Don't undervalue the importance of stretching

Everyone knows that warming up before playing sports is imperÿative to future participation. A pregame ritual of jogging and exÿtensive stretching helps the body function as it should, and greatly reduces the risk of injury.

All athletes should stretch, but it becomes even more crucial with age because the older we become, the longer it takes for our muscles and tendons to work together.

Once our biological clocks have been ticking for 25-30 years, we can't just get up and go like when we were in high school -- though we often trick ourselves into beÿlieving we can.

Take your pride and throw it out the window, because if you haven't accepted it already, inÿjuries take longer to heal as we get older. But it's not all bad. Most injuries can be prevented by showing up to the field a few minutes early and going through a proper warmup routine.

Just because most athletes understand the importance of this ritual, doesn't mean we always put it into practice. And every time we neglect these basic stretching exercises, we risk seriÿous injury.

Add me to the list.

I am one of the unfortunate ones. Now, as I watch people run around on soccer fields and basÿketball courts this summer, I am one of the regretful ones.

Last February, I arrived late to a soccer game and didn't have enough time to warm up -- that's what I told myself anyway. I wrongly assumed that my body still had the resiliency of a teen-ager, and ran onto the field withÿout weighing the potential conseÿquences.

As luck would have it, shortly into the first half, I felt a pop in my right leg and a twinge shoot into my abdomen. My abductor muscle -- more commonly known as the groin -- had torn.

Being a team player, I ignored the pain and continued to play until the final whistle, further compounding the injury. Little did I know at the time, but along with my groin went the next six months of athletics.

It's now August and I have yet to step onto the field again.

That incident taught me a very valuable lesson. Just like cars, as our bodies get older, the longer they take to start functioning at an optimal level. You can't just floor it after your car has been parked for a few days -- a perfect analogy for what happened to me in February.

You have to allow all the car's gears, gauges and valves to warm up before taking that shiny red hot rod off the start line. Gun it right out of the chute and you risk serious engine damage -- or in the case of humans, muscle damÿage.

But before you stretch, it is important to get your blood movÿing with a few minutes of aerobic activity. Muscles behave like putÿty and stretch more easily when heated up. Slow jogging, stair climbing or stationary cycling will do the trick.

Another piece of advice is to stretch in a particular order, since muscles work in groups. Stretching also enhances flexÿibility and suppleness of your ligaments and tendons -- which contribute to your range of moÿtion -- by stimulating the producÿtion of chemicals that lubricate connective tissues.

It seems like every day that you hear about a torn ACL -- even in the professional ranks -- but as freak as those injuries are, a preÿgame routine of light aerobic exÿercise followed by 15-20 of stretchÿing will limit the liklihood of catastrophic injuries.

I wish I had taken my own advice. Not that a groin pull can be considered "catastrophic," but it has proven to be life changing. For me, six months without socÿcer is like a prison sentence, and I know I'm not alone.

If you have chosen an active lifestyle, do your body a favor and rev the engine and test the gearsÿbefore you run onto the field.

You'll spend more of your time in the fast lane instead of at the mechanic.

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