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how should I stretch?

Q1: What type of stretching is best, and when should I do it?

It seems everyone has a different opinion about the importance of stretching. Should I make this a regular part of my regimen? What’s the best way to get started? And when should I do it?

A. You’re right: There are loads of opinions out there about how, when, and even whether to stretch. Here’s an approach many experts recommend, based on the latest research: Perform “dynamic mobility” drills for five to 15 minutes directly prior to working out. Other forms of stretching are fine at other times, but unnecessary for general fitness.

Dynamic mobility drills (also called “active stretching”) include any movement that involves repeatedly moving a limb or joint in and out of its full, comfortable range of motion, usually with a two- or three-count hold at the end range. Gym-class classics like high knee pulls, arm circles, and deep lunges are great examples. (For more of our favorites, read “The Perfect Warm-Up.”)

When performing dynamic stretches, work at a controlled pace for eight to 12 reps (on each side, if it’s a one-sided drill), attempting to increase your range and speed slightly as you go. You’ll lubricate your joints and prime your nervous system for the more vigorous movements to come.

So what about “static stretching” — the classic reach-and-hold flexibility drills that were once a mainstay of group exercise classes? “Multiple studies have suggested they reduce both power and performance in the short term,” says Mike T. Nelson, MS, CSCS. So, if you enjoy static stretching, go for it — but make sure to do it after your workout so it doesn’t slow you down on the court or in the weight room.

Q2: Is hot yoga for me?

I’m a fan of heated yoga. After my last few classes, though, I’ve had a bad headache. Can I prevent this reaction? What else should I be mindful of before, during, and after class?

A. You’re not alone in your devotion to getting seriously sweaty in yoga class. Right now there are more than 300 heated, or Bikram, yoga studios in the United States, with new ones popping up all the time.

Ninety-minute Bikram classes consist of a sequence of 26 traditional yoga asanas (postures), performed in a studio heated to about 105 degrees F. In the heat, students often find they are able to sink deeper into the asanas than they can in more traditional yoga classes.

Mild headaches, dizziness, and nausea are fairly common in beginning Bikram students, usually because of mild dehydration. The simple solution? “Drink plenty of water before and after class,” advises Mary Frances Gurton, who teaches at the Bikram’s Yoga College of India in Los Angeles. A liquid with electrolytes, such as coconut water, may be particularly helpful after class when you’re trying to hydrate quickly. Sip conservatively during class, however: “Bending and twisting with lots of liquid sloshing in your belly can be very uncomfortable,” says Gurton.

Like any exercise, yoga (in all its forms) carries risks of injury, most often to the knees, lower back, and shoulders. The key to avoiding them, advises Gurton, is to work within your limits and not to get competitive with other students. In hot yoga, be especially mindful of getting swept away by the competitive spirit: If you start to feel lightheaded, take a break, and leave the room if necessary — don’t tough it out just to prove you can.

If you’re concerned about general yoga-related injuries, however, Bikram may be one of your safest options. While the heat adds an extra challenge, “the poses are basic in Bikram yoga,” says Gurton. “There are no inversions or intense balancing poses that overstrain the upper body. It’s user-friendly. It’s the Honda Civic of yoga classes.

Fitness Fix: Plantar Fasciitis

Inflammation and pain in the band of connective tissue that runs along the bottom of your foot from your heel to the base of your toes can be triggered by gaining weight, wearing high heels, and running longer or harder than you typically do. When this condition, called plantar fasciitis, strikes, take a break from all activities that could aggravate the area, says Ann Frederick, founder and creator of Fascial Stretch Therapy and coauthor of Stretch to Win (Human Kinetics, 2006). And resist the urge to foam roll or massage the area aggressively: “You’ll just irritate the tissue,” she says. Instead, try the moves below, which will help mobilize your ankles, calves, and lower legs. “Most of the time, that’s where the problem lies. Your foot is just the blameless victim.”

Do eight to 12 reps on each side (or more or less until the tissue loosens up) twice daily while you’re experiencing symptoms. If you’re not better in two weeks, visit a massage or physical therapist for a customized program. Still no help? Schedule an appointment with an MD to discuss other possible treatment options.

An illustrated man shows how to fix tight ankles.


Wall-Facing Ankle Mobilization 

  • Stand facing a wall, toes 3 to 4 feet from the baseboard.
  • Brace your hands against the wall, and step your right foot forward about 2 feet.
  • With feet flat and toes pointed forward, bend your left knee until you feel a stretch in your calf.
  • Pause briefly, moving between the straight-leg and bent-knee positions.
  • Perform the appropriate number of reps, tracking your left knee along a slightly different angle inward or outward on each rep. Switch legs and repeat.

Seated Ankle-Evertor-Muscles Stretch

  • Sit in a chair and cross your legs so the outside of your left ankle rests on your right knee.
  • Gently hold the ball of your left foot with your right hand.
  • While holding your left ankle still with your left hand, gently pull your left foot into a pointed position, then rotate your foot so that the big-toe side moves toward the ceiling and you feel a mild stretch in your left calf or ankle joint.
  • Move in and out of the stretched and neutral positions before switching sides.
Photography by: Bob McNamara

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