Recovery: The benefits of stretching before and after working out

As a young, two-sport athlete, stretching to me was like going to the dentist—I knew I had to do it, but I never, ever wanted to. I was always a bit too energetic and overeager to hit the court or field running (quite literally) to care about loosening up before starting a day’s softball or basketball pursuits. Give me time for my usual two-second quad stretch, coupled with a few hard twists to my left and right, and I believed I was ready to go.

Between the ages of six and 18, I was fortunate enough to get away with my lack of preventative care, as I somehow never sustained a muscle strain or significant tear during my countless practices and games. (I have my long and sinewy muscles to thank for that.) But when I got to college and began my career as a Division I softball player, my carelessness finally caught up to me. Little did I care to acknowledge at the time, but as the intensity of my training increased, so too did my need to stretch—both before and after working out.

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I learned this lesson the hard way. Throughout the early-goings of my college career, I pretty frequently pulled muscles, particularly in my quads and hamstrings. These injuries resulted from my own failure to make sure my muscles were loose before outdoor practices in the northeast’s typically-frigid climate of the late fall and early winter.

I finally experienced my lightbulb moment during my sophomore year, about two months after returning to school. We were in the midst of our grueling stretch of fall practices when I overextended myself attempting to beat out a ground ball in the midst of a team scrimmage, immediately going down for the count just after stepping on first base. I soon after learned I had pulled my quad in the worst way I ever had.

After a little bit of rest and quite a few trips to the training room for ice and stim, I eventually recovered and returned to form, but I knew I was fortunate. What if that had happened during our real season in the spring? I could have missed games or been unable to perform at my best—and all because of my own negligence.

Following the incident, I began carrying around a resistance band in my bat bag at the request of my college trainer. She told me to use it to stretch both my arms and legs for roughly five to 10 minutes before and after engaging in physical activity. Shaken by my muscle-pulling experience, I willingly obliged. Now, two years removed from playing college softball, I still use my resistance band everyday. Though my workouts these days are nowhere near the intensity of the ones I did as a collegiate athlete, my trusty band remains by my side before and after each of my workouts, no matter if I go for a quick run on the treadmill or do an ab circuit.

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I didn’t pull a muscle for the remainder of my college softball career, and haven’t since I graduated. My resistance stretching before and after workouts not only reduced my chances of experiencing the muscle tightness that leads to injuries, but I also believe it has made me more flexible. And ultimately, I’ve learned that stretching is to productive workouts what brushing your teeth is to proper dental hygiene—the latter can’t exist for an extended period of time without the former.

So go to the dentist, kids, and always remember to stretch.

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