Spring is officially here, and if you have been inside working out for most of the winter in the Northern states like I have, you cannot wait to get outside and change your training, scenery, and environment. Now that we have finished up the three-month series on preparing for a marathon, this month we join Danny Concha from the North Saint Paul Fire Department and take a look at stretching while on shift, if you are a career service, or while at home or work, if you are on a paid on-call service. Regardless of which type of department you are on, stretching in the fire service, just as it is in sports, is often overlooked or neglected. The simplest way to explain the benefits of stretching is when you’re department responds to a call of a tree into a power line. It is not the young, green, bendable trees that have fallen; it’s the older, larger, non-flexible trees that have.
The benefits of flexibility accomplished through stretching, unlike endurance (cardio-respiratory) or strength (weight) training is not immediately seen or appreciated. Unlike endurance or strength training, researchers have not been able to completely validate the proposed benefits of stretching or flexibility, though there is much evidence to support that it improves range of motion, balance, speed, and enhanced performance in certain sports. With that being said, I would argue that firefighting and emergency medical response resemble sports, in so much that they both require speed, endurance, strength, and balance, which flexibility may enhance.
So, now that we have decided that there is benefit related directly to your profession, the next question that again is often debated is, do you stretch before or after your workout? Stretching before and after is appropriate. The goal is to stretch muscles that have been, for a better term, warmed-up. That is, you stand up from sitting in chair for three hours and decide to stretch. Ideally, getting up and walking around for five or more minutes will increase blood flow and muscle temperature, which both play a role in stretching. Next, is static (slow and hold) or dynamic, sometime times referred to as ballistic (faster and through a range of motion) stretching better? Both have their role. Where static stretching is appropriate for everyone, dynamic stretching mimic’s specific sport- or work-related movements that are ballistic in nature. Also there is a greater chance of injury with ballistic stretching versus static. For the purposes of this article, we are going to only look at static stretching.
You have been sitting for an hour or more at the station or at home and decide you should get up and move around; instead, get up with a plan. Walk around the apparatus bay, your house, or yard for five minutes. Then, perform each of the following stretches once or more. Also, remember these can be performed following any major response as a cool down as well.
Calf Stretch: Find a solid wall, pillar, or apparatus, and then place your hands on it shoulder width apart, at shoulder level. Now, step back about two feet and slide your right foot back another foot. Your left knee should bend as you lean towards the wall slightly. Next, begin to slowly lean your body weight into the wall. You should feel a slow, steady stretch in your right calf muscle. You do not have to lean all the way in; you just want a nice stretch. Hold it for about 10 seconds, then lean in a little further, holding for about 20 to 30 seconds, then stand up and repeat for the other leg (see Photos 1 and 2).
Lower-Back Stretch: This stretch can be performed on a carpeted floor or your bunker coat. Lay down on your back on your coat with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Slowly pull your knees towards your chest using your abdominal muscles, keeping your legs together. As your legs come up, place your hands on your mid-shins and begin to pull them back towards your torso or abdomen. You should feel a stretch in your lower back. You can either have your head up or flat on the floor. Hold for 10 seconds, then continue holding for another 20 seconds, or pull a little more and hold for another 10-20 seconds. Then, slowly let your legs down (see Photos 3 and 4).