Welcome to another installment of “The Offseason Athlete.” One of the most common questions I’m asked is how often should I be stretching and why should I be stretching? The most commonly neglected aspect when it comes to training and conditioning among athletes is a lack of a comprehensive stretching routine. We take for granted just how important stretching is for our bodies. Achieving proper length and tension (flexibility) of muscles through dedicated stretching can help minimize injuries, improve postural alignment, reduce muscle atrophy and over time, reduce postural deformity. Allowing joints to go through more range of motion with less resistance, muscle flexibility allows for better force production and normal biomechanics. With a good stretching program in place throughout the year, the end result is a decrease in overuse injuries, better mechanics and less compensation from surrounding muscles. Like any good habit, stretching begins with a good understanding of the structures involved and their influence on performance. From a Physical Therapy standpoint, early identification of muscle imbalances is critical. Stretching also has the added benefit as it; improves circulation to the limbs and is good for temporary relief of muscle pain and spasms.
To understand the importance of flexibility, it is important to first understand the concept behind the physiology when a muscle contracts. The common misconception that muscles function by “pushing” us should be addressed. The ability to walk, run, and cycle is dependent on our muscles ability to lengthen and shorten, decelerating or accelerating us through space in order to stabilize our joints. Physiologically muscles do not “push” us. Muscle function by either getting shorter, or longer. Achieving good mechanics and efficiency through sport is a by-product of the balance achieved between the muscles shortening (agonist) and the opposing ones lengthening (antagonist) respectively. Untreated injuries or scar tissue formation to muscles and tendons can affect this relationship greatly. If either shortening or lengthening phase of muscles is compromised, the joint’s ability to provide smooth mobility through the available range of motion becomes increasingly difficult, increasing your effort (energy expenditure) to over-come the restriction(s). The same problem with joint integrity can occur with extreme hypermobility (extremely flexible) in running and cycling athletes, but in my experience the majority of endurance athletes do not fall into this category, unless addressing postpartum athletes, which is a topic of discussion in upcoming posts. We’ll address the Hamstring muscles. It is commonly under-stretched but can have a lasting impact on performance and posture.
Originating from the lower portion of your hip bone (pelvis) called the Ischial tuberosity, commonly called your “sit-bone” the 3 muscles comprising your hamstring travel down the back of the leg (Femur). As it approaches the back of the knee, the muscle group splits with two tendons (Semimembranosus, Semitendinosus) travelling on the inside of the knee, inserting just below the knee joint line on the long bone of the lower leg called the tibia. The Biceps femoris (long & short head muscle) travels on the outside of the knee, just slightly behind and below the knee joint line and inserts on the head of the fibula.
One of the most powerful muscles in the lower extremity, the hamstring is responsible for slowing down our lower leg by eccentrically (decelerating) contracting as the leg swings during a stride. When it concentrically (shortens) contracts, it lifts the heel up towards our butt. The process begins again. It is an extremely important and powerful muscle for runners and for daily activities. Anyone who has experienced an injury to this muscle can attest to its significance. In runners, hamstring tightness and micro-tears resulting in injury is often seen with “heel strikers.” This motion places a tremendous amount of pressure and force on this muscle to essentially bring your entire body to a “stop” from continued acceleration, and then accelerate again. Not only is this a very inefficient way to run, it requires tremendous amount of energy to maintain. Funky things start to happen when the hamstring gets too short.
Left untreated, the bones of your lower back (vertebrae) compensate by reducing the natural curvature of your lower back, becoming straighter to reduce the tension or pain brought on by your hamstring. The results is higher incidences of low back pain, numbness and tingling to one or both lower limbs as the discs in your lower back press on the nerves. Another common area of complaint is knee pain on either side of the knee. This pain can sometimes mimic meniscus-like injuries, so it is vitally important to keep the hamstring flexible enough in order to differentiate the two injuries. Here are a few dynamic exercises you can perform to;
- Compare flexibility of R&L muscles
- Neutral Spine Trunk Flexion (balance and control): With knee slightly bent and torso rigid, bend from only from your hip maintaining the pressure through your heel and shoulders leveled. Return to standing position. Repeat 6-8x without loss of balance.
- Hip Flexion Stretch; while maintaining a neutral spine, place stretching leg on top of chair, stool or step. Slowly press your hips back as your bend from your hip joint. Hold position 30-50 seconds, 3-4x per side.
- Improve hamstring strengthening and dynamic flexibility
- Vertical Squat; Keeping Pressure on your heels, push hips back as you lower into a squat position while sliding your palms away from you. Return to starting position, tightening your glutes at the top. Repeat 8-12 reps, 3-4 sets.
- Bridges on Ball; keeping your abdominal muscles tight and your knees bent (at all times) on a swissball, lift your hips off the ground. NO wobbling! slowly return to starting position. Repeat 8-10 reps, 3-4 sets.
- Hamstring Alternating Leg Lifts (on swissball); Keeping knees straight and abdominal stomach muscles tight, lift your hips off the ground. Now, slowly lift left leg off the ball and return to ball. Repeat on the right and lower hips back to ground. That’s one rep. Perform 8-10 reps on each side, 2-3 sets. Place palms on ground or on your chest to make the exercises easier or more difficult, respectively.
Next installment of The Offseason Athlete, I’ll be discussing the impact of the quadriceps as it relates to runners. As always, progress over perfection!
***Special thanks to my colleague, Lorena Skelton, PTA for her assistance and input***