Stretching Across the Finish Line

Stretching Across the Finish Line
Spring 2003
By Darren D. Edelist, MD, CCFP
Dragon Boat World
Athlete's Care

Maximum performance in any sport can be achieved with a training program that incorporates four universal elements: cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength, endurance, and flexibility. Cross-training in the off-season with running, cycling, or swimming will build a good cardiorespiratory base so that one may train more efficiently and recover more easily from the rigours of race season. Muscular strength and endurance can be addressed in the pre-season with muscle-specific exercises in the gym and on the water.

This article deals exclusively with flexibility and provides a stretching program designed for the dragonboat paddler.

What is flexibility?

Flexibility can be defined as the ability to move the joints of the body through their intended range of motion (ROM). ROM is limited by the bony architecture of the joint, and by the connective tissues that surround the joint (ligaments and capsule) and envelop the muscles that move the joint (fascia). Joint flexibility can be increased through stretching exercises that increase the length of these connective tissue structures.

Connective tissue possesses both elastic and plastic properties. Upon removal of a stretching force, the elastic elements will return to their resting length, but the plastic elements will remain elongated. With flexibility training, one wants to promote plastic rather than elastic deformation to produce a permanent change in tissue length. This is achieved by stretching that applies a low-force load over a prolonged period (30 seconds to 2 minutes). Greater plastic deformation is also achieved when the connective tissues and warm. Therefore, a stretching program should be performed only after an adequate warm-up, or alternatively during a cool-down after exercise.

What are the benefits of stretching?

Participating in a regular flexibility training program will help to prevent injury while training and during competition. A lack of flexibility can result in poor performance and put one at increased risk for acute muscle strains and chronic overuse injuries. Stretching after exercise will also decrease the amount of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), thereby improving recovery time. These benefits will translate into improved performance on race day.

How much flexibility is ideal?

Flexibility is a relative rather than an absolute value and the appropriate amount required is sport specific. Each sport places unique demands on the joints and muscles involved. The ideal amount of flexibility is the required amount of ROM that will allow optimum performance of a specific activity while protection the joint from injury. The dragonboater requires sufficient flexibility throughout the thoracic spine and upper extremity for an effective and efficient stroke.

Each phase of the stroke results in key activations of specific muscle groups. Each group, and the joints they move, must be targeted in dragonboat flexibility training. (Please refer to the Dragonboat Flexibility Training Program, p.17). The stretches correspond with the four phases of the stroke.

During the catch, the abdominal oblique muscles rotate the torso towards the centre of the boat, which necessitates flexibility of the thoracic spine. The drive of the paddle into the water is created primarily through activation of the latissimus dorsi. The top arm is held high and over the water, activating the deltoids with both arms extended activating the triceps.

During the pull, the erector spinae muscles of the back are called into action, as the paddler must sit up in order to pull the paddle back. The oblique muscles act to de-rotate the torso towards the side of the boat, gaining more power in the stroke. Again, these motions require sufficient thoracic spine mobility. Lastly, the pectoralis and latissimus dorsi muscles act to pull the paddle back through the water.

During the exit, the forearm and biceps muscles are activated to pull the paddle blade out of the water. The triceps are reactivated to straighten the outside arm and snap it forward. The deltoids are continually activated in the top arm to keep it high over the water.

Finally, during the recovery, the torso shifts forward and initiates the rotation needed for the next stroke. The trapezius and infraspinatus muscles are used to regain the catch position of the arm and the deltoids maintain their activated state.

How does one increase flexibility?

Several techniques of stretching can be used to increase flexibility safely and effectively. These include "static" stretching and newer "dynamic" stretching methods.

Static stretching, which is what most of us already do, id performed by slowly moving the joint to the end of its ROM and then holding this position for 30 to 60 seconds. When performing any stretch, it is important to stop at the point of moderate discomfort and short of pain. Static stretching is the safest and easiest technique for improving flexibility. (Dynamic stretching methods can provide an even greater stretch, but are a bit more challenging and often require the help of a partner or therapist). The Dragonboat Flexibility Training Program consists only of static stretching exercises.

Are there any types of stretching exercises that should be avoided?

"Ballistic" stretching exercises should be avoided. Ballistic stretching is performed by quickly moving the joint to the end of its ROM. It involves bouncing or jerky movements (e.g. swinging or kicking) that force the joint beyond its normal ROM. Although they do increase flexibility, they are also associated with a higher injury rate.

What happens if I stop doing my flexibility exercises?

If your routine is interrupted, the connective tissues that you have been stretching will gradually shorten back to the length required for joint movement in your activities of daily living. The greatest loss of flexibility occurs during the first two weeks. After four weeks, the paddler will continue to lose flexibility, but will still be more flexible than he or she was before starting flexibility training.

You now have the tools to incorporate flexibility training into your pre-season training program. If you follow our Dragonboat Flexilbility Training Program, hopefully your boat will be the one stretching across the finish line first.
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