In our body we have different types of muscles. Skeletal muscle is the type of muscle that most of us think of when we talk about muscles. Skeletal muscles are muscles that we contract in order to control how our body moves. They are made up of many muscle fibers and are connected to bones by tendons. So the muscles help control how the bones move. Therefore a tight or injured muscle will change how the bones move which can result in injury to the bones and joints. Ideally we want our joints to move through the full available range of motion in order to allow optimal function during an activity. Once there is injury to muscle, bone or joints, then our level of function decreases and we are unable to participate well, or at all, in activities that we enjoy. Therefore it is necessary to maintain healthy muscles in order to ensure a healthy body.
WHY DO MUSCLES GET TIGHT?
When our body activates a muscle in order to do an activity that requires joint movement, such as bend the knee, the muscle fibers shorten in order to contract the hamstring to bend the knee. If we do a lot of bending the knee then the muscle fibers like to stay more shortened. Also with activity we produce lactic acid which stays in the tissues post-activity. So in the example used, now we have tighter hamstrings. Therefore post-activity it is important to stretch the hamstring muscle in order to prevent the muscle staying slightly shortened and to help dissipate the lactic acid. This will allow a quicker recovery of the muscle tissue and allow the muscle to work as it is supposed to when you next use it.
Stretching pre-activity can be helpful too. It is important to note that some form of warm-up is best prior to static stretching. This warm-up can be a simple jog around the building or in a hallway for a couple of minutes. This warm-up will increase blood flow to the muscles as blood is pumped around the body. An increase in blood flow to the muscles allows the muscles to stretch farther as they become more supple. So a quick warm-up prior to stretching will help an athlete obtain maximum length in the muscle being stretched. Once optimal muscle length has been achieved then the risk of injury during activity will decrease. Injury prevention is key for athletes looking to have a successful season.
It is important to also be aware that weak muscles get tight and tight muscles weaken. When a muscle is weak and unable to perform the activity we are asking it to do, then the muscle tightens in order to try and use lever mechanics to attain the desired movement rather than muscle contraction to attain the desired movement. This increases the risk of injury. For athletes performing only one type of activity, such as only hockey, or only soccer, or only ballet, the risk of injury increases. This athlete is using the same muscles repetitively and will have some muscles in the body that are used much less. These less used muscles become weak. Once they are weak, the body is now functioning in a different manner than it was designed to, thus predisposing the athlete to injury. It is important for all athletes to do some form of cross-training with other sports or activities throughout the year in order to decrease this risk of injury and to decrease the risk of overuse injury. Cross training may be a swimmer attending power lifting, or a hockey player attending yoga for example.
Ultimately, as an athlete, stretching is important to maintain flexibility, pliability and strength in muscles to reduce the risk of injury.
Taking a few minutes to stretch is much more preferable than missing games, recitals or performances throughout a season.