Many of us have realized minimal gains with static stretching. For many it seems to be the training element we shove off to the end of the list even though we know it is important. Maybe we do this because for all the time we spend, we don’t get much positive reinforcement?
Static stretching tends to yield short-term changes in muscle lengths. Ever notice about 10 to 15 minutes into your workout you feel tight again? It is because we have not addressed the root issue of what is driving the muscle tightness. We may get a few degrees more range of motion, but it is short lived.
Why are the hamstrings and calves tight to begin with? For a long time, I thought it was due to those muscles being worked more, shortened due to growth spurts or inconsistent flexibility routines. Then I learned that this was only a part of the picture. Yes, these muscles were working extra, but because others were not. The main reason for the tightness had nothing to do with the muscle length, but the muscles that keep them tight are more active or “turned on” when they are not supposed to be, which will keep them tight. Essentially the muscles that are abnormally tight are working extra and always turned on.
In my last article, ‘The Freedom of Movement,’ I discussed the importance of mobility and stability. Physical therapists, doctors and trainers have different theories on which element is best to address first. To a certain degree as we still develop our diagnostic tools, it will continue to be a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Since everyone’s body reacts differently, the best approach is to try a different method of improving flexibility and re-test your mobility or stability to see if it has an effect.
Since we need to look at the muscles as an interrelated system, we should use mobility techniques as such as well (i.e. not stretch one isolated muscle group, but address the whole system). We address the system by turning on the muscles that are not activated (but are supposed to be), while at the same time lengthening the target muscle group we are hitting.
Since no muscle group works with out interacting with other muscle groups, I like to think of targeting an area versus a specific muscle group. For example, instead of stretching just hamstrings, I like to think of stretching the hip, calf and foot muscles, all of which are involved with the hamstrings. Often, we may think our hamstrings are tight when it’s really our hip flexors and weak core driving the movement restrictions.
How to Stretch
Since our bodies work best fully mobile, we ideally want to exercise after improving our mobility.
A good sequence is:
- Foam roll to release trigger points
- Hit your primary trouble spot with a mobility exercise sequence, for example, a toe touch (as detailed below)
- Then move into your workout.
This will take 10 to 15 minutes, but you will feel like a different athlete for most of your workout.
Since many skiers tend to have tight hips, and especially those that use cycling as their core form of endurance base building – the body position in cycling tends to shorten hip flexors – I will use the hips as a starting-point example. Please keep in mind this is one example of multiple ways to address this.
What will work most effectively to keep these changes in is flexibility coupled with strength exercises that teach and reinforce this improved muscle firing pattern. After a short time, the additional strength exercises will make the improvements in flexibility long term (for days/weeks), versus for 20 to 30 minutes.
What works best for each person will again be driven by what you learn in your evaluation or FMS screening. For making long-term changes in your flexibility muscle release helps for a short duration, but will only elicit a change for a short while, unless we continue to work on fixing the system. The exercises below are based off the work of physical therapist and author Gray Cook.
Goal: Release tight hamstrings and hip flexors as a system.
- Start by doing a toe touch to see your existing range of motion.
- Foam roll back and forth 15-20 times: hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, abductors (outside leg muscles), adductors (inside leg muscles), and glutes. (For some folks, try rolling out your foot with a golf ball)
- Start with toes up (figure 1) on a 2-inch board and a towel roll between knees, reach up, inhale, then reach down. When you hit resistance, pinch your knees together and stretch more (figure 2). Bend knees if you still cannot touch your toes. Repeat 6-10 times.
- Start with heels on a 2-inch board and a towel roll between knees, reach up, inhale, then reach down (figure 3). When you hit resistance, pinch your knees together and stretch more. Repeat 6-10 times.
Goal: Release tight hip flexors as a system.
- Foam roll back and forth 15-20 times: hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, abductors (outside leg muscles), adductors (inside leg muscles), and glutes. If you did this for other exercises, no need to repeat.
- Position yourself as in figure 4. Press hips downward into the ground
- When you hit resistance, press the dowel into the ground with straight arms, keeping back straight, exhale. This will release the hip flexor further by engaging the core.
- Repeat 2-3 times. Switch legs, repeat.
Ankle mobility is important for correct running mechanics. Without the nominal 30 degrees of ankle dorsiflexion (the range of motion in the ankle when the toes are flexed up), one will tend to “over stride” or “block out” (strike the ground too far ahead of their center of gravity) when running.
This can lead to a host of problems do to the repeated jarring and deceleration of the bodyweight when running. It can lead to shin splints and knee and hip injuries. Lack of mobility in these muscles can also cause Achilles tightness and over-active muscles involved in stabilizing the body, perhaps even contribute significantly to compartment syndrome, which can be caused by over-active muscle tissue that swells within it’s muscle sheath (like a piece of wet spaghetti swelling in a straw).
As I explained in my previous article, if mobility cannot happen in the joint and muscles that were meant to handle these forces, it is transferred to adjacent muscles and joints that were not designed to mange these forces, and injury occurs.
Goal: Increase ankle mobility by stretching inter-related muscle groups.
- Foam roll back and forth 15 to 20 times: hamstrings, hip flexors and calves. Roll out foot, calf and anterior tibialis (front of shin) muscles. If you did this for other exercises, no need to repeat.
- Position yourself as in as in figure 5, dowel on the outside of your little toe, knee on the outside of the dowel, press ankle forward with heel flat. When you hit resistance, press the dowel into the ground with straight arms, keeping back straight, also press opposite knee down into the ground, exhale. Hold for 4-6 seconds.
- Repeat 6-8 times. Switch legs, repeat.
After you have done these, re-test your toe-touch, move around and see how your body feels with the improved flexibility.
Having good mobility though out your body is important for movement efficiency, not only injury resistance. You may not be getting injured do to some flexibility deficiencies but you may move with less efficiency, and who does not want to be a little (or a lot) faster?
Stuart Kremzner is an exercise physiologist, avid nordic skier and coach. He has a passion to help athletes develop to their fullest potential while gaining a love for the training process. When not working in his training center E3 Sports Performance he is out running or skiing on the trails with his family.