How often to you hear runners complain of how stiff, how tight are their hips, how sore is their back, how their knees and feet ache? Often.
How often do you hear runners follow up their complaints with discussions on stretching, on flexibility? Rare, if ever.
Flexibility seems to be an attribute which athletes love to complain about, yet do nothing about. Bring up power, speed, pace, strength, endurance and athletes, trainers, and coaches alike will detail everything from seasonal training plans, to individual sessions which target each aspect. Bring up flexibility and there will be silence, awkwardness. Why?
Flexibility is treated as if its a natural gift bestowed upon the lucky, those destined to be competitive at the national or international level, while the remainder are left to trod, plod, grind, claw and fight against a curse of inelasticity.
The bemoaning fails to establish a truth as flexibility is not static: what has been lost can be regained, and whatever is gained, can be lost. The complaining reveals not an inability to become flexible, instead it reflects a rigid mental attitude that stretching is pointless, useless, mirroring a rigid body, a stubborn mind, and a flat existence.
But no single workout of any sort ‘makes’ an athlete faster or stronger, so why then is flexibility singled out as having little impact? Why the contradiction? Why the obsession with HIIT?
Its because of how flexibility training makes you feel when compared to other workout types. HIIT workouts typically leave athletes feeling tired, perhaps even exhausted, but invigorated, fast, strong, awake, ‘alive’, in beast mode. Flexibility training rarely leaves inflexible athletes in a similar state: stretching can leave those athletes feeling weak, vulnerable, slow, even sick.
Flexibility training causes us to revisit past failures, failures which we have held onto, failures which we mark by setting physical, mental, and emotional limits.
Those limits, when approached, now cause pain and anguish, triggering the emotions of those past failures, and memories of defeat. To avoid encountering these emotions and memories, narratives and beliefs are developed to block the approach. So the athlete lives out their days stuck… needing to explore, to push limits, to press beyond the edge, yet limited, avoiding failure, afraid that to seek their potential as it requires engagement of the memories of failed attempts.
Whenever we train or compete and approach our limit – which we mark with a stake in the ground – we tense, we choke or panic as the memories resurface, we fail again and again but not for lack of training, nor lack of potential. Instead of reconciling, instead of confronting, instead of rewriting the avoidance narratives and our definitions of success and failure, we vow to train harder, dig deeper, to will ourselves to success, hoping to prove that we are not failures. We train and compete fueled by emotions of frustration, hate (e.g. body image issues), in states of anger or anxiety, desperate for those stakes to disappear. No wonder HIIT programs are the go-to for the inflexible, as all out sessions are the only way to trigger the panic reactions, the adrenalin, the endorphins in hope that their numbing effect will last long enough to prove…
It doesn’t work. It may appear to work temporarily giving the illusion of progress, giving hope that if you only try harder, push harder, dig deeper next time, then… you will rip that stake out of the ground. But, time after time, attempt after attempt, injury, after illness, after the depression which follows failure, the result is that we end up hurting ourselves, chasing our tails, without the fulfillment and satisfaction of real progress, improvement, or true success.
Freedom is the permission to fail without judgement. Freedom is the respect to progress at your rate, along your learning curves.
How is it that children who lack muscle mass, power, a mature body qualify, compete, and medal at the Olympics and Worlds? How is it that children outperform adults? Without retained memories of failing, there can be no narrative of inability, there is no doubt. Children when coached, parented, and mentored properly lack fear. Without fear they are flexible in all directions, on all levels, across body, mind, and spirit, capable of creative problem solving. Without fear, children are free to try and try again. Without fear, children learn that trial and error is the process of progress, that experimentation is freedom, and that freedom fulfills at the core level because it is the means to create, to express oneself.
We succeed in training, then competition proves what we have already accomplished. Not the other way around.
Stretching offers the opportunity to confront the emotions and memories of past failures, to find that line in the ground where we stopped last time, where we hammered into the ground a stake to show where we failed.
Stretching is the tool to practice freedom: to practice giving permission to progress at your own rate, along the path you need to take, to practice confronting fear.
Stretching offers the opportunity to challenge narratives, beliefs, behaviours, and the perspective embraced during events which triggered survival reflexes of flight, fight, or freeze. Reflex reactions which set those stakes of self limitation into the ground, and then hammered them deep.
Stretching is the tool to engage our fears, to evaluate those stakes, to ask why we put them in the ground to start, why we hammered at them so hard, why we now try to deny their existence, why we choose to fighting against them, only to fight against ourselves.
Stretching is the tool to practice freedom: the freedom to move, to think, to feel in new ways about old situations, freeing us to move, think, and feel in new ways today.
Stretching offers the opportunity to experience life with a renewed perspective.
Why is it that with time we become inflexible, rigid, stiff? Years of institutionalization: the norms of a career, culturally acceptable limits defining who we are, what is possible, acceptable, what is ‘normal’, and with that we bend to fit our labels, our box, becoming hard, rigid, fixed, scared, fear filled, jailed in prisons of a predetermined, fixed life. Scientific research has proven it…
Its not neuromuscular as cadence does not drop with age, it isn’t fast twitch fiber count, it isn’t max heart rate, not even VO2 max; inflexibility alone is disproportionally responsible for reductions in performance.
Without flexibility there is only one option: athletes must add force to each push-off to make up for a shrinking stride, stroke, throw, jump… (insert the metric of the sport). This leads into a self-defeating spiral as a more powerful push-off requires greater strength, uni-dimensional strength requires muscle, and adding muscle adds bulk, weight. Adding weight requires yet more muscle in order that it is lifted and carried. This leads to a negative feedback loop where muscle needs more muscle which needs yet more muscle, ending with dramatic declines in performance.
What a waste. What a waste of time and effort training in circles, endlessly chasing your tail, hoping that additional strength will be the solution when it only adds to the problem, where the certainty in training is not progress but frustration, stagnation, injury, and pain.
There should be no surprise at the injuries overwhelming the amateur and professional athlete populations because if training power with inflexible, rigid, brittle joints is the go-to solution, then injury is the certainty.
Instead of addressing that which limits us – our inflexibility – by adhering to the experiences which defeated us in the past, instead we take pride in the strain, in the weight of the yoke we place upon ourselves, boasting how much weight we can drag along through life.
Its self imposed: inflexibility leads to lack in all areas of life.
Bruce Lee is quoted as saying: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. Put water into a cup it becomes the cup, when you put it into a teapot it becomes the teapot, be water.”
Water breaks apart rocks as it beats shorelines into sand, yet water sooth with its gentleness. We are designed to be flexible because our bodies are predominantly water (and that doesn’t change with age), yet how many of us have become frozen with fear, becoming hard, rigid and brittle like ice. If we train to overcome our fears, we will melt, soften, we will rediscover our ability to bend, to yield, to move quickly and easily.