Whether or not you’re a professional athlete, being flexible will serve you well in life. From the ability to manoeuvre into certain positions, to possessing overall agility, flexibility in sport is not to be dismissed.
However, flexibility is one of the most overlooked components of exercise, especially amongst the general population. Yet flexible joints are important for every day motion and to remain comfortable, especially as we age.
Watching children at play, it’s easy to see that we are born with great flexibility – something many of us lose later in life due to sedentary lifestyles.
In this chapter, we look at flexibility in sport in more depth, and illustrate ways we can focus our efforts into improving our range, and thus, performance.
What is flexibility?
Flexibility can be defined as “the range of motion in a joint or group of joints, or the ability to move joints effectively through a complete range of motion.”
This extends to stretching exercises and activities that promote this, such as; Yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi.
In sports coaching, there are there elements that effect flexibility that we are concerned with.
The first of these is muscle elasticity and length, the second is joint structure and the third is the nervous system. All have an influence on our ability to be flexible.
So, let’s look further at why this is important.
Why is flexibility important?
One of the core physical components of fitness is flexibility. It’s the reason why so many people wear fitness apps and take part in regular exercise – in order to keep mobile and encourage joints to work as they should. And as we age it’s something we needs to become more attuned to, as part of the natural process of ageing.
But in athletes, flexibility takes on a greater role. It’s valid in order to be in peak physical condition for taking part in competitive sport. Improving your flexibility will also improve the range of movement around your joints, helping them to be less tight and stiff.
Not only does flexibility give you a wider range in performance, but it also reduces the risk of injury. Once muscles lose their natural suppleness they are more susceptible to injury such as tears and pains, undoubtedly, it’s something that your sports coach will want to avoid.
Testing your flexibility
So, how flexible are you then? There are various ways to put your flexibility to the test. Working with your sports coach, try a few exercises that will identify your range and suppleness.
One of the most obvious experiments is to try and touch your toes while standing up, ensuring that both your legs are straight. Most athletes should have no problem achieving this, however if you find that you are stiff or have bad posture, it may be time to make some tweaks to your training programme.
There are also various sit and stretch exercises that will test your reach, this can be done in most environments without the need for special equipment.
More scientific procedures include the Schober test which invites the athlete to identify their lumbosacral junction with a pen, followed by leaning towards the waist with legs kept straight. The athlete must hold this position while the distance between their legs is once again measured to show the change in distance. This is best carried out with a sports coach.
Stretching for Flexibility
There are a number of exercises that can help with flexibility in sport. Some of these are particularly beneficial for those looking to extend their range, or there’s flexibility training. This uses stretches to carefully target areas for improvement.
These are often conducted with your sports coach or trainer and can be integrated into a sports training programme. Usually they start with a gentle warm up, followed by numerous exercises to both strengthen and lengthen the muscles around the body.
There are three different types of stretch.
The first a static stretch is where you hold a position for 15-60 seconds that is designed to lengthen a specific muscle. The second, dynamic stretching, requires you to move positions to lengthen a muscle, usually with bouncing movements involved. Finally, there’s also active isolated stretches (AIS) which involve movements through a range of positions for mobility.
Flexibility for improvement
As well as targeted stretches, there’s a number of sports that can help with flexibility. However, this should not be in insolation to diet and nutrition which all play an important role. Some of the best sports and exercises targeting flexibility include:
Resistance training: also known as strength training. This can include weight lifting and bench presses to develop muscle tone.
Cardiovascular exercise: This is great for improving your overall flexibility and agility. Try walking, running, jogging, cycling – in fact any sport that gets your heart pumping.
Yoga: Yoga is widely prescribed for athletes who need a helping hand with their mobility, or to help prevent reoccurring issues such as back pain, RSI or sports injuries. This is because it promotes the range of motion whilst addressing the major muscle groups. For footballers with tight hamstrings, dancers with tense calves, runners with shoulder stiffness, or any similar kind of ailment, yoga is able to help and can be integrated into any training programme.
Pilates: An effective sport for improving flexibility is Pilates. This targets several muscles at any given time, and thanks to its low impact approach, is one of the better sports to take up if you’re suffering with pain or injury. When practiced over time, it can help build lean muscles and hone a conditioned body – all valuable in the plight to become flexible.
It’s all too common to take flexibility for granted. However, along with building strength it’s one of the best ways to prevent injury and build long-term fitness.
One of the key physical components of fitness, flexible exercises and training should be incorporated into athlete’s training programme, to enhance their overall physical range and performance in the long-term.