The Quest for Flexibility

25 03 2013

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Here are two linear equations.

Flexibility + Range of Motion = Running Economy

Running Economy + Cardiovascular & Muscular Fitness = Faster Times

Some people can effortlessly slide into splits, then twist and contort their bodies into all kinds of bizarre looking positions. Others find it hard to even touch their toes. And yet we are all made of the same stuff: muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, fluids.

My question is not why, but how: how can we maximise the full potential of our bodies to achieve greater flexibility and range of motion, with which comes higher running economy and consequently, faster times?

MY SCENARIO

I am a runner, clocking 80-100K per week.

My flexibility leaves much to be desired. I often wake up with very tight hips. My shoulders have a poor range of motion due to stiffness: they often swing side-to-side when I run, a complete waste of energy because I want to be propelling myself forward, not sideways.

I have been building yoga into my training program, practicing it at least twice a week, but have felt no significant improvements in my flexibility or mobility. The return on investment (return = greater running economy; investment = time) has been low.

There has to be a better way.

MY APPROACH

I don’t believe in the single Magic Bullet. Our bodies are complex organisms with an infinite number of variables. To get our bodies to respond, we need to talk to it in its language: the multi-pronged language of diversity.

My approach is therefore a diverse and varied one, and my flexibility program includes all of the following:

  • Old school stretching
  • Yoga
  • Active Isolated Stretching (AIS)
  • Foam roller
  • Ballistic stretching…Martial Arts included!
  • Massage
  • Cross training
  • Posture
  • and the almighty REST and RECOVERY

OLD SCHOOL STRETCHING

Old school static stretching

Old school static stretching

The oh-so-prevalent static stretches. We’ve probably all seen one of these diagrams at some point in our athletic lives. Easy, quick and simple to perform – but not the most efficient way to build flexibility, particularly if used in isolation.

YOGA

warrior1-2-3

Warriors One, Two and Three – great for leg strength.

Yoga definitely helps to develop flexibility – no doubt about it. It hasn’t, however, achieved for me enough improvement in flexibility to significantly boost my running efficiency. The problem, I think, is that a lot of yoga postures are static. This poses two problems. One, you can easily overexert and overstretch yourself. Two, some postures are too hard to perform and you end up getting stiffer by forcing hard to get into the posture.

half-moon-pose

Half Moon Pose. Good for balance, and you really need to work your ankle. After my ankle sprain, I found this pose to be a great rehabilitative exercise.

On the upside, yoga does give quite a well-rounded approach in itself. I personally love the Half-Moon Pose – it’s great for balance and leg strength, particularly around the ankle. The Warrior Poses really work the legs. The Frog Pose is great for stiff hips (primarily the adductors), and although it may look a little awkward, I actually sometimes sit in the pose with a good book and just let the stretch sink in…

Oh, and the Sun Salutation combines strength, cardio and flexibility all into one.

Sun Salutation Pose Sequence

But still, yoga alone has not been enough for me.

ACTIVE ISOLATED STRETCHING (AIS)

I love Active Isolated Stretching. In a nutshell: ever done a whole load of stretching, only to feel tighter the next day? I have. Want to know why? Because a lot of our muscles work in antagonistic pairs – while one contracts, the other relaxes. So you could be stretching one muscle, but at the same time, contracting – and hence, tightening – another. With AIS, each stretch lasts no longer than two seconds, and taps into reciprocal antagonistic muscle contraction to activate and isolate muscles, so that the opposing tension that inevitably comes with static stretching is altogether avoided.

Here’s a good introductory video to AIS.

And here are some links to various AIS exercises that you can try.

Shoulder elevation stretch

Rotator cuff stretch & strengthening

Hip adductor and groin stretch

Hip flexor stretch

Opening the hamstrings

Back relief

FOAM ROLLER

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Over at Runner’s World, the humble foam roller is deemed “(almost) Magical” – and I would agree. Think of the foam roller as a DIY sports massage, without the hefty price tag. They can stretch out muscles and tendons, but more importantly, help to get rid of pesky muscle knots that can accrue from extensive use. Foam rolling also increases blood flow and circulation, speeding up recovery. Read more about it here.

BALLISTIC STRETCHING

What does a ball do? Bounce.

So what is ballistic stretching? Well, you bounce a little to get a limb into an extended range of motion, over and above what it would ordinarily have been able to achieve statically. Think bouncing up and down to touch your toes.

I used to do a bit of kungfu, and that included a lot of ballistic stretching. Front kicks. Side kicks. Sweeps. My range of motion improved, but often I would feel stiff afterwards because I had overstretched.

Here I am, a couple of years back, practicing a few kicks. Notice all the ballistic movements involved.

There are dangers, of course, most prominently the risk of jerking too sharply and straining – or worse, tearing – something.

MASSAGE

After a hard workout or a race, my teammates like to massage each other. One of us would lie down, while the other, taking on the role as a masseur, carefully steps onto our hamstrings, glutes and back. The masseur may use their ankles to press down and add pressure, or shake their legs to give a vibrating motion, and really flushing out the stiff soreness out of our muscles. It feels really, really good.

Of course, this is a pretty delicate procedure. Experience and care is required. But with a bit of practice, buddying up and getting a massage from a teammate is not a bad idea at all.

CROSS TRAINING

Body_planes-1We runners run forwards. We are pretty uni-directional. We stay on one plane.

But, as you can see from the diagram on the left, we are anatomically designed to move in three planes: the sagittal, coronal and transverse.

What we want to do is make sure that no plane is neglected. If underused, muscles largely responsible for the neglected plane of movement will become weak and unconditioned, piling on a disproportional amount of stress on a limited number of muscles and increasing the likelihood of injury. Yikes.

This page lays out the case for multi-planar training quite nicely.

Doing a range of different sports that encourage multi-directional movement will probably go a long way to make our bodies more resilient, agile, injury-free and happy.

My cross-training sports of choice: badminton, golf, tennis, parkour, football and basketball.

POSTURE

Sitting-Kills-preview

Are you sitting in a chair right this moment? Get up! That chair is your enemy! Sitting is killing you!

That might be exaggerating it a bit, but the hard facts damning:

  • As soon as you sit, the activity of enzymes that break fat down plunge by 90%
  • As soon as you sit, electrical activity in your leg muscles completely shut off. As a runner, you don’t want your legs shut off, do you?
  • After 2 hours of sitting, good cholesterol drops 20%

And, if you think about it, did we homo sapiens really evolve to spend long hours sitting in a chair? Probably not.

Anatomically, sitting does not seem to me to be the most natural position for our bodies to take. And if we consistently force our body into such an unnatural posture for much of the day, can we really expect to be able to maximise our body’s physical potentials on the running track? Probably not.

REST AND RECOVERY

Train hard. Rest hard. That just about sums it up.

SO…

For me, I’ll be building all of the above into my weekly flexibility program. The human body gives infinitely many signals and, I think, responds to infinitely many stimuli. And to converse with your body, you’ve got to speak its lingo: diversity and variety.