Stretching and Sports Training

My 7-year-old son recently began taking ice skating lessons at one of our local rinks.  He had been asking to take lessons ever since our outing to an outdoor set-up in Carmel, Indiana over Thanksgiving break.  Since he mentioned taking lessons more than once I thought we would try it. Not only does he love it, but he excels at it and I am really, very proud of him!

During the 40-minute lesson all skill levels are grouped off on the ice from Basic 1 to advanced.  I usually watch above in a closed off mezzanine to stay a little warmer and to get an overall view of all the adorable young skaters. I find it so interesting to watch different levels practice their skills and am amazed that, especially with the more advanced levels, what is required of their bodies to perform the required stunts. Any skater (or anyone involved in sports, for that matter!) will tell you its all about balance, flexibility, strength and coordination.  This requires not only good body awareness but proprioceptive awareness as well.

Kinesthetic (or Body) Awareness is how your body judges and adjusts to perform seamlessly in the world around you.  Have you ever held a full laundry basket as you walked up or down the stairs?  You aren’t looking yet you know at what level to raise or lower your leg to safely hit the next step.  This is kinesthetic awareness.

Proprioceptive Awareness, on the other hand, is internal messaging from the nervous system that drives our movements or how we move our bodies in relationship to joint position sense, temperature/pain, texture/pressure, stretch/tension/compression and lastly, vibration.  These are continuously utilized as we practice with our bare feet in Essentrics®.  Each motion we make with our feet sends a vibration or signal throughout the body to hold it upright to avoid falling or ultimately, injury.

Just like a skater, the foot, ankle and calf in the skate (and on the blade in their skate) sends a signal through the body to balance, hold and contract or relax the muscles for mobility and stability.  This is very important, especially when you have to rely on others when skating in group or in a pair!

As I was sat watching the lessons, I overheard a young lady tell her grandmother she was instructed to stretch on the barre on the other side of the room until her time on the ice. As an Essentrics® instructor versed in barre, I was curious to see what exercises she would perform or if she were taught specific stretches.  Not wanting to stare I turned back around to the ice when I heard a “thud”.   Looking around I found the girl slowly getting off the floor, holding her elbow and crying.  Come to find out she had her leg up on the barre, lost her balance and fell! I felt terrible for her!

Her grandmother went over to comfort her and bring her back over to sit.  Since I was right next to her (and just couldn’t resist;) I leaned over and said,

“I teach barre if you would like me to show you some moves.”

“Yes!” she said enthusiastically.

“First things, first,” I told her. “You need a much lower barre.”

Even though she was using the lower of the two barres on the wall to begin with, her hamstring was far to tight to allow her to get her leg up properly, causing her lose her balance and fall. I grabbed the chairs we were sitting on, we placed one leg up on our chairs and I proceeded to show her first how to relax her hips to allow proper movement.  I showed her how to tuck her hips under and how to extend them gently back.  Warming up the hips gently in this manner not only relaxes the reflexes and lubricates the joints with wonderful synovial fluid, but allows the participant to become proprioceptively aware.

I then instructed her to extend her leg on the chair straight out, toes pointed  (or as straight as she could get it…Darn tight hamstrings!) and made her round her back first, then straighten her back so she could feel the difference in the tension on the hamstring. Rounding the back causes a loss in the tension on the stretch as opposed to straightening your back with your posterior pushing to the back wall, which creates a more intense stretch and it all comes down to opening up the body as we pull the joints away from each other.  Imagine holding a Theraband or a rubber band at each end pulling it in different directions.  This is exactly what the muscle does when stretched in two different directions.  Not only is it relieving on the joints but it is extremely beneficial to gain not only the maximum flexibility but strength as well!

Training your body for any physical activity or sports requires a specific set of muscles that are usually utilized over and over.  In ice skating, specifically, there are a lot of concentric, or muscle contractions that shorten the muscles, used for mobility and stability.  Flexibility needs to be a large component for not only ice Ballet but every other sport as well!  But it seems that flexibility is a second thought.  We know it’s important, but why?  And most importantly, how can it be done properly so we can achieve the maximum benefit all while preventing injuries in the long run?

For all you sports lovers, here is some advice:

  • Relax when you move. Relaxation taps into the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing our body to remove itself from a too often used sympathetic system or what we commonly know it as “fight or flight.”  Relaxation, allows the body to safely override the muscle reflexes to extend maximally, which in turn strenghthens the muscles! Our motto in Essentrics® “Relaxation is the NEW strengthening!”
  • Use dynamic movements to stretch as opposed to static stretching.  There is a time and place for static stretching, however holding a stretch too long has been proven  to contract the muscle by way of muscle reflexes going into protective mode; not allowing the muscle to stretch to it’s full capacity.  If you really want to really tap into much more muscle, connective tissue and bones, it is important to move “with” the muscle reflexes by moving gently and dynamically through a stretch (a gentle movement or pulsation in a legthened position). Not only will this allow the muscles to relax but they will stay in the “opened” position longer after beginning your regular activities;  decreasing your chance of injury.
  • Breathe. Similar to relaxation, deep, focused full belly breathing taps into your parasympathetic nervous system, lowering your blood pressure, increasing healing circulation, relaxing muscles and connective tissue and aiding in better digestion and elimination to keep your body well-regulated. Deep breathing also reduces anxiety, which is good when in competition!
  • Use all the muscles, connective tissue and joints the way they were intented to be used every time you stretch. I know it’s common to think: “I’m an ice skater, I only use my legs and abs most of the time.  I’m just going to stretch those and be fine.”  Actually, we are not a group of separate muscles but rather connected chains! When one muscle is worked it affects another up or down the chain to either stabilize or mobilize our body.  In order to remain balanced, every joint, muscle, bone and surrounding connective tissue should be included, every single time, no matter what sport you perform.
  • Learn to become aware.  Become more aware of how your body moves whether in your sport or in everyday activities. This body awareness allows a deeper understanding and connection to not only how you body moves and holds itself in certain postures but you may begin to understand why it does so.  This is important  to make the necessary corrections to avoid injury or pain in the body.
  • Lastly, be kind to your body. I tell my clients, treat your body as it were an infant.  Care for it, carry it gently as you move and be grateful for all its wonderful capabilities!

For more information on static and dynamic stretching and how to properly stretch for your sport, contact me for a session in Essentrics®.  I can teach you some amazing ways to relieve tension, create more range of motion around the joints (flexibility) and increase your strength and power all with no equipment!

References: Dr. Emily Splichal, Podiatrist and founder of Evidence Based Fitness Academy

Miranda Esmonde-White, Founder of Essentrics®



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