Flexibility for athletes..

Don’t worry, I’m not about to tell you that you should stretch before and after every session and attempt to make you feel guilty.. I’ll take it for granted that you probably don’t stretch enough and I’ll add myself to that category. This article is focused more upon the type of stretching you should complete and understand the theory which supports it.

Static V Dynamic

Static stretching involves you holding a position for a specific count to stretch the muscle, dynamic stretching involves some kind of continuous movement to gain the stretch. As a simple example, touching your toes and holding the position for a count of 10 seconds would be a static stretch for your hamstrings. Standing tall and swinging your leg backwards and forwards in a ‘high kick’ manner without stopping would be a dynamic stretch. Both types of stretching have different benefits and both are useful in their own way.

Tight muscles or damaged muscles?

It’s really important to understand what causes tight muscles following a hard training session. Your muscles are surrounded by a sheath of connective tissue and the fibres within the connective tissue can become short and tight, released by stretching relatively easily. If you feel ‘tight’ or ‘stiff’ and stretching removes the problem immediately, then its likely that the connective tissues were the problem. If your muscles feel tender and despite stretching the ‘tenderness’ doesn’t go away, then this is more likely to be muscle fibre damage caused by training, as opposed to connective tissue tightness. The day after a marathon, the pain in your legs will not go away, however much you stretch and that’s because you have severe muscle damage. Whatever the cause of your discomfort, I can safely say it has nothing to do with ‘lactic acid’ in the muscles, this is a myth which has existed for many years. The day following any hard exercise, there is no remaining lactic acid causing discomfort.

Why do my legs hurt the day after a long run?

One of the key things is muscle fibre damage which leads to bleeding and inflammation. Running road marathons creates a huge amount of damage, but due to the DOMS effect (delayed onset of muscle soreness), you don’t actually feel it until the morning after, or worse still, the morning after that! Stretching will not help to resolve this and in many cases you should not stretched when your muscles are severely damaged. Running downhill is known to make this problem worse as the braking effect exaggerates muscle fibre damage.

There are several ways of reducing the damage caused by impact and the main ones are simply running more mileage and running downhill more frequently. Aside from the obvious options, cushioned shoes and better run technique to avoid excessive impact can also help. The final option is to try compression clothing during exercise which can help to prevent muscle damage.

Why do my legs hurt after a faster training session?

Your muscles have built in sensors called ‘stretch receptors’ which monitor the amount of stretch and the speed of the stretch, this information is fed back to your brain. I’m sure at some point when walking along the street you’ve stepped on an uneven surface and ‘turned your ankle’. If you were lucky enough, within a fraction of a second, you managed to make the muscles on the outside of your lower leg contract and pull the foot back into alignment, saving a torn ligament. This is usually followed by you hobbling for a few metres whilst asking the question ‘is it twisted? is it twisted?’ followed by relief as you continue to run and the pain subsides. You survived.. this time!

What happened during that scenario is your stretch receptors on the outside of your lower leg realised that the muscles were being stretched too far and too quickly. In response to this, they trigger a muscle contraction to try and prevent the twisted ankle. There was no conscious thought process, you didn’t make the decision, it just happened automatically within a fraction of a second and saved you a few weeks off training!

What does this mean for faster training sessions?

If you are a slower runner who spends a lot of time travelling at a slow pace, with slow movements, the stretch receptors can lead to problems when you attempt to run fast. If you run 100m as fast as possible, each time you stride out, your hamstrings are stretched beyond their normal range and at a speed which they are not used to. The stretch receptors unnerved by this change in length and fast speed make the hamstring contract as a protection mechanism, this is an attempt to reduce both the stretch and speed of stretch. In such situations, your muscles is trying to lengthen, whilst also trying to shorten at the same time! Pulling in both directions leads to muscle fibre damage and in some cases the tug of war is so powerful that the hamstring may tear!

Avoiding the stretch receptor reaction..

The purpose of dynamic stretching is to accustom the muscles to stretching quickly, without triggering the stretch receptor response. The example hamstring stretch mentioned earlier in this article is a simple example of how this can be achieved. Following a warm up period, stand tall and begin by swinging your leg gently backwards and forwards gently. Gradually increase the height of the swing and the speed of the swing over a period of 30 seconds, never stretching to the point of discomfort. This action allows the stretch receptors to become accustomed to changes in both length and speed of working muscles. Another simple way to progressively and dynamically stretch the running muscles is to complete acceleration strides. Start jogging and over a 50 distance build to 75% of maximum speed, complete twice. Progress to 85%, complete twice and finish by building to 95%, complete twice. Total = 6x50m with 30 seconds between each. The key is starting slow and gradually building, too fast will trigger the stretch receptor response!

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