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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Lower limb injuries part 2..

In part 1 we discussed common lower limb injuries sustained by long distance runners and also highlighted the fact that pronation is often blamed for these injuries. As a consequence, shoes are specifically marketed as anti-pronation and inserts are often encouraged. In part 2, we ask whether pronation is really such a bad thing?

The Benefits of Pronation

One of the simple benefits of pronation is shock absorbancy. As your foot strikes the ground, the inwards rolling on the foot allows the dispersion of energy, thereby reducing the shock. Aside from shock absorbancy, pronation can also assist performance by storing energy and using it to generate propulsion.

In the last blog we discussed the muscles which ‘control pronation’, these muscles can also be used in a propulsive manner, using stored energy in an elastic manner. Look at the video clip below and watch the foot movement as it strikes the ground. What you are seeing largely is ‘ankle eversion’ as opposed to pronation. Pronation is the rolling forwards from heel to big toe, ankle eversion refers to the inward collapse of the ankle which can be clearly seen in the last 2 frames..


Elastic / Plyometric Energy

Hopefully you saw clearly the inward collapse of the ankle under weight.. it looks almost uncomfortable and it looks like bad technique. However, it didn’t seem to do Samuel Wanjiru any harm as he broke the world half marathon record aged only 18 and went on to claim gold at Bejing Olympics in the marathon.

The muscles which control the pronation/eversion movement (discussed in part 1) are stretched as the foot collapses inwards and are able to store elastic energy. That stored energy can then be used to provide propulsion as the muscles ‘spring back’ to their original shape. The ability to store and generate energy in such a way is governed by individual tendon structure and it deteriorates with age as tendons lose elasticity.

Pronation the Performance Enhancer

I’ll stick my neck on the line here and state that Samuel Wanjiru would not have broken the half marathon record if we had inserted an orthotic into his shoe which prevented the pronation / eversion movement you saw in the video. The movement created the elastic energy needed to propel him at such speeds and without it, performances would have suffered.

Go Forwards and Pronate??

That’s not quite what I’m saying.. but the point I am making is that pronation is not necessarily a bad thing. Some running shops and podiatrists  conducting gait analysis, upon identifying that a runner pronates, make the snap judgement that the runner requires an ‘anti-pronation shoe’.  It would be wrong to make such assumptions and will have a potentially negative impact upon performance.

Some Things to Consider

1. If a runner has no injury history (in particular lower limb) and they visit a shop to be told that they pronate and should therefore wear anti-pronation shoes, that should be seriously questioned!

2. Based on age and tendon structure (varies each individual), some runners will be capable of pronating excessively and rarely suffer injury as a consequence.

3. If you have an injury which is caused by pronation / eversion, your first port of call should be rehab and conditioning so the tissues can handle the movement, store elastic energy and provide propulsion. Don’t instantly take the easy option and purchase inserts. If your injury is chronic, there will be cases where inserts are necessary as this is your only option to continue enjoying running.

4. The video plays extremely slowly, in real time the pronation / eversion movement is ‘super quick’. The stretch and energy return occurs within hundredths of a second as the foot ‘bounces’ on the ground. When you are doing rehab you should consider this, calf raises or lowering are all well and good, but the movement is slow and controlled, unlike reality. You need to include plyometric exercises in the rehab before you return to running.

5. As part of your regular running routine you should include simple plyometric exercises which strengthen all the tissues of the lower limb and encourage energy storage and return.

Lower limb injuries part 1..

One of the most common problems with long distance running is the recurrence of lower limb injuries. By ‘lower limb’ I’m talking about the stuff that goes on below the knee and this includes (but not exclusively):

1. Achilles problems
2. Shin Splints (front or rear)
3. Plantar Fasciitis (pain under the foot / heel)

Overuse injuries are created by repeated action, hence they are common in long distance runners. In some circumstances, runners may have bio-mechanical faults which make them more susceptible to overuse injuries. In other cases, it’s simply a matter of doing too much and the tissues just can’t handle the load. Perhaps the most commonly cited reason for injury in runners in ‘over-pronation’, this describes the action of the foot landing on the outside of the heel and then rolling both forwards and inwards onto the big toe. Pronation has been blamed so frequently for running injuries that we now have specific shoes and various inserts to prevent the action, but is pronation receiving unnecessary criticism?

Pronation explained

The vast majority of runners pronate to some extent when they run. If you stand with your feet hip distance apart and then start walking, you’ll notice that you don’t walk with your feet hip distance apart. It is natural to walk and run with your foot directly underneath the centre line of your body (if you draw a line from your nose, through your belly button and down to the floor, that’s where you foot will land). This means that your leg is always at a slight angle, starting at your hip, the leg angles inwards to the point of foot strike and this means that you are likely to hit with the outside of your heel.

At the point of impact, the force applied to the outside of your heel ‘flips’ your shoe (and your foot) inwards. Stand holding a running show and with your hand, strike the underside of the heel on the outside edge. The blow will flip the shoe inwards, this is what happens to your foot each time you strike the ground.

Injuries linked to pronation

As your foot flips inwards, this triggers the pronation movement. In an attempt to control both the amount and speed of pronation, there are some specific muscles  which take the majority of the strain. The tibialis posterior and anterior muscles run along the length of your shin bone. The anterior muscle is found on the front of your shin and the posterior muscle is found on the inside of the lower leg, behind the shin bone. You can generally find both quite easily with your fingers. The tendons from each pass over the inside of your ankle joint (look at the boney lump on the inside of your ankle, if you move your foot about, you’ll see the tendon moving on the boney lump).

When these 2 muscles contract, they pull up the arch of the foot and turn the ankle so the sole of the foot faces inwards, this is the opposite movement to pronation. Their main job is to control the pronation movement and as the foot rolls inwards, they are pulling back in the opposite direction to reduce and slow the pronation movement. For this reason, if your foot pronates excessively, these muscles have to work extremely hard and this may lead to inflammation of the muscle or the tendon (the tendon is the white part which attaches the muscle to the done). Inflammation of these muscles is commonly referred to as shin splints or potentially ‘compartment syndrome’.

The pronation movement can also lead to achilles problems. Generally the achilles is pretty strong when it pulls in correctly alignment, unfortunately pronation causes the achilles to twist, as if ‘wringing it out’ and this leads to damage and inflammation. Pronation can also lead to flattening of the arch and this applies stress to the tissues which are supporting the arch. one of the main structures supporting the arch is the plantar fascia, a tendon which runs from the underside of the heel bone to the forefoot, splitting into the 5 toes. If stress is applied to the plantar fascia, it can start to pull away from the underside of the heel bone, leading to a sharp pain known as plantar fasciitis.

So pronation is bad.. right?

There are various problems which are ‘potentially associated’ with pronation and these are often treated with a change of shoes or orthotic insert when they may well have been resolved with some rehab (strength and stretch). However, pronation is not a bio-mechnical fault, it is an important part of your running which has simply received a lot of bad press. Before you rush out and buy inserts for your shoes, contrary to what you might think from reading the above information, pronation can be your friend if you know how to handle it.. we’ll look at that in part 2 of the sequel.

Hip flexor length and running performance..

Short and tight hip flexors are a known problem for cyclists and distance runners, leading to a number of complications. The role of the hip flexor muscles is to flex your hip (obviously), if you stand upright and lift your left knee upwards towards waist height, you would be using your left hip flexors to do this task. During running, the knee lift action is governed by hip flexors and during cycling the upwards part of the pedal stroke is controlled by hip flexors.

Why do we get short hip flexors?

Exercising can create short hip flexors, but every time we sit down whether working, driving or relaxing, our hip flexors are in a shortened position. Short hip flexors are common amongst the general population for these reasons and can lead to a change in your posture.

How do short hip flexors change posture?

Tight hip flexors pull the pelvis forwards (known as an anterior tilt) and this condition is commonly termed lordosis. The result of lordosis is an exaggerated inward curve of the lumbar spine (lower back) and the lower abdominals will tend to ‘stick out’ as a consequence. Often people with lordosis think they have gained weight and have a ‘bit of a belly’ in the lower abdominal region, when in fact, it is purely a postural position. You can check lordosis by standing and viewing side on in mirror, tilt your pelvis backwards (this is pelvic thrust action) and see if you can hollow your abdominals and remove the arch in lower back. Better to do this when alone with curtains firmly closed..

What are the consequences of short hip flexors?

1. May feel discomfort in the front of the groin area or lower pelvic region
2. The anterior tilt stretches the hamstrings, leading to tightness
3. The lumbar region excessive curvature leads to tight lower back

How do I resolve the problem?

1. Start by releasing the hip flexors, to do this you can visit physio or complete the stretch shown. It’s important that when completing this stretch you don’t allow yourself to twist, don’t lean forwards and when don’t allow your lower back to arch (pull your stomach in). in essence, stay square, tall and neutral.

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2. Complete abdominal strengthening exercises to strengthen core. This will push the abdominal wall inwards and the lower back outwards. Unless you have completed hip flexor stretches beforehand the core work will have low impact as the pelvis will remain locked in position.