Helpful Stretching Techniques
There have always been questions and controversy over whether it is good or bad to stretch. Runners are often concerned about “over-stretching”. They worry if they have stretched enough or too much.
First, why stretch?
Many coaches and trainers create pre-game or pre-sport warm-ups. They understand that a few minutes spent stretching before an activity can help prevent many common injuries such a sprains, strains and tears. This preparatory activity stimulates circulation to the muscle, connective tissue areas and joints, increasing flexibility and improving range of motion. In short, stretching helps prepare the body for activity.
Think how you spend your day: sitting at a desk, standing in one position, driving and watching television, sometimes for hours at a time. After maintaining these positions so long, the flexor muscles tighten and shorten, while the extensor muscles require strengthening. Women who wear high heel shoes all day have a similar problem, with calf muscles and Achilles tendons tightening and shortening. Stretching is imperative for them prior to activity.
Plantar Fasciitis is highly treatable. Doing foot exercises designed to stretch the affected tendon are also part of a good treatment program for plantar fasciitis but these must be done every morning and evening for at least a two week period. It’s a good idea to take over-the-counter pain medications with anti-inflammatory properties in order to reduce or eliminate the pain felt during a plantar fasciitis episode. You can reduce your pain by doing proper stretching and exercises along with wearing the proper footwear. If you do this, you can return back to your active lifestyle.
The cardinal rule of proper stretching is: “don’t bounce.” Ballistic stretching will only cause the muscle receptors to fire, and, rather than stretch, will cause the stretch reflex mechanism to instantly contract.
The stretch should be performed slowly, and each side should be repeated, holding the stretch for 20 seconds. It is recommended that the stretch be repeated at least 3 times.
Most runners do this exercise by putting their foot on a waist-high stationary object (or a hurdle if at the track) and slowly leaning forward, reaching down the shin until they feel a stretch in the hamstring. The hamstring is the muscle that runs from just below the knee up into the buttocks. The muscle lifts the lower leg and bends the knee after the quads have lifted your knees. Sprinters pull this muscle more than distance runners, even straining your hamstring can limit your ability to run fast.
The best way to do this exercise, however, is not with your foot on a stool, but rather while lying on your back. Lie on your back, keeping the back flat and your eyes focused upward. Grasp the back of one thigh with both your hands and (leg bent) pull that thigh into a 90-degree position vs. the floor. Then slowly straighten your knee. After you have gotten used to doing this exercise, you can achieve a better stretch by pulling your thigh closer to your chest—but do not overdo it!
The quadriceps is the muscle in the front of the thigh, important for lifting your knees and increasing your speed. It is the “quads” that often go at the end of marathons, causing runners to come shuffling across the finish line because they have a hard time lifting their feet off the ground. To do this exercise while standing, simply grab hold of a stationary object for balance with one hand and use the opposite hand to grasp the leg around the ankle, lifting it toward your buttocks. You want to keep your back straight and not allow the knee to drift forward ahead of the stance leg. Many runners slouch forward, which effectively negates the stretch’s effectiveness.
An even more effective way to do this exercise, however, is lying on a bench, using a towel wrapped around the ankle to pull your foot toward your buttocks. You should position yourself on the edge of the bench with the foot of your dangling leg forward, knee bent, leg relaxed. As with the other stretching exercises, hold each stretch for 10 seconds and repeat as many as 10 times for each leg.
Kneeling Hip Flexor
This is a great active stretch that targets the hip flexors. Many athletes are prone to tightness in their hip flexors. Runners, dancers, golfers, and track athletes often fall into this category. The active kneeling hip flexor stretch also works well for those who spend most of their day in a seated position or who wants to improve their hip and low back flexibility in activities such as yoga and pilates.
When the hip flexors become tight or overactive, athletic performance can be dramatically diminished. When hip flexors do not work properly, the gluteals (buttocks) become weak. When you have this combination, injuries may occur. Piriformis syndrome as well as hamstring and low back injuries are common results of tight hip flexors.
To prevent this, it is helpful to add the following stretch into an exercise routine. This stretch can be used as a dynamic warm-up or cool-down for any athlete who wants to add flexibility training to his/her regimen.
Maintain good posture by keeping spine aligned and head looking forward. Kneel (on towel or mat) with front and back legs bent at 90-degree angle. Front foot should be facing forward. Abdominal muscles should feel nice and tight. Brace abdominal muscles (pull navel inward).
You may feel a slight stretch at this point. Internally rotate back hip. (Position the back leg/knee so that it is bent in toward the other leg). Keep buttocks squeezed throughout the rest of the stretch. Stop if you feel any pain or discomfort at any time during this stretch. Slowly, move body forward until a mild tension is achieved in the front of the hip being stretched. Hold for 2 seconds. Relax stretch. Repeat for 5-10 repetitions.
Hip Flexor Stretch
Your hip flexors — which allow you to lift your knees and bend at the waist — are located on your upper thighs, just below your hipbones.
To stretch your hip flexors:
Kneel on your right knee, cushioning your kneecap with a folded towel.Place your left foot in front of you, bending your knee and placing your left hand on your left leg for stability. Place your right hand on your right hip to avoid bending at the waist. Keep your back straight and abdominal muscles tight.
Lean forward, shifting more body weight onto your front leg. You’ll feel a stretch in your right thigh. Hold for about 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
Excessive tightness of the calf muscles can contribute to many foot problems and some knee problems. The Achilles tendon attaches the calf muscle to the back of the heel. As the calf muscle tightens up it limits the movement of the ankle joint. When there is not adequate range of motion at the ankle during walking or exercising the foot joints are forced to move in an abnormal fashion. The foot is forced to flatten and the forces generated into the ball of the foot are extreme in nature. Over time, this repeated strain results in a variety of foot problems.
This push-off exercise is the one you most often see runners doing before races. Typically, they lean against a wall to stretch the calf muscles—but they don’t always do it right. The gastrocnemius muscle, along with the soleus, is located in the back of the calf. It is the calf muscle that actually propels your leg across your grounded foot while running.
Lean against a wall or other stationary object, both palms against the object. The leg you want to stretch is back, several feet from the wall, your heel firmly positioned on the floor. Your other leg is flexed about halfway between your back leg and the wall. Start with your back straight and gradually lunge forward until you feel the stretch in your calf. It is important to keep your back foot straight and angled 90 degrees from the wall.
Place your hands on a wall in front of you while placing one foot in front of the other. Keeping both your heel flat on the ground, bend your knees so that you can feel the lower part of the leg stretch.
Hold this position for about 15 seconds and repeat this stretch several times.
This exercise is useful in stretching the lower leg, particularly the muscles in the calf and the Achilles tendon. By doing this, it can release tension not only in the lower leg, but also tension and stress placed on the plantar fascia.
Foot-stretching exercises done with a towel.
- Sit down on the floor or a mat with your feet stretched out in front of you.
- Roll up a towel lengthwise and then loop it over one foot (around the ball of your foot).
- Take one end of the towel in either hand and gently pull the towel towards your body to stretch the front of your foot. Repeat with the other foot.
Another simple exercise is taking a tennis ball, rolling pin, or other small rolling device and placing it under the foot. Next, roll the foot over the ball or rolling pin, allowing the device to slide over the bottom on the foot.
Despite its simplicity, this exercise is useful for stretching the plantar fascia. By doing this, you are making it more flexible and can help relief not only tension for moderate amounts of pain. Regularly doing this exercise helps to keep the ligament flexible and strong.