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The World's Premiere Nordic Skiing Publication Volume 21, Issues 1

A Balanced Life
Stretching The Truth

Sooner or later, every column on health and fitness bends to the subject of stretching. This one comes sooner, because I'd like to impress on you its benefits.

Stretching keeps you limber. Improves your balance. Prevents injury. Makes you stronger. And it protects your body from the creakiness that comes with age.

I should know. As I sit down to write my debut column for this magazine, my neck, shoulders and arms ache. My lower back and hips hurt. My elbows and knees, all sore. My thighs, calves and hands throb. I can't sleep (It's 4 a.m.).

What's my problem? A weekend of landscaping and a 4-mile hike sans stretching. Sure, I've read the stuff you have about the importance of being pliable during exercise. But despite an inability to remember much of my early years, a vision of me as a human pretzel sticks fast in my mind. I used to do the splits as a party trick (don't ask). I could touch, in one go, not only my toes but a good 8-10 inches beyond. And certain contortions tucking my feet behind my head, for instance once required no warmup.

Quote the raven, never more.

Any physical activity, so I've learned the hard way, should start and finish with five to 10 minutes of stretching. The goal of stretching exercises is to increase your joints' range of motion. Proper stretching lengthens the muscle tissue, easing tendons, ligaments and joints and thereby minimizing the risk of trauma and tears. It also feels good.

But there are right and wrong ways to stretch. Health experts at Rochester, Minn.–based Mayo Clinic advise not to stretch until you've warmed up some. Especially true for cold weather sports such as cross-country skiing, muscle pulls can result when you force muscles to stretch when they’re “cold.” Instead, warm up by walking while swinging your arms. Then, stretch after your warmup and again after your workout.

To make sure you leave time for stretching, build it into your exercise schedule. And think broadly about the exercise you do; non-sports chores like shoveling, gardening and raking - in my case, laying a new brick border — count, too.

  • Don't bounce. Bouncing can cause microtrauma in the muscle, which when healed forms scar tissue; the scar tissue impairs your flexibility and causes pain. Instead, slowly stretch to the point you feel a mild burning sensation — not pain.
  • Keep your joints soft. Locking your knees and elbows can create unnecessary strain.
  • Hold your stretch for 30 seconds or so. It takes time to lengthen tissue safely.
  • Relax and breathe deeply while you stretch. If you hold your breath, you're interrupting the oxygen flow to your muscles.
  • Repeat each stretch a couple of times, for full effect.

Choose stretches for muscle groups you'll use during cross-country skiing. Here are several examples, as suggested in May 2001's issue of the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter:

  1. Lower back and hamstring stretch. Stand about 6 inches in front of and facing a stable chair with your feet about shoulder-width apart. With legs straight but knees unlocked, slowly bend to place your palms onto the seat. "Your back should be flat and your neck and shoulders relaxed," the newsletter advises. Calves, hamstrings and lower back will feel this stretch. Breathe, hold for 30 seconds and repeat.
  2. Quadriceps stretch. Stand about 6 inches behind a stable chair, feet slightly less than shoulder-width apart and knees straight and soft. Holding the chair for stability with your left hand, bend your right knee, lift your right ankle toward your backside and grasp your right ankle in your right hand. Keep your upper leg in line with your body and your left knee slightly bent. Your upper leg (quadriceps muscle, or "quads") will feel this stretch. Breathe, hold for 30 seconds, swap legs and repeat.
  3. Upper back and shoulder stretch. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees straight but soft, hands clasped in front of you. With your palms facing the ground, raise your arms to chest height. Gently press your palms away from your body.Your upper back and shoulders will feel this stretch. Breathe, hold for 30 seconds and repeat.
  4. Arm and chest stretch. Stand with your arms at your sides and your feet about shoulder-width apart. Extending both arms behind your back, grab a wrist and then move your shoulders forward and backward. Your chest, arms and shoulders will feel this stretch. Breathe, hold for 30 seconds, swap wrists and repeat.

For more information on stretching, try these online resources:

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