Category Archives: Stretching Routines

Stretch of the Week: C-Curves (Sides #1/Back #1)

*Yes, it’s well after Thursday.  But I wrote most of this on Thursday.  Does that count? 🙂

After spending a few weeks on Hip Stretches (and then a few weeks without any stretches), let’s spend a week on something slightly less intense.  Many of the stretches I have already shared use extended holds to really lengthen the target muscles.  The one I’ll share today is a bit different, and instead linked to breathing.  Rather than genuinely lengthening muscles (which is best done under extended holds), the goal of this stretch is to bring your attention to the tension lurking in your back/shoulders, and help you release and relax it.  The whole sequence can be done in less than 90 seconds, so “I don’t have time” isn’t a valid excuse for this one!  So let’s get to it!

But first, a quick safety note: Check out the Stretch of the Week: Start Here! if you haven’t already – and remember, some stretches aren’t right for some people.  If you are in pain, or something feels wrong, just stop.  There will be another stretch next week.  If you don’t feel anything, that’s fine.  You don’t need the stretch.  Move right along, and have a good day.  If you love it – bookmark it!  If you bookmark your favorites, then in 6 months, you’ll generate enough stretches to easily assemble a post-workout stretching routine (or two!).

Background: As mentioned above, this isn’t really a “lengthening muscles” stretch – it’s more of a prompt for relaxation.  Any of my runners reading this will tell you that we use this sequence to start our post-run stretching routine.  Runners tend to accumulate and hold a lot of tension in their shoulders while running, and this sequences seems to help many of us mindfully release.  I hope it does the same for you!

Contraindications: If you’re having an acute back issue right now, and in particular have been diagnosed with a slipped disc that is causing pain, you should skip this stretch.

Set-Up:

Stand tall and straight
Ground your feet firmly, from your toes to your heels
[Feet can be hip distance apart (more stable), together (more stretch), or somewhere in between.]
Stack your spine tall
Pull your shoulders back (in toward spine) and down
Stack your head evenly over your shoulders

Stretch:

Turn palms out
Inhale: Stretch arms as long as possible, and slowly reach them overhead in a wide arc
Press palms together at the top (or interlace fingers for more stability)
IMPORTANT: Reach hands UP, but keep your shoulders DOWN.

Exhale: Lean back very slightly, then curve your body to the left
Arms and shoulders drop to left; hips may shift to the right of your mid-line
IMPORTANT: Keep your body aligned in the frontal plane
[ie, Pretend you are a piece of toast in a toaster, and cannot lean forward or back.]

Inhale: Lift up again, hands reaching high overhead and shoulders down.

Exhale: Lean back very slightly, then curve your body to the right

The whole sequence should look something like this:

[Click for larger pictures.]

Inhale: Lift up again, hands reaching high overhead and shoulders down.
Interlace fingers, palms facing down.

Curl shoulders in, round upper back.

Curl shoulders forward, round upper back.

Exhale: Keep fingers interlaced and arms extended.
Slowly drop hands forward, until they are at shoulder height
Drop chin to chest
Curl shoulders forward and round upper back
Feel the stretch across your upper back.

Continue to push hands forward
For a greater stretch, maintain interlocked fingers, but gently activate arm muscles as though you are trying to pull your hands apart.

Stay in this position for several breaths.
When you are ready:

Inhale: Lift head and raise arms overhead, hands reaching high and shoulders down

Exhale: Release arms down slowly, in a wide arc, until they rest at your sides.

Length of Hold: This one flows with your breath, so there aren’t any extended holds.  However, I do stay in the upper back stretch position for several breaths before standing.  I repeat this sequence several times, or a few more if I need to calm myself, or feel very tight.

AVOID: Be careful not to collapse yourself forward when leaning to the side.  You may not be able to lean very far at first, and that’s OK.  [Compared with folks who have a very high range of motion in this posture, I don’t curve much myself.]  But keep your body in the same frontal plane, and avoid letting your “top” arm/shoulder fall forward.  This will prevent you from achieving a robust side stretch, and may prevent your breath from flowing smoothly.  Practice in front of a mirror, and try not to look like this:

 

AVOID twisting torso and dropping shoulder.  See how my left shoulder is coming forward, and my chest is no longer in an open position?  Try to avoid this!

AVOID twisting torso and dropping shoulder. See how my left shoulder is coming forward, and my chest is no longer in an open position? Instead, I should rotate my left shoulder up to open my chest.

Believe it or not, this stretch takes some practice and may feel awkward at first.  Your arms may tire easily, your compressed side may feel uncomfortable, and you may feel frustrated trying to link the breathing with the movement.  But flow through the sequence (Up/Right/Up/Left/Up/Forward) several times, and you will find your movements getting smoother and the connection to breath getting easier.

Remember, this is designed to be a low-commitment, low-stress stretch: Use it any time you have 60-90 seconds and need to relax and refresh yourself.  Enjoy!

How did the stretch feel while you were doing it?  How did your shoulders and upper back feel afterward?

Any questions, problems, or concerns with it?

Take it, or leave it?
[This is for my own data gathering purposes.  I won’t be offended if you don’t like it.]

Like this one? Check out more Stretch of the Week posts:
Feet
Hips
Twists

Stretch of the Week: Shoelace (Hips #2/ IT Band & TFL #1)

*Apologies if you got this before it was in its final format.  WordPress recently re-vamped their interface, and I swear the “Publish” button is wear the “Preview” button used to be…

Although I haven’t made a big bloggy fuss about it, I’ve been Elf for Health-ing the last two weeks.

[What is EoH?  Basically, bloggers Lindsay & Elle organized a pretty enormous group (over 700 people this time around!) of interested folks, paired us up, and gave us one health/lifestyle challenge per day.  We support our partner, as well as other participants, through challenges like longest wall sit, Eat the Rainbow, clean out your closet, etc. There are prizes and goodies for being a spectacular elf, but for most of us, this is simply a little extra reminder and motivation to maintain good habits through the holiday season.]

Wednesday’s challenge was to Share Your Knowledge.  My brilliant plan was to write up Thursday’s Stretching Post on Wednesday, and get two birds with one stone.  Alas, I started…but got side-tracked by other projects (whoops).  So I’m not really sure I shared much on Wednesday, except perhaps some running advice with a few clients.  BUT – I’m finally sitting down to finish up that stretching post.  Here it is!

If you’re new to the stretching series, then check out the Stretch of the Week: Start Here!.  Also, take note: Some stretches aren’t right for some people.  If you are in pain, or something feels wrong, just stop.  There will be another stretch next week.  If you don’t feel anything, that’s fine.  You don’t need the stretch.  Move right along, and have a good day.  If you love it – bookmark it!  If you bookmark your favorites, then in 6 months, you’ll generate enough stretches to easily assemble a post-workout stretching routine (or two!).

Background: As I’ve said before, requests for hip/piriformis stretches are, by far, the most common request I receive.  So I’m aiming to do a sequence of 5-8 hip stretches, to help you all get started and find a few that work well for you and your body.  I won’t differentiate too much between the hips and piriformis – some of the hip stretches may do a great job on your piriformis, others may not.  But there are lots of small muscles in your hip area, and the tight muscle(s) you are feeling may or may not actually be (only) your piriformis.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – we’ll stretch them all!

Depending on the relative tightness of your hips, and the exact geometry of your body, you may also feel this stretch extend down from your hips along the outside of your leg.  You probably call this your “IT band”.  Quick note: Your actual IT (iliotibial) band is connective tissue, which can be stretched just a little bit.  But if you feel a stretch in the upper third of the outer thigh, then the muscle that you are feeling stretch is most likely your Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL), which ultimately inserts into your IT tract (band).  Runners, especially, often use “IT band” to refer to the whole length.  Regardless, the stretch is the same – just trying to add some education into our stretching sessions!

Contraindications: Nothing major here.  This stretch puts less pressure and potential twisting on the knees than the other hip stretches I’ve shared – but if you have knee issues, move in and out of this pose cautiously.  But generally, this pose is quite supported and stable.

Set-Up:

Sit on the floor (slightly soft surface)
Center weight evenly on sitz (sitting) bones (the bone in each butt cheek that you sit on)
Bend knees, soles of feet on floor
Stabilize core, sit up straight

Relax outside of right leg onto the floor, as though coming into cross-legged position
Adjust right knee to be centered (left-to-right) with respect to torso (move right foot further out and/or behind to get proper knee position)

Position right leg

Position right leg

Bend left leg and stack over right leg (knee over knee)

Position left leg on top

Position left leg on top

From the front, you’ll look something like this:

View from the front.  Don't mind my furrowed brow.  It was sunny?

View from the front. Don’t mind my furrowed brow. It was sunny?

Stretch: You may feel a stretch simply sitting up straight.  For a greater stretch, start by lifting your spine straight, then tipping forward from the hips (with a straight back).

Tip forward with a straight back

Tip forward with a straight back

Remember to relax your hips.  Your hips want to protect you – and themselves – so they may tighten up when you lean forward.  Think about relaxing them and gently easing yourself a bit further down.  Stop at the point where you feel a moderate stretch.

Length of Hold:  I start this stretch sitting tall and consciously relaxing my hips.  After about 15-20 seconds, I am relaxed enough to lean forward a bit.  I continue this process, tipping a bit more as I am able, for 1-2 minutes.

Release: Use your hands to gently remove the top leg.  Be careful, as your hip(s) may feel quite fragile.  Set both feet on the floor, hip distance apart (or wider), knees bent.  Lean back slightly onto your hands, and move your legs slowly in whatever motion seems comfortable: Rock knees from side to side, straighten legs out in front, pull legs in to chest – whatever feels best to YOUR body.  After ~30-45 seconds of recovery, repeat with the other leg on top.

Variation: After the straight-back position, try releasing your spine and curling forward over your legs with a rounded back.  I find that the stretch isn’t as strong in this position, but it is considerably easier to relax my hips.  Play around and see what works best for you.

Folded forward

Folded forward

This stretch is a variant of the Box Position from a few weeks ago. Some people prefer one over the other.  I use both, but usually only one per stretching session.

How did the stretch feel while you were doing it?  How did your hip area feel afterward?

If you tried both stretches, do you prefer the Box Position or Shoelace?

Take it, or leave it?
[This is for my own data gathering purposes.  I won’t be offended if you don’t like it.]

Like this one? Check out more Stretch of the Week posts:
Feet
Hips
Twists

Stretch of the Week: Side Twist (Twisting #1)

I expect that this post finds you, my American friends, stuffed and perhaps just a little bit uncomfortable after a delicious Thanksgiving dinner.  [Unless you’re in that weird “we eat super early” group, and are now heading back to the kitchen for seconds.]  Anyway, I decided that today would be a great day to share a nice, passive twisting stretch.

Safety note: Check out the Stretch of the Week: Start Here! if you haven’t already – and remember, some stretches aren’t right for some people.  If you are in pain, or something feels wrong, just stop.  There will be another stretch next week.  If you don’t feel anything, that’s fine.  You don’t need the stretch.  Move right along, and have a good day.  If you love it – bookmark it!  If you bookmark your favorites, then in 6 months, you’ll generate enough stretches to easily assemble a post-workout stretching routine (or two!).

Background: Yogis will tell you that this stretch will “massage” your abdominal organs, including your digestive tract.  Personally, I prefer to think of it as a stretch to increase mobility in your spine/back, and I think it even helps me relax my shoulders and neck.  Regardless, “I’m stretching” is a great excuse to lie down on your back and relax after a big Thanksgiving meal.

Contraindications: This is actually a very easy pose to enter and control.  If you have any issues with your back, enter cautiously, use modifications (see Modifications, below), and stop if something feels off.

Set-Up:

Lie on your back on a comfortable surface
Bend your knees, put feet on ground

Lie on your back, feet on ground.

Starting position

Keep your knees together and slowly lower your legs to the left (right hip will come off floor)
Check leg position: Knees stacked and pulled up high toward hips

Important: BOTH shoulders should be on the ground at all times!  Adjust leg position if necessary to keep shoulders down.

Drop legs to the left - right shoulder stays on the ground

Drop legs to the left – right shoulder stays on the ground

 

Relax.

Relax.

Open arms wide
Gently turn head to look to the right

Stretch:

This is a passive stretch – just relax!
Inhale: Check position (knees, hips, shoulders, head)
Exhale: Relax deeper into the twist

You will probably feel some discomfort or stretching in your mid- to upper- back.  You may also feel a stretch across your chest, if your pectoral muscles are very tight.

Length of Hold: I usually hold 1-3 minutes; but your tolerance for the stretch will depend on your flexibility. I find that the first 10-20 seconds are quite uncomfortable.  Then, I enjoy a minute or two of release and relaxation, before experiencing a growing feeling of discomfort in my twisting mid-back.  I suggest starting with 20-30 seconds for your first few attempts, and increasing later if desired.

Slightly different view.

View of the stretch from above.

Release: 

Turn head back to neutral
Bring arms in slightly (optional)
Lift knees, keeping feet on floor
Lie on your back for 15-30 seconds, feeling the “rebound”

This stretch can cause a rather strong rebound feeling, so just lie back and let the sensations wash over you.  When you feel ready, repeat the stretch on the other side.

Modifications: If you cannot keep both your legs and shoulders on the floor, use a blanket , towel, or pillow to prop your legs up.  If your arms are uncomfortable stretching out, keep them at your sides or reach overhead.  If turning your head to the side is uncomfortable (your neck is sore or stiff), go only as far as you feel comfortable.  Prop your head if necessary, so you can relax completely.

This stretch can take 6-8 minutes total, depending on how long you hold the twist and how long you recover inbetween.  It’s not a particularly great stretch for your running muscles when you’re in a hurry, but it’s a wonderful, relaxing, passive stretch to enjoy while you digest a big turkey dinner!  [It’s also a great post-shower, before-bed stretch for Singapore – it won’t make you sweaty!]

So find yourself a spot on the floor and give it a shot!

How did the stretch feel while you were doing it?  How was the rebound?  How did your back feel afterward?

Stretch of the Week: Box Position (Hips #1)

In response to many of your enthusiastic requests, the next few Stretches of the Week will focus on the HIPS.

But before we get started: Check out the Stretch of the Week: Start Here! if you haven’t already – especially the part about being ‘warm’ before you stretch!!!!  I must also emphasize: Some stretches aren’t right for some people.  If you are in pain, or something feels wrong, just stop.  There will be another stretch next week.  If you don’t feel anything, that’s fine.  You don’t need the stretch.  Move right along, and have a good day.  If you love it – bookmark it!  If you bookmark your favorites, then in 6 months, you’ll generate enough stretches to easily assemble a post-workout stretching routine (or two!).

Background: Many of you folks are excited about a stretching series (LOVE IT!), and the most commonly requested stretches have been for the hips/piriformis.  This makes perfect sense: Many of my readers are female runners.  Females – especially female runners – tend to have tight hips.  Now, I’m not going to fuss too much about hips vs. piriformis – some of the hip stretches may do a great job on your piriformis, others may not.  But there are lots of small muscles in your hip area, and the tight muscle(s) you are feeling may or may not actually be (only) your piriformis.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – we’ll stretch them all!

Contraindications: If you have chronic knee pain, or have meniscus issues, enter and exit this stretch cautiously.  I have one client who suffered a torn meniscus several years ago, and she finds that this stretch just doesn’t “feel right” for her knee, so we skip it.  I have another who has no problems with it.  Listen to your body.

Also, if your hips are VERY tight, you may not have enough rotation in the hip joint to comfortably assume the starting position for this stretch.  See the modification at the bottom for an alternative/preparatory stretch.

Set-Up:

Sit on the floor
(Slightly soft surface)
Center weight evenly on sitz (sitting) bones (the bone in each butt cheek that you sit on)
Bend knees, soles of feet on floor
Stabilize core, sit up straight

Relax right leg outward, onto floor
Adjust so the angle formed ankle-to-knee-to-hip joints is 90°
Tip: Align calf (ankle to knee line) parallel to front edge of mat and thigh (knee to hip line) parallel to side edge of mat
Stack left leg over right leg (ankle over knee, knee over ankle)
Check posture: Sit up straight

Position right leg

Position right leg

Position left leg on top

Position left leg on top

Stretch: For some people, sitting this way will already be a strong stretch.

If your hip is tight, the knee of the top leg will stay high, like mine is.  The looser your hips are, the closer the knee will fall to the bottom foot.

If your hip is tight, the knee of the top leg will stay high, like mine is. The looser your hips are, the closer the knee will fall to the bottom foot.

If you want more stretch, sit straight and tip forward from your hips (back straight).  You will likely only need to tip forward a few degrees before you feel a stretch.

Hinge forward from your hips - just a little is enough, usually!

Hinge forward from your hips – just a little is enough, usually! Please ignore the apparent asymmetry in my shoulders. I think it’s the shadows?

Ignore my leg position in this photo (I'm doing a different stretch); just look at my back, and see how straight it is.  I am not relaxing forward with a curved spine.  Instead, I am tipping forward from my hips, keeping my back straight.

An example of “hinging forward from the hips”. Ignore my leg position in this photo (I’m doing a different stretch); just look at my back, and see how straight it is. I am not relaxing forward with a curved spine, but rather I am hinging forward from my hips, keeping my back straight.

Most people will feel this stretch in the hip area of the top leg – however, sometimes people feel it in the hip of the bottom leg, too (I do, when my hips are tight).  The stretch may extend down the outside of the thigh a bit, in the IT-band area.  That is fine – wherever you feel the stretch is the place that you need it the most!

This stretch will probably require a bit of extra concentration.  You must mindfully relax the hip area during this stretch.  As bipeds (two-legged animals), whenever we sit or stand, we maintain some degree of tension in our hips – this is a natural, necessary reaction that helps us to maintain a strong base and to move safely and with stability.  However, to get the most out of this stretch, think about your hip joint, and concentrate on relaxing the muscles around it.  Yes, your hips may feel uncomfortable, and perhaps slightly painful – don’t push past this point.

Length of Hold:  I start this stretch sitting tall and consciously relaxing my hips.  After about 15-20 seconds, I am relaxed enough to lean forward a bit.  I continue this process, tipping a bit more as I am able, for 1-2 minutes.

Release: Use your hands to gently remove the top leg.  Be careful, as your hip(s) may feel quite fragile.  Set both feet on the floor, hip distance apart (or wider), knees bent.  Lean back slightly onto your hands, and move your legs slowly in whatever motion seems comfortable: Rock knees from side to side, straighten legs out in front, pull legs in to chest – whatever feels best to YOUR body.  After ~30-45 seconds of recovery, repeat with the other leg on top.

Modifications: If the stacked leg position is uncomfortable for your knees or hips, simply sit cross-legged on the floor, draw yourself up straight, and tip forward as described.  Everything is precisely the same as described above, except the legs are in a slightly different position.  When you switch legs, just put the other leg in front.

This whole stretch series will take about 5-6 minutes, and after a minute or two of recovery, your hips will probably feel looser and more mobile.

So what are you waiting for?  Sit down and give it a try!!

How did the stretch feel while you were doing it?  How did your hip area feel afterward?

Take it, or leave it?
[This is for my own data gathering purposes.  I won’t be offended if you don’t like it.]

Stretch of the Week: Kneeling Plantar Fascia Stretch (Feet #1)

Let’s get this stretching party started!  This is the first in a to-be-weekly series of stretches.  I have wanted to do this kind of post for a long time, and am finally getting it started.  In fact, after a photo shoot with KMN last week, I’m even more excited – and will be organizing lots of photos and future posts today.

Please, please, PLEASE: Check out the Stretch of the Week: Start Here! post before you get started.  And I must emphasize: Some stretches aren’t right for some people.  If you are in pain, or something feels wrong, just stop.  There will be another stretch next week.  And if you don’t feel anything?  Awesome.  You don’t need the stretch.  Move right along, and have a good day.  If you love it – bookmark it!  Over half a year, you’ll likely accumulate enough stretches to put together a regular post-workout stretching routine without any trouble at all.

Background: As a runner, my feet have a history of being tight.  I talk here about using a tennis ball to roll out the bottom of my feet, and I battled a flare of plantar fasciitis earlier this year.  Although I really don’t like having anyone touch my feet, on the rare occasion that KMN gave me a foot massage, the aftermath would be awesome.  Seriously.  My feet didn’t hurt day-to-day, but after rubbing out the tight spots a bit, they would feel totally rejuvenated.

Then, about six months ago, one of my yoga instructors set us up in a very simple foot stretch at the start of one of her classes.  It seemed pretty silly at first, but once I was into the pose, I realized I could only hold it for about 15 seconds before I had to come out.  Whether it was whim, intuition, or stretch-o-philia, I added this stretch to my daily stretching regimen.  After about a month, I realized that I hardly needed the tennis ball any more – instead of finding a whole collection of sore spots on each foot, I would only find one or two, and could roll them out in a jiffy.  In fact, my husband gave a foot massage the other day – and after a few minutes, he stopped: “You don’t really need this, do you?”  Me: “Nope.”

And it’s all thanks to this stretch.

Contraindications: I wouldn’t recommend this stretch for anyone with acute pain in the plantar fascia (or anywhere along the bottom of the foot), or for those with pain in the furthest back (toward the ankle) toe joints.

The plantar fascia runs along the arch of the foot.

The plantar fascia runs along the arch of the foot.

"Furthest back toe joints", aka proximal phalanges.

“Furthest back toe joints”, aka proximal phalanges.

Set-Up: Kneel on the floor (slightly soft surface)

Shins and tops of feet on floor
Knee in line with center of foot
Tush resting on feet
Torso sitting up tall and straight over tush

Stretch: Raise your tush slightly, flex your feet, and tuck your toes under (onto the floor).  Keep your knees on the floor.  EASE your weight back over your feet, sitting your tush back onto your feet.  Hold.

PF Stretch

Length of Hold: Start with a very short hold, perhaps 10-15 seconds.  I think there are benefits to holding this pose for a slightly extended stretch (beyond the “normal” 10-20 seconds) – you can ease into it and allow the feet to relax gradually.  For those with tight feet (OK, that’s just about everyone), this can take some time. I’d suggest slowly working your way towards a 60-90 second hold.  My tolerance for this stretch has increased considerably, but still changes day-to-day.  Some days my feet are quite tight, and I can handle only 60 seconds.  Other days, I’m able to make it to 90 seconds.

Release: Lean weight forward, relax tops of feet onto ground, sit weight back again.  Sigh deeply.

Modifications:  This is a pretty intense stretch; feel free to lean forward slightly to shift a bit of the weight off your feet (watch for knee pain).  Gradually try to work your way back, until you are sitting directly over your feet.  If leaning forward is still too intense, then simply sit in a comfortable position on the floor, take one foot into your lap, and gently pull back on the toes (toes toward knees) to stretch the bottom of the foot.

Go ahead – sit down, and give it a try!  Then give me some feedback.  [Unless you just got out of bed.]

Do you think you have tight arches/feet?

How did the stretch feel while you were doing it?  How did your feet feel afterward?

Take it, or leave it?
[This is for my own data gathering purposes.  I won’t be offended if you don’t like it.]

Stretch of the Week: Start Here!

My new blogging schedule declared Thursdays to be “Stretch of the Week” days.  I was excited. You all seemed excited.  There were suggestions.  I made stretch lists.  I took some photos.  And then…I realized I had to write an introductory post, which didn’t seem like nearly as much fun as sharing stretches.

But thanks to a little self-bribery yesterday and this morning, I got it done.  So here’s a quick “Getting Started” guide to my stretching posts.  I’ll link back to it each week when I post a new stretch, and update it as necessary.

But first (my husband is a lawyer, so this part must be said): I am not a doctor, physical therapist, or certified yoga instructor.  I am an RRCA Certified Running Coach, have a PhD in Biochemistry, and love learning and thinking about how the body moves*. The information below, and stretches I post, are part of the collection I have cultivated, tested, refined, and shared with lots of folks over the past 8 years.  Of course, be careful, be smart, and make good decisions for yourself.  Obviously.

Run With Holly Stretching Tips: 10 Things To Know

1. Build carefully and slowly.  I’ll introduce stretches progressively, and always link back to a simpler version of the more challenging/complicated stretches.  If you are new, or struggling with the suggested stretch, click back and try the basic version first.

2. Stretch often, but not early.  Don’t stretch when you first get out of bed – let your body move, to get the blood flowing and the muscles working a bit, before you stretch.  Stiff, still muscles can be like a rubber band in the freezer – and snapping is never a good thing.

3. Spend your time on post-workout stretching.  I do not suggest a general stretching session before a workout.  However, if you have a trouble spot, you can give it a gentle stretch before you start, and again after your warm-up (or about 10 minutes into your workout).  When your goal workout is over, finish up with a 10-12 minute full-body stretch session.  If you need help building a routine, see #10.  If you don’t have time for a workout, you can still sneak in a stretch session after some walking or physical activity (tidying the house, walking in from the car, etc.)

4. One stretch a day isn’t enough for tight trouble spots.  Stretch periodically throughout the day (every 2-3 hours, if you can remember) to help them stay loose and relaxed.  I sometimes tie my stretching to my bathroom breaks, to remind myself.  One stretch for one trouble spot takes less than one minute.  That’s a pretty small investment to help yourself stay healthy and safe.

5. As a general guideline, hold each stretch for 10-20 seconds.  Sometimes, I will suggest a longer hold for certain stretches.

6. Listen to your body.  A “good” stretch may feel uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t feel painful.  When you reach the point of pain, back off a bit – sit up, shift your position, round your back a bit more – whatever you need to do (within the confines of the described stretch) to stop the pain.  One of the awesome bonuses of stretching is learning how to listen to your body, feel your muscles, and become more aware of how you use them.  You’ll start to realize what parts are more connected than you thought, and how loosening one spot affects another.  You will probably find yourself thinking about how all these parts work together, and how you use them – not just when you stretch, but also when you run, bike, swim, spin, Cross Fit, or whatever else you like to do.  This can only help you become a stronger, safer athlete.

7. Not every stretch will work for you.  Every person’s body is connected a little bit differently.  Some positions may never give you a stretch, and others may always feel off or wrong.  That is FINE – feel free to skip those.  This series is going to go on for a long time – I have multiple stretches for most body parts, so there will likely be another that can get the same area more effectively for you.

8. The stretches you need the most are the ones you don’t want to do.  It’s fun and easy to stretch the parts that are flexible, and more uncomfortable and discouraging to stretch the tighter spots.  The great thing about stretching, though, is that it will reward you: With patient, diligent practice, you WILL gain flexibility.

9. Breath and relax.  We often tighten muscles in and around what we are trying to stretch.  We do this without thinking, as a protective measure.  Athletes especially aren’t accustomed to relaxing their muscles to a position of vulnerability.  Hip flexors are a great example of this – depending on the stretch you are using, most people tense their hamstrings and/or glutes while “stretching” the hip flexors.  [I’ll talk about this again when I share some hip flexor stretches.]  Unfortunately, this response actually limits how well and deeply you can stretch.  To maximize a stretch, I suggest finding a safe, stable position (so you don’t need “protection”), then linking your stretching to your breathing, like this –

Inhale: Refine position
Exhale: Relax more deeply into the stretch

Like most things, this takes time and practice – but the rewards are great.

10. When you find stretches that DO work, make note of them.  Start a list, or a bookmark tab.  Eventually, you will be able to assemble both a post-workout stretching routine and a repository of stretches for your trouble-spots, that you can use regularly.

Boom. Done.  You are ready to stretch.

And since I intend to drag KMN and my yoga mat out for a stretching photo session somewhere lovely this weekend, I will be all ready to share lots of stretches with you, starting next week. Woo-HOO!

And don’t worry – this was a “not tremendously fun, but still necessary” post, but I also have a more fun Friday post planned!

*I can also turn myself into a human basket.  If anyone who lived with me on Brown First has photographic evidence of this (I know it exists, but I don’t have it) and emails me a scan of the photo, I promise to post it.

Stretch Those Calves!

As a running coach, I often repeat myself.  A lot.  Usually to different people, but sometimes to the same clients (*ahem*ahem*) over and over.  My oft-repeated phrases include:

  1. Please get properly fitted in high quality sneakers.  Are those your mowing sneakers?  Do they have more than 400+ miles / 650 km on them? How old are those shoes?  PLEASE, go get fitted in the right sneakers.  Like, yesterday.
  2. Please SLOW DOWN during your long and easy runs.  No, seriously. Slow down. No, like sloooooooow.
  3. Please, for the sake of your feet and legs, stretch your calves!!!  [Or your hips. But that’s a different post altogether.]

Today, in light of my two-week plantar fasciitis anniversary, and a calf-tightening race I did yesterday (race report on its way), we’re going to talk about calf stretching.  What problems can be addressed (in part) by calf stretching?

  • Your feet hurt.
  • Your plantar fascia is tweaking.
  • Your shins are sore.
  • Your calves ache.
  • You ran the Venus Run yesterday and finished up a big ‘ole ramp onto Marina Barrage.

Stretching your calves and Achilles tendons helps keep your legs and feet limber, moving smoothly, and feeling springy.  Long, relaxed muscles also perform better, cramp less, and are less likely to aggravate knee and ankle issues.  

And you can start to get these benefits with 3 basic moves and as little as 6 minutes of stretching.  Do these with sneakers on, or in bare feet on a yoga mat.  Hold each pose for ~20 seconds, then repeat with the other leg. Here’s what to do:

Stretch #1: Standing Calf Stretch

Standing Calf Stretch 1

Standing Calf Stretch

      • Stand facing a wall, arms up and elbows slightly bent
      • Keep your right foot forward (toes under elbows)
      • Step your left foot back (18-24 inches / 46-60 cm)
      • Lean forward slightly, and press your palms into the wall, at or slightly above shoulder-height
      • Keep both feet completely on the ground – if your heel comes up, bring your feet a bit closer together
      • Push into your feet strongly (almost like you’re trying to push your right foot forward and left foot back – resist by planting your feet firmly into the floor)
      • Push gently against the wall to feel a stretch in the back of your left leg
      • Hold ~20 seconds.

 

Now, let’s move that stretch down into the Achilles: Lift your left heel up slightly, and bend your left knee. Continue to press the ball of your left foot firmly into the ground.  This should bring the stretch down into your Achilles tendon.  The difference is subtle, but important.  Compare these two pictures:

Heel Down (Calf Stretch)

Heel Down, Leg Straight (Calf Stretch)

Heel Up, Knee Bent (Achilles Stretch)

Heel Up, Knee Bent (Achilles Stretch)

Hold this bent-knee version for 20 seconds.  Now repeat, stretching the right leg.

[Straight + Bent] x 2 legs = 1:20 + positioning time = 2 minutes


Stretch #2: Step Calf Stretch

In real-life, I suggest that you use an actual step, preferably the bottom one.  However, in our apartment, the stairwell isn’t conducive to good photos, so I used our (very stable and safe) step-ladder to demonstrate these stretches.

Step Calf Stretch

Step Calf Stretch

  • Stand on the bottom step of a flight of stairs, facing upward
  • Plant your right foot firmly on the step and keep most of your weight over this foot
  • Position the ball of your left foot at the edge of the step
  • Slowly lower your left heel down
  • Use your body weight to provide enough pressure to feel a stretch, but don’t force the stretch

 

 

 

 

Just as above, you can move the stretch into the Achilles by slightly bending your knee.  Remember to keep your weight in your right leg, and apply only gentle pressure to your left leg.

Leg Straight (Calf Stretch)

Leg Straight (Calf Stretch)

Leg Bent (Achilles Stretch)

Knee Bent (Achilles Stretch)

[Straight + Bent] x 2 legs = 1:20 + positioning time = 2 minutes

Stretch #3: Downward Dog Calf Stretch

If you do any yoga, this pose will be quite familiar.

Downward Dog Calf Stretch

Downward Dog Calf Stretch

    • Bend forward and walk your hands 3-4 feet / 1-1.2 meters in front of your feet
    • Press your palms and all your fingers strongly into the floor
    • Keep your shoulders strong and press your shoulder blades firmly back and together
    • Keep your back flat
    • Push your tush up into the air
    • If your heels are on the ground, walk your hands forward slightly until your heels are a bit off the ground

This is downward dog pose.  Now, lift your right foot and tuck it behind your left ankle.  This will put more stretch into your left leg.  Again, you can do both straight-leg and bent-leg versions:

Leg Straight (Calf Stretch)

Leg Straight (Calf Stretch)

Knee Bent (Achilles Stretch)

Knee Bent (Achilles Stretch)

[Straight + Bent] x 2 legs = 1:20 + positioning time = 2 minutes

You could probably do the step stretch while eating peanut butter & Nutella off a spoon.  I wouldn't really know, though...

You could probably do the step stretch while eating peanut butter & Nutella off a spoon. I wouldn’t really know, though…

Even if you take a few seconds to rest between stretches, you can still do this routine in less than 10 minutes.  If you are using it as a preventative measure, once a day should be sufficient, most likely after the day’s workout.  However, if you are having foot or leg issues that warrant extra stretching, then 2-3 times per day is preferable. Consider tossing it into your schedule during “listening times”: While your kids are telling you about their school day, while you’re watching TV at night, or even while listening to voice-mail at the office in the morning.

Teaser photo, from Sunday's race.

Teaser race pic

I usually avoid stretching when I first roll out of bed, but other than that, any time during the day is fine.  Just listen to your body and don’t push too hard – particularly on the Achilles stretches.  Just because a STRETCH is good, doesn’t mean that MORE STRETCH is better.

And there you have it, folks.  Your calves and Achilles are stretched.  Once I have some good (or, at least, better) photos, we’ll take a look at how you can massage these areas using The Stick and a foam roller.  Also coming up soon: race report from this weekend, and plantar fasciitis updates.  Hurry back, I miss you already!

Did I leave out your favorite calf stretch?  Tell me about it!!!

Have a stretching question?  Ask me!!!
[One of my hobbies is “finding the perfect stretch for thaaaaat *points* muscle”.  The weirder the spot, the greater the challenge!]

*I have a PhD in Biochemistry and am an RRCA Certified Running Coach.  What I describe here has worked well for me, and my clients.  But I am not a medical doctor, nor do I have a degree in physical therapy. Please consult the appropriate specialists for a specific consultation and treatment plan.