Regimens: Stretching for the Long Run or Ride

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1994

Regimens: Stretching for the Long Run or Ride
By Dana Sullivan

Tis the season for marathons, centuries, and strained leg muscles. "I see a lot more pulled muscles in the fall," says Tom Nance, an athletic trainer at the Cincinnati Sportsmedicine and Orthopaedic Center. "It's when a lot of athletes tend to push themselves, because the weather is cooling down and they're running out of time to prepare for their races. They try to cram everything in." Even if you stretch often--ideally after you've warmed up and again after you've finished your workout--there's a good chance that you're not stretching your legs properly. "A lot of basic lower-body stretches are done the wrong way," says Nance, "making them hazardous to your limbs--or at least rendering them ineffective." Herewith, Nance's quick fixes to common stretching mistakes.


Watch Your Weight
Bending over to touch your toes is the right idea--but not if your legs are straight. "Most people do it with locked knees, and that actually strains the muscles they're trying to stretch," says Nance. The weight of your torso can pull too hard on your hamstrings (and your lower back muscles) and even cause you to hyperextend your knees. Do it with your legs slightly bent, or better yet while seated: Without so much weight resting on your hams, you can keep your legs straight during the stretch.


Save the Knees
"Forget the hurdler stretch," says Nance, referring to the familiar position in which one leg is straight out in front and the other is folded to one side. He says that when you use it to stretch the quad of the bent leg--usually attempted by holding your legs in position while lying on your back--you're putting that knee at a compromising angle: You can strain the medial joints and ligaments, tear the meniscus tissue, or even pop the kneecap out of place. Instead, while standing, grab your foot and gently tug it straight back toward your butt, steadying yourself by leaning against a wall or chair (careful--if you tilt too much to either side you can harm your hip flexors).


Plant Those Heels
"'I don't feel a stretch' is what I hear most about against-the-wall calf stretches," says Nance. Using the wall to isolate those muscles is proper execution, but the shortcomings are usually twofold: If your toes and hips aren't directly facing the wall and your heels aren't planted on the ground, you won't stretch much. Try visualizing yourself being frisked-- stand a little less than arm's length from the wall, set your feet a few inches apart, and straighten your legs. Now slowly lean into the wall by bending your arms and thrusting your pelvis forward. That ought to loosen some century-ride knots.

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