It’s easy to watch some of the best runners in the world run and try to emulate the way they move while they run. The reality is everyone is put together a little differently and what is beautiful form for one person may not be beautiful form for you. Finding your own stride is important and part of that is making sure that you have the proper range of motion.
During video analysis at our ZAP Fitness adult running camps it’s common for head coach Pete Rea to say, “It looks like your ______ (fill in muscle of your choice) is / are really tight.” The response is often the resigned acknowledgement of someone being told something they already know. The question then becomes how to correct some of those issues in order to improve efficiency.
Stretching: word of caution
There are many ways to mobilize tissue, the specifics of which could fill an entire book, but none is more well known or debated as stretching. There are times when stretching can be beneficial and there are times where it can cause more harm than good. One of the biggest stretching missteps is stretching an acute muscle injury. When you strain a hamstring for instance, the pain you feel is from tiny tears in the muscle fiber. Instinct tells us to stretch the muscle to loosen it up, but what that will actually do is exacerbate the problem by pulling those tiny tears wider and lengthening the recovery time.
Another common mistake when it comes to stretching is with pre-competition stretching. Doing some dynamic movements such as leg swings, high knee skips, or active isolated stretching where you only hold the stretch for 2-3 seconds at a time is a good way to prime the muscles for harder efforts like races and workouts. These types of movements should be done after a proper warm-up where you have worked up a light sweat and the muscles are warm. These active range of motion exercises or stretches help establish a wider range of motion and increase the blood flow to the muscles, allowing your muscles to move freely when your stride increases in length to run quicker.
You should however, avoid prolonged static stretching prior to a race or hard workout. Think of your muscles and tendons like rubber bands. When you stretch a rubber band tight and let go it snaps back into place, which is an example of elastic energy. As a distance runner elastic energy is your friend, it is the recoil in your tendons and muscles that helps propel you forward while running.
If you spend a lot of time doing heavy static stretching prior to a race you lose a little bit of that snap, similar to the way an over stretched rubber band loses it’s shape and doesn’t snap back into place. You want to strike the balance of having full range of motion for your stride without losing the snap in your legs, and dynamic or active isolated stretching immediately before competition achieves that much more effectively than long static stretching.
There are other muscles that are responsible for stabilizing your hips, knees, and ankles while you’re running. If these muscles are incredibly flexible it makes it harder for them to control the motion in the joint well. For example, when you twist your ankle you’re much more likely to twist that ankle in the future because the tendons are loose and have a harder time stabilizing the joint. Again, there is a balance of maintaining the range of motion needed in the joints for proper running mechanics while also maintaining the ability of the muscles and tendons to stabilize effectively.
Striking that balance is the key to knowing when to do more, less, or any stretching, and and in his book, Anatomy for Runners, Jay Dicharry outlines how to approach the issue. The three critical areas of mobility for distance runners are the hips, hamstrings and ankle joints. There are other areas where mobility can be an issue, but these are the most common problem areas for distance runners.
Proper range of motion on the front side of the hip is important for hip extension, the part of the stride where your foot is behind your hips. Proper hip extension ensures that you are able translate the power of your gluteal muscles, hamstrings and calves into forward movement efficiently. Improper hip extension can lead to lower back problems and a variety of compensatory issues below the hips including stabilization and muscle recruitment.
To perform Dicharry’s hip extension test kneel down on one knee and try to flatten out the small curve in your lower back by tucking your hips forward. If you feel a stretch on your quad or hip flexor then you are lacking range of motion in the front of your hip and should be mindful of stretching that area after each run.
For the hamstring test, lie on your back and use your hands to lift one leg at a time, keeping it straight, to a 70-degree angle. If you can do that without feeling tension in your hamstring then you have adequate range of motion.
For testing ankle mobility sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Then slide you hips forward while keeping your feet flat on the ground. If you can get your knees out as far as or just past your toes without picking your heels off the ground then you have adequate range of motion. If not you should spend some time stretching your lower legs after your runs.
Stretching is a hotly debated subject in distance running circles for good reason and can be as unique to the individual as running form. These range of motion guidelines can help you understand how stretching can effectively be incorporated into your training routine and when less can be more.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the November 2016 Issue of Running Journal