I am a big proponent of stretching, and have been stretching regularly since the late 70s when I started running. I preformed mostly static stretching, where you get into position and then hold it for certain amount of time. In the 90s I was introduced to Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) through a Runner’s World article.
I was drawn to the the article because it clearly showed 11 stretches that “…have been selected because they are the stretches most likely to help runners increase flexibility and prevent injuries.” Stretches were shown for the legs, hips and low back. The instructions were 1) Contract the muscle group opposite to the area you’re stretching (assisted by a rope or your hands, to guide and then help deepen the stretch at the end). 2) Bring each stretch to the point of “light irritation” (I would say “gentle stretch”). 3) Hold for 2 seconds. 4) Return to the starting position and relax for 2 seconds. 5) Repeat 8-12 times.
AIS was developed by Aaron Mattes. The technique is based on the theory that if one muscle group contracts, the opposing muscle group will relax. For example, by contracting the quadriceps, one relaxes the hamstrings. And the reason for holding each stretch only 2 seconds, is to bypasses the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex can cause an over-stretched muscle to contract. It is a way for the body to protect the muscles from being overstretched. According to Mattes “Performing an Active Isolated Stretch of no longer than 2.0 seconds allows the target muscles to optimally lengthen without triggering the protective stretch reflex…”
Phil Wharton, along with his father Jim, studied with Mattes. Eventually the Whartons’ started to help other athletes with their injuries, which included introducing them to AIS. This summer a friend reintroduced me to AIS, and to Phil. (If you are interested in reading more about Phil and his work with athletes, please read this great article in Running Times by Scott Douglas).
One can view examples of AIS (or Active Isolated Flexibility as Phil calls it here), facilitated by Phil here. Also, an “Introductory Flexibility Program” of 7 stretches for the lower body can be found on Phil’s website. Many of the stretches are shown using a rope, however one could use a towel, dog leash, yoga strap, or any other item that could help guide and deepen the stretch. Most of the upper body stretches require only one’s own hands to deepen the stretch.
Over the years I have adapted my stretching program to include AIS, static yoga poses, as well as Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)* stretching. I often change which stretches I do depending on what muscles I am using the most, and find it useful to have lots of stretches (and stretching techniques) in my tool box.
Regardless of what type of stretching you do, please remember : 1) be gentle, 2) breathe, and 3) do at least some stretching every day. If you have questions about AIS, stretching in general, or specific stretches that would be best for you – please feel free to ask me.
*Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching: In PNF, the targeted muscle group to be stretched is positioned so that the muscles are stretched and under tension. The individual then contracts the stretched muscle group for 5 – 6 seconds while a partner, or immovable object, applies sufficient resistance to inhibit movement. The contracted muscle group is then relaxed and a controlled stretch is applied. The muscle group is then allowed to recover and the process is repeated 2 – 4 times. PNF utilizes the golgi tendon organ, found in muscle tendons, which allows a muscle to more fully relax after is it contracted.