Posted by: pointlenana | July 4, 2016

Exercise Of The Month – July 2016: Stretching

I never quite figured out stretching, and it’s possible/likely that different approaches work for different people.  My awesome PT Nancy at RealRehab gave me an approach that seems to work, doesn’t take a ridiculous amount of time, and isn’t too boring.

I’ve read in Anatomy for Runners – and heard from the people at RealRehab – that to actually stretch your tissues you have hold the stretches for a long time (3-5) minutes and do it daily for up to 3 months before it really has impact.  I did that for a while with my hip flexors and noticed real improvement.  But… it’s mindbogglingly boring.  The more typical “stretch something for 15-30 seconds” supposedly doesn’t do much.

When you are running (or doing most other activities), it’s rare that you activate a muscle through a single axis, evenly across the muscle.  For example, there’s a classic hamstring stretch where you put your foot up on a bench, keep that leg straight, and then bend forward until the hamstring is stretching (gently).  In the real world, there’s usually a lot more movement happening – forward/backwards, side to side, inward/outward rotation of your foot/leg.  The classic stretch really only addresses that forward/backwards movement.

Nancy’s approach is to put the muscle into a gentle stretch, and then move your body gently in another axis to help that muscle’s tissue move more smoothly past the muscles/fibers/tissue/goop around it and/or break up adhesions/stuck spots between tissue.  In the case of the hamstring, I get into the classic stretch pose and then rock my hips side-to-side gently 10-15 times in each direction.  As I reach the end of each swing, I feel a stretch on one side of the hamstring.  After I’ve done that 10-15 times, I rotate my foot (still in the hamstring stretch pose) inwardly and outwardly, again 10-15 times.  Each “rep” in these stretches only takes a second or two, so stretching one hamstring takes 45-60 seconds.  It’s important to do this all gently.  You aren’t aiming to stretch the muscle in any significant way.  You are trying to unstick anything that shouldn’t be stuck together.  Move until there’s a gentle stretch, then move back.

This approach can be used for just about anything that’s tight.  For example, when I hurt my shoulder a few months ago, Nancy had me stand at a wall with my hands up on the wall (in push-up position).  Then I slide the hand on the injured arm up until pain/stiffness stopped me.  Then I gently rocked my hips away from the wall (increased stretch) and back.  10-15 times with that movement, then rocking my hips side-to-side.  Then I moved my hips side to side several times.  That was a sudden acute injury, with lots of limitation, but this stretch (and a few other things) resolved everything very quickly.  For more chronic tightness, it may take a longer.  But the nice thing is that it’s pretty low risk, vs. more aggressive stretching where people sometimes make something snap.

Combined with foam-rolling, I view this bodywork as offsetting some of the abuse from running.  During peak-training and race season, I try to do this body work every other day.  When I’m not spending so much time training, I aim for 5-6 times a week.  (I probably have that backwards but there’s only so much time to do things.)

Below is my typical sequence (10-15 reps for each of the movements).  I’m linking to some videos for these but remember that the goal is to get into the stretch pose shown in the video and then do additional movement in another axis.

  • Foam roll quads, adductors, calves, glutes, feet (lacrosse ball), hamstrings (a massage ball about the size of a softball)
  • Hamstring stretch – side-to-side, rotate foot, as described above.
  • Hip flexor/ITB stretch – stand at a bench with one foot up on the bench/knee bent, back leg straight with foot away from the bench and rotated inwardly 45 degrees (this helps stretch the ITB better).  Rock in/forward towards the bench and back out.  With your hips in the forward/more stretch position, rock your hips side to side.  Then rotate your hips clockwise, and then counter-clockwise.
  • Hip flexor/quad stretch.  Kneel in front of a bench with your forward leg bent at 90 degrees, and your back foot up on the bench (knee bent and on a cushion on the ground).  Rock forward and backwards (the video shows this).  Move side to side.  Rotate in one direction and then another, combining the forward/backward and side-to-side movements.  This is similar to the standing hip flexor stretch but it stretches your quads too.  Plus most runners need extra attention for the hip flexors.
  • Adductor stretch.  Get down on the floor in frog pose with your toes pointing towards each other.  Rock your body forward (past your knees) until you feel a stretch, then rock backwards until your butt is almost at your feet.  Repeat several times.  Rotate your feet out so toes are pointing away from each other and rock forward/backwards again (the video shows this variation).  With toes pointing in again, rotate your trunk/hips left and right.  Repeat with toes pointing out.
  • Calf stretch – In the straight-leg runners stretch, rock your hips side to side.  Repeat in bent-leg runners stretch.


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