2013 wrapped up the single best year of running I have had to date. I PR’d in every distance I ran, and (perhaps most importantly to me) enjoyed a strong training season with months of pain free running, this despite a marked increase in my training volume. In comparison, last year I was plagued by IT band issues as well as other little aches and pains, and had to take large chunks of time off or cross-train (I had a love-hate relationship with my Spin bike) as I limped through injuries, or had to drop out of races – failing to even tow the starting line – and deal with the mental and financial frustrations that went along with that.
There is only ONE thing I did differently this year from years past (aside from the increase in training volume, which has always resulted in more injuries for me, not less); I incorporated some key stretches into my routine. These are ones I learned and adapted through me study of Restorative Exercise™ (RE). If you have ever done any kind of yoga or stretching class, some of these might seem familiar.
Now, I know everyone is different, and has their own predisposition to injury. However, I believe EVERYONE can benefit from doing these stretches (including you, my dear reader!)
Give these stretches a try and see if they don’t help you in 2014!
What you will need – a half dome (preferred) or a rolled up towel or yoga mat
Place the ball of your foot up on a half dome, rolled towel or yoga mat. Step forward with the opposite foot (without arching your back or tucking your pelvis) until you feel a pull down the back of the towel-leg. Switch legs after 30-60 secs.
You will probably start with your back foot like mine is in this picture; behind the front foot. If you have to lean forward with your torso to move your back leg forward, or lift your ribs to get there, you are forcing the movement. Stay where you are until your calves lengthen (this could take days or weeks) and then progress forward with your back leg. Stop if you feel pain; a stretch is good, pain is not!
With time, you will be able to bring your foot more or less equal with the foot on the half dome.
Eventually, range of motion should look like this:
(see how I can get my leg that is not on the towel/half dome out in front? This is called a positive stride.) The tighter the calves, the harder it will be to get in this position at first without arching the back our thrusting the pelvis. We don’t want that! Keep up with the exercise and over time you will be able to increase your range of motion.
Double Calf Stretch
With feet on a rolled up towel, half dome or yoga mat, flatten (NOT ARCH) your back, lifting the tailbone to the ceiling/sky. Hands are placed on the back of a chair (as shown), or, when more flexible, on the seat of a chair. Hold for 60 secs if possible. Take a break if any cramping occurs in your calves or hamstrings, or if you feel pain in your low back. If this is the case, take a moment to do a self check on your form. Is your back rounding? Are you tucking that pelvis? Are you stretching beyond your current range of motion right now? Correct and then try again.
Note: If you have a hip replacement you should NOT do the across the body or out to the side variations of the strap stretch.
Keep both legs straight. Bring one leg up gently, having looped a yoga strap or belt and placing the foot in the loop. DO NOT AGGRESSIVELY PULL on the foot; guide it gently toward your chest using your arms to support the weight of the leg, keeping your back flat, shoulders, hips, glutes and hamstring (of the leg on the ground) on the ground. How close you bring it to 90 degrees and beyond depends on how tight and/or shortened the muscles (hamstrings, calves and low back) you are dealing with are; do not force the stretch and do not bend the knee to deepen the stretch. Hold for 30 sec, switch legs. Repeat.
Now, look at the picture above – see how I am able to get my leg closer to 90 degrees? However, if you look closely, my right hamstring (leg on ground) is coming off the ground ever so slightly, and I am arching my back a little. We don’t want that. If this happens to you, lower the leg in the strap until the leg on the ground can maintain hamstring contact with the ground at all times, and you don’t need to arch your back to get your leg higher into the air. Think: head, shoulders, back and hamstring on the ground!
Also, you will want to stretch the leg across the body and out to the side. Allow the arms to control the leg here and guide the stretch – do not force the movement or try and “muscle through it.” Keep pelvis on ground and centered; if you left your hips off of the ground you have gone too far.
No joke – this is an EXCELLENT stretch for hitting the elusive IT Band.
These stretches focus on lengthening the calf muscles and stretching the hamstrings, both of which, when tight, can place undo strain on your knees, feet, hips and low back. All of which = bad. The “across the body” and “to the side” strap stretch are wonderful hip openers and IT Band stretches; I credit this stretch for helping to save me from a pattern of awful IT Band issues. Is it a cure-all? Of course not…but it, combined with an effective and smart training plan, can most definitely help. My performance this past year is more than enough proof to me!
These stretches are just a handful on ones I have incorporated into my daily routine. However, I believe the ones listed above are of particular use for runners and walkers (although everyone can benefit!) In future posts I will continue to share some RE exercises. Of course, if you would like to discuss how you and your athletic pursuits can benefit from Restorative Exercise™, drop me a line; I’d love to chat with you!