How long am I supposed to hold a stretch?
This is a question that is posed to me often, and there is a lot of research out there, however, always remember that any research is a study of an average sample group.
I can only state my humble opinion, which is based on my experience of being an athlete, and of working with a variety of patients for over 25 years.
As in any exercise, stretching and your capacity to stretch, are influenced by a multitude of factors.
The conditions for stretching that work for me and for most of my clients
- A calm environment
- A dedication to be present and to be calmly focused.
- Stretching is all about slowing down and taking time; one of the most difficult things for most people in Western societies. There is nothing fast in a stretch – learn to add value to the stretching cycle.
- Deep awareness of breath, pain tolerance, inhibition, the natural rise & fall of the body when you breath and to feel the windows where you and your body can yield.
- Breath through your nose always – this is hugely important (more about this in-depth later.)
- Don’t cram ‘stretch’ in, at the end of the session to tick the box, schedule and prioritise stretching sessions.
Crucial questions and steps to think about
What are the muscles that you want to stretch?
- Do you understand how to position yourself (your joints) in neutral and do you understand how to ‘bias’ different aspects of your muscles?
- Do you understand to actively switch different muscles groups on and off, for example, when you stretch your Hamstrings that you ought to switch your Quadriceps muscles on (protagonist & antagonist)?
- Are you stretching a stiff, strong muscle or are you in fact stretching a stiff, weak muscle? The latter being a very common mistake and a big reason why you never experience a difference. Stiff weak muscles need mobility and strength training, stretching them is ineffective practice.
- I cannot stress enough that stretching requires “easy-easy”. Thus, breathing is through the nose, no gasping. Use a natural, effortless breathing cycle. Forced breathing or no breathing are clear indications that you and the stretch are fighting each other and that is counterproductive. The deep sports and Thai massage motto of “when it hurts, it is good” is an absolute no-no!
So, when we stretch, we set the intention of stretching, we become slow, I speak softer, at times I don’t speak at all, except for mere guidance, this is a place to observe and to respond & respect your breath. Keep the breathing effortless, yet intentional. We position ourselves in neutral, this might take on the form of block/blankets/the use of bands etc.
We then enter the stretch in the correct sequence, and we consciously try to slow the sympathetic nervous system down by lowering our blood pressure (BP), slowing down our heart rate, our thoughts, our breath, and we stay, however we also let go at the same time. We sink into our stretches with control – and then for how long? For as long as you can feel the effect and the benefit, there is always a natural end to everyone when they stretch and this varies from day-to-day and the more you stretch, as like any other practice, the longer your windows become. A stretch literally means being out of your comfort zone – it will be uncomfortable, however there is a definite healthy uncomfortable and then there is an unhealthy force/toleration.
I have come to learn, to become humble and to put my ego aside when I stretch and I encourage all my students to do the same, it is neither about how far, how high, or how deep I can handle the stretch. Less is more, especially when you start, even if you only stretch two muscle groups at a time. Quality. The depth of a stretch varies from day-to-day. That is called life and the sooner you accept that, the better. Stay in what is present, and available, today.
Mobility of your joints, your posture, your daily activities, your general health and vitality, your hydration – they all form part of the ‘healthy soil’ for flexibility, to neglect them and to simply stretch, in my humble opinion is to try to fly to the moon.
Intentional Stretching for me is the hardest practice, it is an absolute challenge to be fully present in a slow way and it takes resolve and dedication. However, it is also through this ‘hardship’ where I connect with my deepest spirit.
At the end, get some specialist guidance, set your personal routine – the one that reflects you and your lifestyle and prioritise that, as much as the work-out and/or run itself.
Let us ask the same question again: How long am I supposed to hold a stretch?
Is this then the best question to ask?
I hope that you now have some idea of the complexities, thoughts and conditions in being able to stretch effectively.