I frequently talk to runners and triathletes especially about the benefits of greater mobility. The response is usually “yes, I know I should do more stretching”. By this, I know they mean static stretching and this is probably what the majority of the population think is the way to become more mobile or ‘flexible’.
However, this type of stretching is unlikely to benefit endurance athletes much and has the potential to actually injure you, especially if done before the muscles are warm. In fact, pretty much the only benefit I can see in this type of stretching is if it is combined with a real emphasis on deep breathing, so that you can relax into new ranges and make the brain feel comfortable there, which is probably why some types of yoga work well for this.
The reason why none of this static stretching really holds well and why you’re just as stiff the next time you do it is because the muscles are only reacting to the position of the joints and spine in space, i.e. your posture and gait. Just like after you have a massage or do your physio stretches, you return to your habitual postures and movement patterns or sedentary behaviour, you find the same muscles getting stiff and tight again, no matter how much you stretch. If your shoulders are slumped forward most of the time and your hip flexors are locked on through sitting, this will become the default position for the joints, they will be unable to find full range and therefore you will develop short tight muscle groups and long tight muscle groups on the other side.
So what should you do to stay mobile and therefore function well and reduce injury risk? The answer is MOVE! Take all the key joints through a full range in every possible plane of movement on a very regular basis. Explore the ends of these ranges and become comfortable with them, paying attention to relaxed deep breathing when getting into the difficult zones. Do not hold at the end but get used to moving continuously through the end ranges. You see, movement is what lubricates the joints and all the fascial networks, including muscles and tendons, surrounding them.
For those who don’t know what fascia is, it’s the long lines of connective tissue that runs around and over and through all the muscles and bones and organs and tendons. It’s not just connecting them together but is very much alive and is responsible for holding you up on two legs i.e. your posture. It is also responsible for creating movement within the body, through its ability to stretch and contract. It is these long lines of fascia that we should be aiming to stretch, not individual muscle groups. Yoga has some excellent stretches for stretching these – and many of its whole body stretches will do this – but, for me, it’s all about doing them with movement, not static holds, because fascia and joints are lubricated by MOVEMENT.
Sure you can use foam rolling, banded stretches, lacrosse balls and dynamic (i.e. moving ) stretches and bodyweight exercises for local problem areas, and again these will provide some help – better than static stretching in my view. However, they need to be reintegrated into whole body movement once the new freedom of range is established, otherwise they will not hold as well.
This is where what I call ‘elastic walking’ comes in useful. The aim is to walk as fast as possible, as effortlessly as possible, and without jogging. Take long strides, pushing the big toe into the ground with each step then extend your leg fully out the back with every stride. Let your arms swing vigorously but effortlessly in time with your legs. If done properly this should require almost no muscular effort, will engage the full elasticity of the fascial lines, especially the front and back lines. This is much easier than walking and shuffling around the shops or house, stopping and starting and requiring extra muscular effort to restart each time. It can also be used as part of a warm up for running. The speed that you can maintain effortlessly with this style of walking reflects what I call your ‘functional mobility for gait’, walking or running.
How do you measure up? Well it seems that just over 7k per hour on the flat is about average on the treadmill. If you are struggling to not fall off the end at much less than that then you probably have restrictions of some kind through your joints or are not used to swinging your arms or extending your legs when walking – either way, there will be compensation in your gait that needs addressing. If you are still walking fast but easily over 7.5k per hour then you probably have good functional mobility for gait.
Addressing full body mobility in gait is a fantastic tool, not just for diagnosing dysfunction. I have seen a lot of clients already become much better aligned, much more pain free, much more mobile by consciously at first addressing how they are walking, cue by cue. And, hey presto, they then become better runners too because running, although not exactly the same of course, uses many of these same principles – loading ground reaction forces and using them for kinetic energy via the fascial networks, fine tuned by muscles and tendons.
Give it a try next time you’re in the gym or outside – anywhere where you can really stride out and walk the way you were born to walk. This will be far more effective than those ridiculous ‘bring your heel to butt and hold it’ type stretches for developing true functional mobility.
The moral here maybe should be “Don’t try to run before you can walk”!
Contact David to learn more about how ‘elastic walking’ can benefit you, especially if you are a runner or for a short complimentary treadmill introduction to the idea.
David Perry 07504439555 or firstname.lastname@example.org.