We know more than ever about function and the intricacies of how our body responds to positioning, sport, and load. Yet, the general running population is continually spoon fed the same stretches from 1980. I’m not sure why, really. Countless research articles have shown the detriments of bending movements on our spine (including sitting), but the majority of runners still bend from the waist to “stretch” their hamstrings and IT bands. We know the importance of movement specificity for not only sport, but life. Yet we continually move in ways that neither look nor feel like running. Stretch your calf? Sure. Let’s wedge your foot on the wall and smell some paint. Below I highlight three stretches that are often used, but shouldn’t be. Stretches that can be fairly harmless (calf stretch below) or part of a bigger picture causing long term injury (see ITB and Hamstrings Stretch below).
#1 Hated Stretch – Bending Hamstrings
What? You want to stretch your hamstrings? Great. Then stretch them, but leave your back out of it. Fact is, most low backs are too mobile. Our forward flexed lifestyle promotes sitting and bending more than ever. Said lifestyle fosters tightness in and around your hips and pelvis and requires your low back to compensate and increase its flexibility. What’s designed to be a stable environment slowly transforms into a sloppy mess of excessive movement and accelerated wear and tear.
Instead, keep your spine straight and flex from the hip. Not only will you remove damaging forces from your spine, but you’ll also feel the stretch sooner. The trick here is to flex from the hip and maintain the natural concavity of your lumbar spine. Be careful to not pull up on the toes as it may transition your stretch from your hamstrings to the sciatic nerve.
#2 Hated Stretch – IT Band
Who knows where this came from? What a crap shoot. This common IT Band stretch not only increases the load to your lumbar spine, but it fails to target the thick, fibrous band altogether. With the average person placing 2-4,000 bending movements on their spine every day1 and placing up to 150% increased pressure through their lumbar discs while bending2, do we really need more bending? The answer is no. Plus, the IT Band isn’t an overly elastic tissue, which means it doesn’t stretch well. Performing stretches and soft tissue work to the muscles that attach to IT Band (Glute Max, Tensor Fascia Lata) and those who are nearby (lateral quadriceps) are best. Go grab your foam roll and get rolling.
#3 Hated Stretch – Calf Stretch
Specificity is the rule–there is no exception. Your exercises MUST mimic function. It’s the same reason why a strength training program for an offensive linemen is different than that of runner. Two different sports–two different athletes. Treating your body with exercises and stretches that mimic the running motion is so important. When we run, our lower leg muscles, namely the gastrocnemius and soleus (calf muscles), accept load with our foot fixed to the ground. With our foot fixed the shin glides forward, loading mainly our soleus muscle. Why then are so many people wedging their foot into the wall and smelling paint? This simple, overused stretch is a runner favorite for tight calfs. Sure it stretches, but aside from smelling the wall, you’re moving your foot on the shin–precisely the opposite that happens when we run. Again, simple changes can make a big difference in the longevity and consistency of your running career.
1. McGill, Stuart M., et al. “Coordination of muscle activity to assure stability of the lumbar spine.” Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology 13.4 (2003): 353-359.
2. Nachemson, Alf, and G. O. S. T. A. Elfstrom. “Intravital dynamic pressure measurements in lumbar discs.” Scand J Rehabil Med 2.suppl 1 (1970): 1-40.