How professional athletes incorporate stretching into their daily routine

For many, stretching is the hidden link to better fitness
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Individuals on the cutting edge of fitness ? top athletes, trainers, exercise scientists ? are "easily sold" that flexibility is a key strategy toward getting better or feeling better or both, according to David Upton, a Fort Worth-based strength and conditioning consultant and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise.

The Olympians who recently finishing leaping, sprinting and landing perfectly across our TV screens have been focused on advanced stretching techniques for years.

Gymnasts, for example, go through elaborate routines that even include contracting muscles during a stretch. Track stars wouldn't think of getting ready ? or winding down ? from a race any other way than by stretching.

And, if newly-minted Olympic champions don't impress you, consider Michael Jordan's trainer, Tim S. Grover, has used stretching between each weightlifting exercise for years with his most famous client and more than 30 other pro basketball and major league baseball stars, including ex-Bulls Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper and Bulls rookie Marcus Fizer.

"Stretching can dramatically improve your athletic performance," says Grover, who runs the Chicago-based ATTACK Athletics "sports enhancement" firm. "For example, studies show the proper stretching program can add inches to your vertical jump. Every jump actually starts with a stretch; the muscles rapidly elongate before contracting for the leap. The more you can lengthen the muscles, the more spring you can get in your jump."

Upton has experienced similar results with clients.

He worked with one world-class runner who improved each stride length by a half-inch with a flexibility program and ultimately won 10K races he was previously losing by 20 to 30 meters.

He introduced trunk rotation stretches to a scratch golfer who added 20 yards to his drives in 12 weeks by doing the flexibility workouts every day.

But I?m no pro!

OK, so maybe slam dunking or playing scratch golf is not in your future. But getting stronger is a goal everyone can appreciate.

Research published this summer shows people who incorporate stretching into their weightlifting programs increase muscle strength at higher rates than non-stretchers.

Studies on aging similarly indicate people who follow a flexibility routine will be more independent in their daily lives and decrease their risk of falling.

Interestingly, the most cited benefit of stretching ? preventing injury ? is hotly debated by exercise physiologists.

The controversy centers on whether people benefit more from warming up the muscles with light aerobic activity or by stretching them. What's accepted is stretching and flexibility-oriented activities (such as yoga or tai chi) will increase range of motion, decrease muscle soreness and stiffness by supplying more oxygen to the blood, encouraging relaxation and improving posture.

Perhaps best of all, flexibility can require the least amount of time in your personal fitness equation (unless you have figured out a way to prepare fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds in a flash).

Five minutes in the morning and another five at night can make a noticeable difference.

Fifteen and 15 is better still, or you can devote 15 to 20 minutes in the evening. Do it in front of the television if it motivates you, but be forewarned ? you may come to cherish the quiet time.

"Stretching can seem boring and not give the `pump' you get from lifting weights," says Florez. "But you also don't have to find 30 to 60 minutes in your day to do 20 sets. You can stretch in bite-size chunks. Start with lower back stretches in the morning when you wake up. Do some standing hamstring stretches while taking phone calls during the day and finish at night with some shoulder and hip work while watching the news or `Sportscenter.'

"We have all sorts of golfers, skiers and hikers as clients who have cheated age as long as possible without doing much flexibility work. Now they understand stretching lets them stay active at higher levels."

The fountain of youth

Anderson goes mountain bike riding near his Colorado home with a group of cyclist friends most days.

The other cyclists, predominantly 10 to 20 years younger, have trouble keeping up with him. He credits a five- to seven-minute stretching routine before every workout, plus "spontaneous stretching" throughout the day and regular but brief stretching sessions each night.

"Age is not the deciding factor," says Anderson. "Being a doer or non-doer is what makes the difference. Stretching is something you can do regularly and consistently."

For his part, Upton says we should look for more opportunities to stretch. Working all day in a swivel chair means you might rarely turn your head, neck or trunk during office hours.

"Believe me, I am part of the same group of people who don't stretch much during a normal day," says Upton. "If I find the time to stretch, my productivity is up and I feel more energy. It sounds simple, but it works."

Getting started can be as easy as staying in bed for an extra couple of minutes. Florez recommends starting your flexibility workout with a modified yoga pose that can be done on a firm mattress or you can move to the floor.

Lie back and bend your knees to bring the feet flat to the ground. Arms are out and palms up. Gently let the knees and hips fall to one side and just as gently turn your head to the opposite side.

Hold this stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, then repeat while flipping directions for knees/hips and head. You will be feeling a good stretch in the hips, neck and lower back.

During the day, Anderson recommends stretching in a doorway several times a day to relieve stress in your chest, shoulders and abdominal muscles.

With the door open, place your hands about shoulder-height on both sides of the doorway. Move your upper body forward until you feel a comfortable stretch in the arms and chest. Keep your chest and head up, with knees slightly bent. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds.

Stretches don't seem like much, but Anderson and others insist flexibility is a much-overlooked ally in staying young.

"I look at stretching as a way to maintain what range of motion you have today," says Anderson. "I don't urge people to get more flexible because it usually doesn't happen to any great degree and people tend to overdo it if they set some unrealistic goal of becoming super limber. If you make stretching a regular part of life and make it comfortable, the more you will do it and the more you body accepts the benefits.

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