As a physical therapist, prescribing stretches is a big part of my day. I don't always have the same intended goal with each stretch, but my goals are always centered around targeting a particular tissue whether that be a nerve, a muscle, joint capsule, etc. Frustrating me to no end are the dozens of articles found in magazines or websites that give out erroneous advice on stretches.
Whether you decide that stretching be a necessary part of your routine or not is an entirely different topic...but if you're going to do it, do it right! You get the most benefit from it when done correctly. A common theme in this post is that it focuses on muscle groups that cross two joints. When this happens, both joint positions must be taken into consideration to assure a quality stretch.
This post will identify two stretches that are often done wrong, and a third that you may not be aware of. Enjoy!
Stretch Number One: The Quadriceps
The typical version looks like this. There's a few things wrong here. First off, for the greatest general stretching benefit of this muscle, it's critical to maintain the femur parallel to the spine. In this case, my right leg is actually coming away from the midline which disproportionately targets the medial quadriceps (VMO), while applying a less than stellar stretch to the lateral quads.
The second problem lies in the functional anatomy of the quadriceps. A single portion of this muscle, the rectus femoris, crosses both the knee joint AND the hip joint. That means that an adequate stretch should not only flex the knee but also extend the hip. Often the above, or typical approach, results in neglecting the hip joint.
This mistake is unfortunate, because if there were ever a reason to stretch the quads, it would be to improve hip extension during the gait cycle around toe-off. Try the below version instead to target the entire quadriceps muscle.
This version already puts your knee into a reasonable amount of flexion and then allows you to shift your trunk forward to stretch the proximal (higher) attachment of the quads that sits near the hip joint. This stretching position translates better to functional gains related to running. Be sure to use something soft below the knee as not to aggravate the knee cap.
Stretch Number Two: The Hamstrings
Like the quadriceps, the hamstrings also crosses the hip and knee joints. For runners especially, the case is often that the hamstrings are far stronger than the paraspinals, which means that the classically attempted stretch results in a contortion of the pelvis and lower back.
In this position, many runner believe that they are stretching their hamstrings when in fact they are likely imposing a greater stretch on the lower back...because the hamstrings are extremely resistance to stretch and typically quite strong.
Over time, runners are more likely to aggravate the back than to stretch the hamstrings. A secondary problem is also that my feet are far apart. This is not the typically narrow stance achieved during the gait cycle of most runners so why stretch them in this position? It will likely cause an imbalance between the outer and inner hamstrings on each leg.
Try this one instead!
The on-floor approach is very successful for a number of reasons. First of all, the opposite leg serves as a counter weight to maintain the lower back and pelvis in neutral, which allows the stretch to go into the desired tissue. Secondly, the previous version involves trying to stretch a muscle that is simultaneously preventing you from falling over onto your head. This position allows you to actually relax the muscle as it is stretched, which spells success.
Stretch Three: Plantar Fascia
Ok, this could open a can of worms, but let me say that this stretch is not only appropriate for folks with plantar fasciitis, but with most arch pain, or plantar joint pain. Much of this tissue is addressed with stretching of the calves and achilles, but because many of these tissues cross both the ankle joint and the midfoot joints, you cannot ignore the mobility of the entire functional unit.
Additionally, just before toe-off in the gait cycle, runners typically are at end range of ankle dorsiflexion (foot toward the sky) and progressing into toe dorsiflexion (heel lifting up as toes remain grounded.) If mobility is limited in this system, there are a number of pain syndromes and dysfunction that can follow once high mileage is added. The picture below demonstrates what 'normal; mobility of the toes looks like in normal stance.
If you find yourself stretching your calves frequently to improve the available ankle range, don't forget the other side of the tissue and where it connects. Ankle and toe range have an intimate relationship, one that when limited can create additional stress on the metatarsal heads, medial arch, and plantar fascia. Be sure to incorporate the below stretch as well to address the entire functional system.
Thanks for reading! I hope you found this helpful. Be sure to check out some of the other posts on stretching. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me via email. If you are interested in a running consult or screening, that can be scheduled online or via telephone. Check out www.facebook.com/ImpetusPT for more info or www.ImpetusPT.com.
Until next time....don't stop moving!