Posted by: thehungryrunner | October 13, 2010

On the subject of stretching: “When can I expect to see results?”

As many of you know, The Hungry Runner is also The Flexibility Coach.  So the topic of stretching is the centerpiece of my life, both in my work and on a personal level.  And one of the questions I receive most often is, “When can I expect to see results?”

Truth be told, I suspect this very question is one reason people often get frustrated and stop stretching as regularly as they should.  And not surprisingly, the answer contains both bad news and good news.  Let’s start with the bad, which really isn’t bad at all, just…..sobering, perhaps.  But I promise the positive will trump the negative!

So here’s the reality check:  Unless your current lack of flexibility came from a recent, traumatic event — a sprained ankle or other injury, or starting an exercise program a tad too vigorously, the tightness that’s becoming a problem is likely the result of a long process of repetitive movements and positions reinforcing some muscle imbalances in your body.  In fact, even if you DID recently experience a trauma that led to your current flexibility issues, chances are high you have some pre-existing muscle imbalance that, while it may not have been the main cause, left your body more vulnerable to the trauma.

In other words, the situation did not develop overnight.  And therefore, the solution — proper stretching of certain muscles, strengthening of others, adding additional balance and “functional” drills for your coordination and core muscles — is not going to reverse those effects overnight, either.  Probably not a huge surprise to any of us, but it’s a point worth repeating, since we often “forget” that little nugget of wisdom when we stretch.  Funny, I think many of us are more attentive to heading to the sink and scrubbing out a food spill from our favorite garment, than we are thoughtfully attending to enabling our tight and tense muscles to relax and stretch.  Think of it:  You accidently splash some coffee on your sleeve, say, “Oh shoot” and dutifully rinse and soap it up until it starts to fade…..and then you keep on scrubbing, recognizing that “Ah HA!  It will come out.”  Yet, just when we feel a stretch “working” — i.e. you feel that specific stretch sensation in your muscle…..we often back out of the stretch and decide we’re just not cut out for flexibility.

So, before I even answer the “when” question, I can’t say enough how important it is that you stretch properly and consistently.  Get it?  Got it.  Good.

As to how long it takes to feel the effects….Let’s assume you’re stretching reasonably thoroughly (say, for 10-15 minutes at a time), at least 2-3 times  per week.  You’re using stretches that are well-matched to your needs, are feeling a distinct stretch upon assuming these positions, and are using proper form and technique:  holding the stretch for a sufficient period, breathing smoothly, concentrating on relaxing the target muscle, and backing off if you cross that line into pain.

I would expect there to be some distinct change in your mobility, comfort or sports performance within 4-8 weeks of beginning this program.  I would expect those changes to be even more profound as you cross the 12-16 week mark, when presumably you’ve been able to adjust your stretches to more challenging and intense positions, and have probably mastered the art of proper stretching more thoroughly.

That’s the “bad” news, because changes that occur over such a period can often feel tediously slow and subtle.  It’s my hope that you won’t be discouraged by this perception, because presumably, you’re undertaking the stretching with the long-term benefit — your long-term mobility and physicality — in mind.

However, there’s a silver lining of good news to this!  The good news is, you should feel better IMMEDIATELY as well.  No, you won’t have altered your body’s flexibility from before a stretch session to after that stretch session — at least not measurably.  But what you will accomplish is some relief of muscle tension and tightness, due to the relaxation effect of proper stretching.  Through the act of relaxing your muscles — and the nerves that stimulate them, you will feel a momentary reduction of stress, an effect that is amplified by having taken a few minutes to breathe deeply and concentrate mindfully on the task at hand.  And you will be allowing your body to establish its full CURRENT range of motion, which will enable you to workout and move throughout your day more effectively, with better posture, and less stress on your joints.

So make no mistake, if your stretching is sound, well-timed and well-chosen, you WILL be inducing a wide array of positive changes; it just so happens that some of them are influenced near-instantly, while others are the result of accumulated efforts and adjustments!

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