Don’t stretch your hamstrings before playing ultimate frisbee.

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It’s a common practice to do a few leg stretches before engaging in an athletic activity.  You’ll often see a person standing on one leg and pulling their heel toward their bottom (quads), or placing one foot on a bench and then forward bending with a straight leg (hamstrings).  Maybe you’ve even done such a thing or thought you ought to.


I’ll tell you why that’s not such a great idea.  Then I’ll tell you briefly what you’d want to do instead, but I’ll get into the details of that in another article.


People probably stretch their hamstrings before they run or play ultimate or soccer because there’s a notion that it would be better to be loose before engaging in vigorous activity and that this looseness would prevent one from pulling a muscle (meaning causing a muscle strain).


In order to understand why this isn’t the case we need to understand two concepts, and then we’ll put the two concepts together.


Concept one is that stretching, contrary to popular belief, does not change the length of the tissues being stretched. 

Rather it affects the nervous system’s interaction with muscle length and tension.  Stretching increases the athletes tolerance to the joint position and the feedback that they are receiving from specialized sensory nerves in the muscle.  It does not change the stiffness of the tissues.


Concept two is that muscles sometimes have a greater role in creating stability than they do in generating motion. 

The role of the hamstrings in an activity like ultimate frisbee would be primarily to decelerate forward motion and also to stabilize the knee joint against forward shearing.  


The knee joint looks like a ball resting on a flat pedestal.  It doesn’t have a lot of bone in place to limit motion, so it relies on soft tissues to limit motion, which include ligaments (no contractile parts) and muscles which then taper to tendons.  The hamstrings come from the back of the pelvis and some from the back of the thigh bone and attach on the far side of the knee joint.  It’s the tonus (degree of tension) of the hamstrings that keeps the pedestal from slipping out from under the ball.


So, disrupting the nervous system’s ability to keep precise control of the tonus in the hamstrings (i.e. doing those common stretches) would inhibit the hamstrings ability to stabilize the knee during forward deceleration.  It would inhibit the hamstrings from tightening just enough to keep the pedestal from sliding forward and out from under the ball.  The pedestal is called the tibial plateau, the top of the lower leg bone.  The ball is the far end of the femur.  If the precise coordination of the hamstrings is inhibited the tibia will slide forward.  This is an ACL tear or possibly a rupture (complete tear).


I’m not saying that working on increasing your mobility is a bad idea, but trying to cause slackness or a change in fine motor control of an important stabilizing muscle just prior to subjecting it to extreme dynamic forces is a bad idea.


And yet, it doesn’t seem right to just get out of the car and start playing hard, does it?


So what do you want to do to prepare yourself?


You want to increase your blood flow because this will enhance your performance.  You want more of your periphery to get a better blood supply.  Literally, you want to “warm up”.


You want to simply move in any way, because movement will break you out of your state of thixotropy, which is the way the fluids of the body have of becoming more solid as they sit still, and more liquid as they get stirred up.


And finally you want to move all of your joints through their complete range of motion.  So doing things like squats, shoulder circles, spinal circles, ankle circles.  This helps smooth out and lubricate your joints so that they will be less likely to rub in isolated spots.


In conclusion, don’t think about lengthening your muscles.  Do think about increasing blood flow and lubricating your joints.


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