To Stretch or not to stretch?

Do you stretch? Should you stretch? How do you stretch? Why do you stretch?

These are all very important questions to ask yourself in relation to you and your horse if either or both of you ‘do stretches’.

We all stretch naturally, usually after periods of prolonged immobility such as sleep, and it is a great way to lubricate various parts of the musculoskeletal system and wake the body up. It feels very rewarding too. But it isn’t stretching in the way that stretching is often perceived; that is, lengthening of muscle tissue.

Muscle tissue is actually very difficult to lengthen unless there is a specific reason for it to be shortened, such as through injury or habitual positions or usage. The other parts of the neuromusculoskeletal system also have very restrictive roles when it comes to stretching. This is because all the structures in the system are tightly connected – they form a continuum – and so any stretching force applied to muscle will in turn be transferred on to the ligaments, tendons and fascia that it is connected to. All of these have their own elastic and contractile¬† properties which are different to muscle. All of these structures also in turn surround and are connected to joints, and these often have very specific movement limitations of their own, which of course will then limit how much those surrounding tissues can stretch…..

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Another key structure to factor in here is nerve tissue. This is crucial because unlike all the other soft tissue components of the system, nerve tissue is not elastic. Think of it like having strings of dental floss running through your body and you’ll get the idea. Nerve fibres run parallel to, around and at times through muscle tissue, so any time you stretch muscle, you are putting tension on nerve tissue. Once the slack of this has been taken up – no more ‘stretch’! Tight hamstrings are a common misconception whereby it’s not the hamstrings that are tight, but that the sciatic nerve is perhaps a little on the short side, thus limiting the range of motion when you try to touch your toes.

Stretching can help in certain circumstances. For instance, if you have lots of knots – otherwise known as trigger points – these are essentially areas of muscle in constant contraction, thus shortening the muscle and reducing it’s contractile properties. If you treat the trigger points, stretching the muscle afterwards could be justified to encourage all the fibres back to a ‘normal’ resting position.

With injury to a muscle and/or it’s neighbouring tissues, stretching plays an important role in reducing the impact of scar tissue. Scar tissue is laid down totally randomly, which makes it weak and inelastic. However with controlled loading – which includes stretching – whilst it is forming, the fibres can be better aligned with the surrounding fibres, and so improve the functional result.

Postural habits can also cause weakness/tightness patterns in opposing muscle groups. For example, tight and overactive pectorals are often coupled with long and weak shoulder blade (scapula) muscles. Similarly, short and tight hip flexors are often coupled with weak gluteals. Both of these patterns are common in horse riders – not surprisingly -due to the seat position and how we hold our arms. In this scenario, stretches can assist in restoring a more normal functional length, and therefore improve muscle balance and activity patterns. So this is not about making muscle structurally longer, but making the functional components move to their full capacity.

Don’t however, expect to suddenly be able to get your hands to the floor if you’ve never previously got even near your toes. Similarly, don’t avoid a proper warm up routine that actually does exactly that by improving circulation and joint lubrication, and use appropriate clothing to ensure you aren’t working cold body structures. dscf2140

Injury is best prevented by good warming up, good technique and avoiding fatigue. None of these is specifically influenced by stretching.

If you have a specific need to stretch, make sure you are advised properly on what to stretch and how. Use stretches as part of an overall exercise regime that if not individually tailored, is at least specific in improving muscle balance throughout the body. It may also help to think of ‘stretching’ as simply taking all the relevant parts of your body through the full, available range of movement in preparation for use and to prevent abnormal patterns developing.

In summary, stretching can potentially help by:

  • Improving available active length after releasing trigger points
  • Assisting with reducing the impact of scar tissue
  • Restoring muscle balance and movement patterns
  • Making us simply feel better

Stretching will not:

  • Prevent injury
  • Warm muscles up
  • Reduce post exercise soreness
  • Make you more flexible

Have a good weekend and thank you for reading,

Louise

 

 

 

Published by Louise Towl Physio

I am a Chartered Physiotherapist with Pilates training, and I am an ACPAT (the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy) and RAMP (Register of Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioners) registered Veterinary Physiotherapist. Away from work I have ridden all my life, competing in various disciplines and now focussing on dressage. With my retired horse, Baz, I competed at Advanced level, and I now have a younger horse, Lizzie, who is currently competing at Elementary.

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