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Massage Today
September, 2008, Vol. 08, Issue 09

Early Hours and Shortened Muscles

By Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB

Getting up too early is a vice habitual in horned owls, stars, geese and freight trains. Some hunters acquire it from geese and some coffee pots from hunters. It is strange that of all the multitude of creatures who must rise in the morning at some time, only these few should have discovered the most pleasant and least useful time for doing it.

Orion must have been the original mentor of the too-early company, for it is he who signals for too-early rising. It is time when Orion has passed west of the zenith about as far as one should lead a teal.6

- Aldo Leopold

Back in my college days, I managed to fulfill my biology requirement while escaping hours looking through a microscope by taking a couple of university-sponsored field trips: one to Death Valley, Calif., and the other to Sequoia National Park. During the day, we students would follow professors around listening to them talk about the local mammals, insects and minerals. In the evening hours, among other activities, were some readings from different naturalists. Thus, I became acquainted with Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and his paragraphs on getting up "too early." Although Leopold was a few decades too early to note it, the quiet, semi-dark hours of the early morning also is a time many runners, including myself, prefer. Runner and writer Joe Henderson expresses well the draw and the disadvantages of rolling out of bed for a run:

"In winter, my days are going downhill before the sun is up. I'm a morning person by nature. I peak early in the day and like to do my running and writing before I start winding down. But this is ridiculous. This isn't early morning, it's still night. I stumble out into the gloom, trying to imitate a runner. Right after that, I try to write things that other people might read. By 6:30 or 7 o'clock, the part of the day I look forward to most is over. The sky is just starting to lighten at the horizon. It's time to get ready for work. ... Every little pain is multiplied by a factor of about five after a night's sleep. Runners who've run a marathon on Sunday barely can hobble to the bathroom on Monday morning. When I was going through a siege of heel trouble several years ago, I couldn't get my foot down flat on the floor for the first five minutes out of bed."4

After some hours of sleeping and not using our muscles, they often are shortened and unprepared for full exertion or full range of motion. The exertions of the previous several days find their revenge in those first minutes of active wakefulness. This leads us to warming up, cooling down and stretching, which often is an anything but simple discussion. The complexity is exemplified by a "debate" on passive stretching and injury prevention that was hosted in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies a few years ago.3 Having a dozen authors and an editor involved is, in itself, an indication of the ranges of opinion. A thorough review of stretching is beyond the scope of a short column. For this, I'll refer you to the works of Brad Appleton2 and Michael Alter.1

Some of the complexity around stretching can be at least narrowed, I believe, by looking at contexts and immediate goals. The goal upon getting out of bed for a run, for example, is not to extend one's long-term flexibility but to regain the short-term range of motion (ROM) necessary to begin running without immediate injury. Assuming you possessed this ROM before sleeping, the shortness is going to be an issue of muscle hypertonicity rather than one of actual tissue length. The immediate cure is controlled movement through an increasing ROM, until you reach your homeostatic ROM. The movements both relax the shortened muscles and, by stimulating release of synovial fluid, prepare the involved joints for movement. Essentially, the same goals would apply for pre-event sports massage. It's about facilitating movement within the athlete's normal ROM.

What remains are the effects and benefits of longer-term stretch programs. Michael Alter comments that the most important component of muscle related to ROM is the connective tissues that develop and surround the muscle at its various levels of organization.1 He presents an "overstretching principle" as an analog to the overtraining principle:

"According to this principle, when the body is regularly stimulated by an increasingly intense stretching program beyond the homeostatic level, it will respond with an increased ability to stretch. Conversely, a decrease in the intensity of a stretching program lowers the ability to stretch. Therefore, the body adapts to the increasing demands placed on it. 'Overstretching' in this context does not mean stretching body parts that exceed their safety limits and result in injury and impairment. Flexibility is simply a result of stretching."1

By the "overstretching principle," Alter is noting that the tissue both accommodates in length to the regular stretching and in its patterns of neural response. In response to stretching, the muscle-tendon unit becomes more "compliant" (i.e., easier to stretch). Witvrouw, et al., comment that some of the literature disagreements on stretching may result from not considering the types of sports activities.7 They note that sports involving bouncing and jumping, with a high intensity of stretch-shortening cycles (SSCs), require a muscle-tendon unit that is compliant (stretchable) enough to store and release the high amount of elastic energy that benefits performance in such sports. Sports that contain low-intensity of limited SSCs don't require the same compliance, making stretching to increase compliance less beneficial.

Another useful clue comes from Ingraham, who concludes stretching to increase flexibility beyond that needed for sport-specific movements might cause or augment the chance of injury, particularly if time spent in such stretching reduces time spent in general conditioning exercises.5

The pattern that emerges is that we need enough ROM to freely complete the movement a sport requires, but more flexibility than needed may only add instability. We need our muscles to be able to elastically respond to the stress placed on them, which is sport specific. Too little ROM or too little elasticity and we ask for trouble. Balancing strength, flexibility and our activities leaves us free to move - whether "too early" or when the sun is high.


  1. Alter MJ. Science of Flexibility, 3rd ed. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 2004.
  2. Appleton B. Stretching and Flexibility - Everything You Never Wanted to Know.
  3. Chaitow L (Ed.). The Stretching Debate. Commentaries by: J. Beam, J. DeLany, W. Haynes, R. Lardner, C. Liebenson, S. Martin, P. Rowland, R. Schleip, J. Sharkey, B. Vaughn. Response by: R. Herbert and M. Gabriel. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, April 2003;7(2):80-1.
  4. Henderson J. Long Run Solution - Waking.
  5. Ingraham SJ. The Role of Flexibility in Injury Prevention and Athletic Performance - Have We Stretched the Truth? Minnesota Medicine, May 2003;86(5):58-61.
  6. Leopold A. Too Early. In: A Sand County Almanac. New York: Sierra Club/Ballantine, 1972.
  7. Witvrouw E, Mahleu N, Danneels L, McNair P. Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship. Sports Med, 2004;34(7):443-9.

Click here for previous articles by Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB.


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