Sunday, December 10, 2006

Stretching It Too Far

Two days ago, my friend Brad and I had a heated argument while working out at the gym. Brad insisted that I spend some time stretching before commencing our run on the track. He said he had always felt more comfortable that way. He even attributed his better running record than mine to my non-adherence and callous indifference to stretching protocols. In my defense, I quoted what I remembered about reading that stretching has been shown in research studies to be of no significant benefit in preventing injuries in sportsmen, and perhaps, even to be related to higher risk of injuries. Stubborn as we both were, we failed to consider each other's points of view (even though we verbally confessed that we did!) and ran our own ways around the track. I realized later that neither of us were totally right or wrong in our assessment of the requirement of stretching during a workout.
, stretching is often confused with warming-up, the latter being the performing of the activity in a slower and gradually accelerated way. Whereas warming-up has been considered to be of help in improving performance efficiency, all the studies that showed stretching to be beneficial did not consider the confounding aspect of warming-up in their plans. Stretching obviously contracts and relaxes the muscle fibres to its maximal extent, thereby increasing flexibility around a given joint. This may be important when indulging in sports that require good flexibility like for gymnasts and figure skaters. When not needed as in running, excessive flexibility can cause muscle instability and decrease total force production. Even sports medicine scientists agree that the benefits of stretching in causing subjective improvement in performance is something that cannot be quatified by research. One of the reasons why Brad felt compelled to stretch each time could be that stretching induces production of hormones called endorphins that are natural pain-killers produced by the brain. This is probably responsible for the 'runner's high' that athletes experience and that scientists and doctors have failed to reproduce in lab experiments. These are the same endorphins that are also linked to the effect of placebo in controlled experimentation.
So finally, what's good and what's not with stretching? Stretching techniques can be of several types: ballistic, dynamic, static and propioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). Repetitive bouncing movements as in ballistic is definitely not recommended whereas dynamic stretching that mimics the activity to be performed in an exaggerated yet controlled manner can be as useful as warming-up. Static stretching of muscles by holding them at the point of discomfort is a popular method and useful if done for limited periods of time and severity. PNF requires a partner and involves both agonistic and antogonistic muscle groups (eg. biceps and triceps) and produces the greatest benefit in flexibility. Thus, stretching can help maintain flexibility which declines with age or inactivity due to an injury.
Also, stretching may be more safely performed after exercise, when muscles are warm. As a final word, I have come to believe that like most things, stretching is good as long as done in moderation to suit the kind of activity done. Indeed, both Brad and I never imagined this topic to be as equivocal as it turned out to be!

Monday, December 04, 2006


Land of Shivaji, land of Ambedkar. The very land of the father of our constitution is now burning. Following the tasteless act of the beheading of an Ambedkar statue in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, there has been a unimaginable surge in communal rife in Maharashtra. Specifically strange considering that the place of the inciting event and place of subsequent riots are separated on the map by a distance of over 1000 km. Many believe that it is a politically motivated exercise to garner the crucial support of the Dalit votebank and some consider this to be the the outcome of bottled up anger and frustration of that community over previous discriminatory incidents. Either way, this exposed the worsening situation in Maharashtra, the incapable and fickle government, the unrest among sections of the population. It is hard for me to believe that Pimpri, one of the most peaceful areas in Pune, was struck by mobs of stone-pelting and shop-burning. Shops, schools, offices remained closed for at least a day in most places in Pune. Who gained anything out of all this? Who pays for all that damage, loss of property and disruption of the civic system?
What Babasaheb Ambedkar said repeatedly in his writings and speeches was: "We must shape our course ourselves and by ourselves... Political power cannot be a panacea for the ills of the Depressed Classes. Their salvation lies in their social elevation. They must cleanse their evil habits. They must improve their bad ways of living.... They must be educated....” I fail to see even an iota of effective education in anyone connected with this whole incident. Neither the ones who desecrated the statue, nor the ones who rose up in retaliation to burn trains and buses nor the politicians who watched silently mired in their own factionist goals. I wonder how many how of them even know any intricate details of the life and teachings of Ambedkar. Is it surprising that even as we talk of India becoming a super-power, only 6% of the Indian population graduates from school (Rajinder Sachar committee report)? Its common knowledge who the people involved in these revolts and mob activities are: jobless persons, those who have no fruitful ways to channelize their energies and who take this as the only opportunity to be heard. They have no vision for themselves; definitely none for their community or their nation. Apt and ironic to quote one of Babasaheb Ambedkar's bête noire, Mahatma Gandhi who said: 'An eye for an eye will make the whole world go blind.'