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Really, is learning to stretch that difficult?

On a recent morning, I jogged from our home in Long Beach, Indiana to a fitness center: just under a mile distance at a slow pace. Then I lifted, nothing heavy because I'm not interested in bodybuilding. Following my gym workout, I walked and jogged home.

Between warm-up run and lifting, I stretched. I didn't spend a lot of time stretching, only doing so for a minute or two before heading to the barbell rack. Here's what I did. I reached overhead with my hands stretching to as high a point as possible. Then I bent forward allowing my hands to drop toward my toes, not worrying about touching those toes, just dangling loosely in that direction. After a few seconds in that limited stretch position, I rose, then reached back down, getting a bit lower without strain. Finally, I finished my stretching routine by putting my hands on hips and rotating. I realize that this is not a traditional static stretch, but I was more interested in loosening the muscles of my body before lifting than following any rules as to proper stretching technique.

That's the problem with people who teach you how to stretch: There are too many rules. Really, is learning to stretch that difficult?

Think of a cat. Cats are natural stretchers. When they're feeling tight and lazy, they just reach out with their paws and--wooooosh--loosen their body. Nobody taught a cat how to stretch. Nobody wrote a book titled Stretching For Cats. Cats can't read. It would be up to cat-owners to buy the book and teach their cats how to stretch. Let's have a show of hands here among cat-owners? Have you ever considered teaching your cat how to stretch?

I say this despite the fact that if you look on my Web site, you will find some pictures and descriptions of stretching by Debbie Pitchford. Click here! And if you really are interested in a best-selling book, you might want to consider Stretching by Bob Anderson, available by clicking here.

Maybe we should take that attitude toward our own bodies. Forget the best-selling books. Forget the magazine articles in publications like Runner's World. Forget what you find on the Internet. (I just googled the word "stretching" and came up with 31,300,00 screens on the subject.) You can teach yourself to stretch. I discussed the subject with Suzi Teitelman, a personal trainer at the Inn & Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, where I spend winters. I asked Suzi if she could demonstrate some basic stretches that runners could use as part of their fitness routine. She came up with 18 different stretches.

You don't need to do 18 stretches each time you go to the gym. Be selective. Pick several that feel like they might help get you loose. Try the stretching exercises at home. Do them over a series of days so that you feel comfortable in that position. Do those stretches the next time you go to the gym, or before you head out the door for a run. After a while, add a few more stretches to your routine. Discard any that seem uncomfortable or cause pain. I confess that there are certain stretches that simply elude me when I try to practice them. That may happen to you and cause you to let them slide out of your routine. Fair enough. Why do something if it's not fun? Do cats do stretches that feel uncomfortable?

Even though I promote natural stretching, I am the first to concede that you can learn to stretch more effectively if you enlist the help of a personal trainer like Suzi. "Even if you think you know how to stretch," says Chuck Bytheway, director at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, "an instructor can help refine your positions."

Suzi Teitelman adds this warning: "Don't overstretch. Don't reach beyond your ability. Don't push to the point of pain, because you may be damaging your muscles, not stretching them." This is particularly important for runners who stretch hoping to avoid an injury or who do so as part of a routine to cure that injury. You can either recover faster by stretching or delay your recovery if you stretch too aggressively. "When in doubt, do less," says Suzi.

Can stretching make you a faster runner? Research proving that to be true is sketchy. Most of the exercise scientists with whom I have discussed this question, believe it to be true, but admit that proving it to be true is not easy. No question, however, that stretching can help with your recovery following an injury. If working with a physical therapist, however, you need to get precise instructions which stretches relate to your injury and how to do them. This is where expert advice is a necessity.

During a running career that has stretched (no pun intended) over more decades than I'd like to admit, I rarely have suffered injuries. Every few years, I might have problems with an Achilles tendon or feel the pain of plantar fascitis, but most often this was in response to my running during my competitive years the 3,000 meter steeplechase, which involves hurdling over harriers and water pits. Yet while training for that demanding race, I also gave extra attention to both static and dynamic stretching exercises before practicing hurdle technique. The result has been a career that has largely been free of major injuries. I still hold the American masters (both M40 and M45) records for the 3,000 meter steeplechase, those records having been on the book for more than 35 years.

Simply stretch whichever way feels good and seems to loosen your muscles for walking or running or lifting and doing other things to keep us in shape so we can live an extra ten years and be able to outstretch everybody at the Senior Center.

Really, is learning to stretch that difficult? I'm going to suggest, not. Any cats out there reading this article certainly would agree with me.

Stretching with Debbie Pitchford

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