Regiments: Options for the Discriminating Stretcher

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Bodywork, March 1997

Regiments: Options for the Discriminating Stretcher
By Scott Sutherland

When choosing from the stretching smorgasbord, think of creating a well-balanced meal. "Learning more than one method allows you to stretch more effectively," says Bob Anderson, author of Stretching. So mix things up, using static methods, which loosen an isolated muscle; dynamic methods, which work muscle groups; and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), which pinpoints a muscle and pushes it farther than a simple static stretch. Warm up first with five to ten minutes of jogging, rope jumping, or riding. Then start stretching with slow, gradual movements, pushing each stretch until the muscle is taut--it should feel uncomfortable but not painful. Whatever length regimen fits your needs, here are an assortment of stretches to increase flexibility in the muscles that, for many of us, get the most abuse--those in the back and legs.

Spinal Twist
Muscles: Gluteus maximus, hamstrings, lower back
The Exercise: Sit on the floor with your right leg extended in front of you. Bend your left leg and cross it over the right. With your back straight, reach across your body and rest your right elbow on your left knee, and rotate your torso counterclockwise. Turn your head to look behind you. Rotate until you feel the stretch in your lower back and side, hold the position for 12 seconds--and keep breathing. Relax. Reverse the process and repeat three times.

Prone Hurdler
Muscles: Quadriceps
The Exercise: Lie on your left side with your left arm extended above your head. Reach behind you with your right arm and grasp the instep of your right foot, pressing it into your hand. Gently pull your foot into your body until you feel your quads tingling. Hold for 15 seconds. Relax. Switch sides. Repeat three times.

Muscles: Quadriceps, hip flexors, lumbar
The Exercise: Standing before a chair with your feet together, bend at the waist and grasp the seat. Keeping your back straight, squat onto the balls of your feet until your thighs are horizontal. Slowly shift back into a flat-footed position, with your thighs at a 45-degree angle to the ground, and hold for five seconds. Now look straight up and stand. Repeat sequence ten times.

Back Roll
Muscles: All back muscles
The Exercise: Assume the seated fetal position: sit on a mat or carpet with your legs bent in front of you, hug your knees, and keep your chin tucked into your chest. Gently roll onto your back. Use your legs to rock slowly from your shoulders to your lower back six times. Keep your chin down, and don't roll onto your neck. Repeat three times.

Hamstrings Stretch
Muscles: Hamstrings
The Exercise: In the company of a kind-hearted partner, lie on your back on a table, hands folded on your stomach, and raise your left leg with your toes pointed up. Facing you, your partner should support your elevated calf with his shoulder, grasp your left quad just above the knee with his right hand, and hold your foot with his left hand to help keep your leg straight. He should then gradually and slowly push your leg toward your chest until you feel tension in your hamstring. Tell him to stop there. Hold the position for six seconds. Then have him gently renew the pressure while you resist with equal force. Continue this little battle for six seconds. Then relax--without lowering your leg--and have him immediately ease it toward you a little farther (until you feel tension again) for, you guessed it, another six seconds. Repeat the resist-relax sequence in increments of three for each leg.

Pepper Your Pain

Christopher Columbus discovered America, more or less. But it was his ship doctor who stumbled upon an innovative analgesic, which he used to soothe the aches of seafarers' sadly neglected teeth: ground chile peppers. Five centuries later, the natural chemical that gives hot peppers their zing--capsaicin--is being used in a topical cream to ease athletes' pain. Zostrix Sports ($10; 800-530-3933), made with a high dose of capsaicin, can help relieve injuries such as sprains, tendinitis, and bursitis.

While traditional sports rubs stimulate nerves on the surface of the skin, merely distracting you from the pain, capsaicin actually depletes nerve endings of Substance P, a chemical that transmits pain signals to your brain. "When there's less Substance P in an area, there's less pain," explains Dr. Lewis G. Maharam, president of the Greater New York Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. "This means that injured athletes can increase mobility, get moving again, or start rehabbing sooner."

Like all things spicy, however, Zostrix Sports can take some getting used to--and a little goes a long way. I dabbed a pea-size drop on my tendinitis-stricken knee after a run, and it eased the pain for six hours. Luckily, I was spared the unpleasant burning sensation that, according to the manufacturer, afflicts half of all Zostrix users at first. The best advice if you experience stinging? Stick it out: The capsaicin becomes less painful and more effective over the course of a week--making it, Maharam says, "one of the best new tools that athletes and physicians have."

--Dana Sullivan

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