In Part 1 of this series, I introduced the concept of utilizing foam rolling, stretching and mobility exercises/drills for self care and injury prevention. I explained the basics about what the foam roller is or might be affecting when used. But foam rolling will not cure all your soft-tissue woes. Stretching and mobility drills are also important elements of maximizing range of motion in joints, and that is what actually helps minimize injury.
Without adequate flexibility, mobility of a given joint will be limited. Muscle flexibility can be improved through stretching. Stretching can help affect both the muscle tissue, itself, and the nerves that innervate and control the muscles. Different styles of stretching are designed to affect the muscles more or the nervous system more, but they will all have an effect on both. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to stick with static stretching in this piece.
Static stretching entails finding the stretching point of your target muscle, and holding that stretch for 30 seconds, repeating for a total of 3 reps. The act of physically stretching the muscle will help to lengthen the muscle fibers, utilizing their trait of elasticity. In order to keep that muscle from rebounding right back to its old, tight (shortened) position, we will need to be able to take advantage of the plasticity of the muscle, and that’s done via the nervous system.
Within a muscle are specialized nerve cells, called proprioceptors, which monitor the position of muscles and joints, as well as the amount of tension in the muscle (I’m oversimplifying it, here). Part of this is for the proprioceptors to dictate the amount of resting tension, or contraction, of that muscle. The proprioceptors can be “recalibrated,” with a little patience and gentle effort. If you try to force them too much or too quickly, they will be activated in an effort to protect the muscle. So the key to effectively using static stretching is to hold your stretch for that full 30 seconds.