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More Training Info > Over 50 Flexibility Training

Over 50 Flexibility Training
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS

“I used to be able to touch my toes.” “Arthritis seems to be taking over and I have to be careful how much I do.” “I’m really stiff first thing in the morning and then once I get going I’m okay.” “It seems like no matter how much time I spend stretching it doesn’t seem to feel any easier.” “My hips and quads don’t take the descents like they used to.”

Sound familiar? I hear comments like these all the time from clients over 50 who lament about how their bodies are not performing like they were in the first half-century. If you suffer from arthritis, if you tend to skip your stretches to save precious time at the gym, or if you have recently lost flexibility in a particular area of your body due to overuse or injury, recognize that you can get back in the game with a properly designed flexibility training routine specific to your body’s particular needs and your sport requirements. Below, we address the increased need for targeted stretching to counter the natural effects of aging and of relatively sedentary lifestyles compared to our ancestors.

Simple Self-assessment

If you hear yourself making any of the above comments, answer the following questions:

  1. Have I changed my flexibility routine in any way in the past 2 years?
  2. Do I know what parts of my body tend to be tightest and how to stretch them properly?
  3. Do I currently do any yoga, flexibility enhancing activities, or targeted stretching on a daily basis?
  4. Am I satisfied enough with where I am physically to keep doing what I am presently doing?

If you answered “no” to any one of the four, then read on! Third in a 3-part series, below, we discuss the importance of appropriate flexibility training for outdoor athletes over 50.

Purpose of Flexibility Training

You probably already know that stretching can help you warm up before, and cool down after, your outdoor, endurance, and strength activities. Stretching is critical (for people of ALL ages) for restoring flexibility to worked muscles, improving your range of motion about a joint, and helping prevent injury. It also may help reduce muscle pain and stiffness as long as it is done properly.

However, it is even more crucial as we get older. Over time, we develop habitual ways of moving about and completing our daily tasks, to say nothing of our sporting activities. If you have a history of injury, no matter how recent or far back in time, it is very likely that your body has adapted to that event in a less-than-optimal posture. If you spend a lot of time in one position at work (i.e. standing with poor posture, hunched over a computer, sitting at a desk, or driving more than an hour every day) your body takes on even more strain from lack of movement. You may be made aware of your own structural issues by increasingly frequent visits to the chiropractor, physical therapist, or massage therapist. While poor posture and tight muscles may be the result of a legitimate medical problem, they could indicate that you are someone that can benefit from consistent flexibility training to restore elasticity to the muscles and tissues.

Types of Flexibility Training

The 3 types of stretching we address below include dynamic, active, and static stretches.

  • Dynamic stretches start out with small movements and as the muscles warm up and stretch, ever increasing range of motion through a joint. Examples: arm and hip swings (see warmup article)
  • Active stretches engage muscles to hold a fixed position. Examples: downward Dog, Triangle Pose (see hamstring stretches)
  • Static stretches involve passively lengthening a muscle in a held position. Examples: calf stretch or chest stretch

Both static and active stretches are relatively ineffective for warm-ups but can be used to help the body cool down and the muscles elongate following exercise. Statically held stretches done before strength training can slightly reduce maximal firing of the muscles and are usually best performed at the end of workouts or right after working a certain muscle group to help restore flexibility to the targeted muscles. However in case where range of motion is severely limited from normal, stretching done at almost any time will be beneficial. So now that you know how to stretch, what should you stretch?

Body Knowledge and Stretch Links

One common mistake we see people making is doing the same stretches—and the same mode or manner of stretching--that were popularized back in the 80’s when everyone did static stretching before a workout. You know the ones: quadriceps stretch (standing and pulling the heel up to the butt), hamstring stretch (standing with a leg up on a high bench and hunching over the knee with a rounded back) and maybe a calf stretch or two before going on a jog. To blast through your flexibility rut, start by getting to know your body!

Try these 5 simple assessments to gauge for yourself where you are most tight and where you can work to improve your own stretching program:

  • Neck: Can you turn your head from side to side and look down to the floor and up to the ceiling with same range of motion on both sides, without pain?
  • Shoulders: are you able to intertwine your fingers behind your back? Can you raise both arms (unclasped), straight, in an arc directly over your head both in front and to the side (thumbs up) without pain?
    • If not, you may need some stretches for the front, middle, and rear deltoids, chest, lats, and arms. Dynamic arm swings before activity can also be good as a warmup; see warmup article
  • Low back / hamstrings: are you able to bend forward hinged at the hips and touch your shins or toes without pain? Does one leg bend more as you do so? Do you feel this more in the back or the back of the legs?
    • If you have lost flexibility in the low back and hamstrings, or if you feel you are uneven on one side of the body, it is crucial to stretch these areas along with, perhaps, gluteals, ITB and quads. Dynamic hip swings and trunk rotations can also be good as a warmup. See warmup article for other ideas.
  • Hips: are you able to tie hiking boots or shoes without aching hips on either side? Is one hip more limber or easier to move than the other?
  • Calves / ankles: Are you able to walk barefoot and lift up onto tiptoes without discomfort? Do you have a history of rolled ankles? Do you wear orthotics?
    • If you have ankles that roll frequently, you may need more strengthening than anything; if you have fallen arches or suffer from plantar Fasciitis, you may benefit from reading www.bodyresults.com/e2plantarf.asp. If you have Achilles tendons that don’t allow you to drop your heels when standing on a step, please see our foot care article and our calves article for more information.

Please visit the exercises page for a complete listing of Body Results pages that demonstrate appropriate flexibility exercises for outdoor athletes, including additional stretches targeting the lower back, piriformis, gluteals, trapezius, rotator cuff muscles, calves, and hamstrings.

Multi-purpose Activities that Enhance Flexibility for the Over-50 Group

If you, like everyone else, are exceedingly pressed for time and wish to combine flexibility training with either balance, strength, or cardiovascular training, what sort of activities enhance several areas at once? Below are great suggestions for multi-purpose exercise choices and what they help develop.

  • Swimming (strength, flexibility, therapeutic buoyancy, cardio)
  • Strength training (see over 50 strength training for ideas)
  • Tai Chi (balance, stretching, coordination)
  • Yoga (strength and stretch; see yoga for climbers)
  • Cross-Country skiing (works joints through full range of motion, enhances cardiovascular endurance and mild strength endurance at same time)

Flexibility Recommendations for Athletes over 50

Whether you are male or female, young or old, a goal is a goal; if you cannot get your ice axe into the appropriate self-arrest position due to lack of mobility in your shoulder joint, you put yourself and your climbing partners at increased risk should you stumble and fall into a crevasse. If your back is so tight and sore following a night on hard ground, with nothing but a Thermarest between you and dirt or snow, that you are unable to keep up with the rest of the group, you definitely need flexibility training as a regular feature in your conditioning program.

The recommendations for stretching coming from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) are not as defined or stringent as they are for cardiovascular and strength training (simply put, “after exercise, stretch.”) Since senior outdoor athletes are embarking on far more rigorous end goals than their more sedentary counterparts to restore flexibility to challenged muscles and possibly help prevent any delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) it’s imperative to include more time for flexibility training than when you were younger. Flexibility is a “use it or lose it” phenomenon; while you may never have the flexibility of a gymnast, you CAN always improve your range of motion and increase your flexibility from where you are starting, with regular practice and patience.

How to Stretch

Strive for 5-10 minutes a day, at the end of each workout, holding each stretch for 30-60 seconds, and concentrating on the areas where you are tightest first, as tight areas may inhibit areas that are naturally looser. Within tight regions, begin by stretching the larger groups and then move to the smaller ones: hamstrings, gluteals, quads; lower back, abs; chest, latissimus dorsi; shoulders, arms; and forearms, calves. Keep stretches pain free and avoid bouncing or jarring movements. Inhale deeply as you begin a stretch, and exhale fully as you move deeper into the stretch.

Learn when to strengthen rather than stretch. If you have excessively mobile joints (e.g., in the ankles, shoulders, or lower back); if you hyperextend your back, elbows, or knees; or if you know you are already fairly flexible, rather than stretching you may need strength training in order to tighten the muscles that protect the joints.

Commonly in senior outdoor athletes the tight areas are the neck, upper back, shoulders, wrists, ankles, hamstrings, lower back, and hips; this will vary from athlete to athlete depending on your outdoor sport and areas of the body you use most. Joggers, for example, will want to focus on stretching the muscles around the ankles, hips and lower back; climbers and kayakers will need to focus on stretching the neck, upper back, shoulders and wrists. Cyclists should add quadriceps stretches to those for the hamstrings and lower back, and hikers and mountaineers will want to focus on lower back, hips, neck, upper back and ankles.

Pain Management

Finally, if when doing your favorite outdoor activity you have recurring pain that you simply cannot alleviate and you are tired of popping vitamin I or using age as an excuse, it may be time to go through a complete health history with a qualified physical therapist who can recommend the appropriate stretches for you. Include information about that shoulder injury from high school that never got looked at, show the orthotics in your shoes with the uneven, unmatched wear patterns on them, and mention the unusual hip strap on your pack that hasn’t let you get the pack adjusted comfortably. They are all clues as to what muscle groups need immediate assistance.

While it may not seem intuitively obvious to you that the ancient orthotics are contributing to the neck strain via your lower back, each clue will help your team of experts solve the puzzle. Think of your body as an architectural structure with its web of muscles, tendons and ligaments that are all interconnected. If one area has a problem, you can bet it is indirectly affecting others, and by knowing your body as well as you possibly can as you age, you can help experts pinpoint what you need to get you back on target with your outdoor sport.

This concludes the 3-part series for Senior Athletes over 50 years old. Links to all three parts are below:


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