch postactivity, when muscles have a higher deep core temperature, which improves the elasticity of the muscle.

2. If you end a workout with tight legs and heavy lactate accumulation, a 5- to 10-minute cool-down will help flush the legs and put them in a state more conducive for stretching.

3. Isolate the muscle to be stretched with strict technique. Do not cheat by altering the exercise slightly just to stretch farther.

4. Move slowly and smoothly through the stretch. Fast movements will cause the muscle to contract to protect itself. Receptors within muscles and tendons can sense the rate of lengthening. If the receptors sense a rapid lengthening, they will tell the muscle to contract to protect itself from lengthening too fast.

5. Do not overstretch. Most athletes try to stretch as far as possible, straining to move farther into the stretch. This may seem sensible, but the receptors in muscles and tendons also sense how far you are stretching the muscle. Straining a joint beyond its range of movement only causes the muscle to contract to protect itself from being stretched too far. Stretching across a contracted or tight muscle ultimately leads to formation of inelastic scar tissue. You need to stretch a relaxed muscle, not a contracted muscle. Hold the stretch in a comfortable position. You should feel only slight tension in the muscle, which should subside as you hold the position. If the tension does not subside, back off to a more relaxed position.

6. Hold the stretch in a static position where you are comfortable and relaxed, without needing to contract several muscles just to hold the position. For example, lying in a doorway with one leg straight up the doorframe allows you to stretch the hamstrings from a relaxed position. This technique is much different from standing on one leg on the ice to balance while holding one leg on the boards.

7. Hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds, optimally up to a minute. The longer you hold an easy stretch, the more likely it is that the muscle will relax and loosen. A longer stretch helps you achieve results at the muscle–tendon junction, which is avascular, receiving lower oxygen and nutrient supply.

8. Inhale before you move into a stretch. Exhale as you move into and through the stretch. Continue to breathe normally and freely as you hold the stretch. If a stretched position inhibits your natural breathing pattern, you are obviously not relaxed and are likely straining. Ease up until you can breathe naturally. Take full, relaxed breaths. Never hold your breath.

9. Progress to development stretching. The initial easy stretch should relax the muscle. If your muscle was comfortable during this stretch, move another half inch (1.25 centimeters) for a longer stretch. Move farther into the stretch until you again feel slight tension. The tension should subside. If it doesn’t, back off to a more comfortable position. As with the initial stretch, as you increase the range of motion and progress deeper into the stretch, exhale slowly.

10. Hold the stretch to about half the perceived tension that you would feel in an aggressive, best-effort stretch that you might perform during team testing.

This is an excerpt from Complete Conditioning for Hockey.

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