Being flexible can stretch athletic ability


Greater flexibility can enhance your overall athletic performance.

Longer muscles -- a sign of flexibility -- can generate greater force on a joint. As a result, you can throw farther, lift heavier, jump higher and run faster. The best way to improve your flexibility is through slow, deliberate stretching movements that increase your range of motion.

Rapid or bouncy stretching can be dangerous; it places too much tension on the muscle being stretched. It's also usually ineffective because it triggers the involuntary stretch reflex, which contracts the very muscle you are trying to relax.

It's best to warm your muscles before you stretch by exercising slowly in the same manner you'll be using those same muscles. For example, to warm up for cycling, you might pedal slowly for 5 minutes. Warm up for running by jogging slowly; warm up for tennis by hitting several practice shots; warm up for ice hockey by skating slowly. Warming up raises muscle temperature, allowing the muscle to contract more forcefully with less chance of tearing.

After any vigorous exercise, your muscles are injured slightly and will shorten as they heal. And if you exercise regularly, your muscles will gradually tighten with time, limiting your flexibility.

To prevent muscle tightening and to maintain flexibility and comfort, stretch after every workout, as well as before it.

Simply, make certain at least mild stretching is a regular part of your exercise routine.

* Q: I'm thinking about climbing the stairs in my apartment building as a way to exercise indoors during the winter months. Can I get fit that way?

A: Climbing stairs will strengthen your upper leg muscles, but it is not an ideal way to become fit.

To become fit, you need to make your heart stronger by exercising continuously for at least 10 minutes. At the outset, most people cannot walk up stairs continuously for that length of time.

When you walk or run along level ground, you distribute the force of your movement among all the muscles in your feet, legs and hips. Youdo not stress one particular muscle group more than another. Even people who are not in great shape usually can walk or jog continuously on level ground.

However, when you climb stairs, you have to lift your entire body against gravity. Most of the power to do this comes from the big quadriceps muscles in the front of your upper legs and the big hamstring muscles in the back of your upper legs. Unless you have strong upper leg muscles, you cannot walk or run up stairs very quickly or for very long. Your muscles will hurt, and you will have to stop after just a few minutes.

A study from Finland shows sedentary female office workers could not become fit simply by walking up stairs. After climbing stairs twice a day for six months, the women showed no measurable improvement in heart strength.

However, by skiing, skating or cycling, you can strengthen your upper leg muscles so you'll be able to walk up stairs long enough to give your heart a good workout.

Dr. Mirkin is a practicing physician in Silver Spring specializing in sports medicine and nutrition.

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