As an instructor, I am all about "news you can use," ie any information that might be helpful for day-to-day life outside of colorguard. I know that most of my middle school and high school kids won't go on to march colorguard after leaving their scholastic program. Only a few of the kids who do march independent winterguard, drum corps, or college guard will continue to spin after age 22. The vast majority will pursue careers in other areas, and I'm glad they do! I hope that the accountants, surgeons, teachers, lawyers, painters, musicians, engineers...all remember their colorguard days fondly, and continue to support the arts in their adult years. I also hope that they continue to use some of the skills they learned from the colorguard activity in their daily lives. The confidence, work ethic, ability to work for the benefit of a team...that students learn through the pageantry arts may prove invaluable in their professional lives. I also hope, however, that they learn some skills that will help them take care of their bodies.
So many working adults suffer from back pain or muscle tension, and knowing how to stretch your body may help to reduce some of that. To help my students, I wrote up my own 5 rules for stretching. I included reasons why each is important, complete with references to the experts who inspired these rules (so the kids know I didn't just make this stuff up, and there's real science to back it up). Sometimes I print out copies to give my kids at the start of the year, sometimes I post the rules. I repeat the rules over and over again, and have my students repeat them back to me during stretch time. I figure, if nothing else, these kids will graduate with at least a little knowledge that will help them practice some self-care.
So, without further ado....I give you:
Jakki's 5 Rules for Static Stretching*
Warm up first. “Stretching is effective if the tissues to be stretched are warm” (Howse, 2000). After a warm up, “early stretches (should be used) for waking up muscles, not for increasing flexibility” (Nagrin, 1994). Deep stretching for flexibility should ideally be done about an hour after dancing (but while the muscles are still warm).
Breathe. Your muscles require oxygen to function, and especially to relax into a stretch. Release pressure on the stretching muscle as you inhale, and use a long exhale to move more freely and deeply into the stretch. “The longer you exhale, the longer and stronger the stretch” (Nagrin 1988).
Stretch both sides of everything. It is important to stretch your left and right sides equally just as it is important to exercise the muscles on both sides evenly. It is common for dancers to spend more time stretching the more comfortable or more flexible side. It is also important to stretch muscles surrounding joints evenly in each direction the joint moves. For example, if you stretch the front of the hip, you must also stretch the back of the hip, and the turn-out. A joint which seems tight in one direction (i.e. tightness of the turnout at the hip) may need individual stretching programmes in two or more different directions in order to obtain the desired increase in mobility (Howse, 2000).
If it hurts, don’t do it! Pain is our body’s way of saying “this is not good for me.” Forcible stretching is counterproductive. If tissues are torn during stretching, then healing has to take place…All healing is by scar tissue, i.e. fiberous tissue. With the passage of time, scar tissue tends to contract and this may well make the tightness, which the stretching was originally aimed to relieve, worse than before the stretching started (Howse, 2000). You should move into any stretch slowly, stop when you feel the muscle stretching, then back off slightly to give the muscle more oxygen and to focus on relaxing any tension you may be holding. Never bounce in a stretch. Never let anyone else stretch you. By the time you tell them to stop, and they respond, damage could easily already have been done.
Take your time. Stretches should be prolonged and steady, and each stretch should be held for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. You should not, however, overstretch. Stretching and lengthening a muscle also lengthens the blood vessels, causing them to narrow. Overstretching can reduce the blood flow to the muscle for too long a period of time.
Other Information of Interest About Stretching:
- Stretching can improve your awareness of posture and alignment as well as foster a better understanding of joint and muscle function. The insights you learn during your time stretching should be applied to your alignment when you stand and to the way you move your body when you dance.
- Stretching should always be done in the direction of the muscle fibers, “in the line in which they work and function” (Howse, 2000). Stretching across the muscle provides no benefits of increased flexibility, and can cause injury.
- Imagery is a great tool to utilize during your stretch routine. Methods such as picturing the muscles as something fluid, as melting, or as sand can increase relaxation and thus increase the benefits of the stretch. “Avoid sensations that reinforce a sense of restriction and tightness” (Franklin, 2004).
- Use caution when stretching a weak or injured muscle! Only gentle stretches should be done with any injured muscle and never should be performed before the muscle is strong enough.
- Stretching should ideally be paired with exercises that strengthen the muscles being stretched.
Franklin, Eric. Conditioning for Dance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2004.
Grant, Gail. Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet: Third Revised Edition. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1982.
Howse, Justin. Dance Technique & Injury Prevention. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Martins, Peter. New York City Ballet Workout. New York: Quill/William Morrow and Company, 1997.
Nagrin, Daniel. How To Dance Forever: Surviving Against the Odds. New York: Quill: An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.
Nagrin, Daniel. Dance and the Specific Image. Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 1994.
*These rules are only for static stretches. Dynamic stretches are also very useful, but that deserves its own post.