Cooldown: I Hate Static Stretching So I Don’t Do It – Part 1

Cooldown is a critical component of your workouts.  A cooldown is important because it can help facilitate bringing the heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure back to their normal, resting levels.  Also, a cooldown can facilitate removal of by-products produced from your workout from the exercising muscles.  One of these by-products is lactic acid, which is converted to lactate.  Lactate is actually a primary fuel used by the heart.  Lactate can also be recycled in the liver to reform glucose, which then can be used again as a fuel the next time you exercise.  Isn’t the human body great!

There are different types of cooldowns and one which will help facilitate what I just described is walking for 5-10 minutes.  This is certainly something that I recommend after your run workouts.  I also recommend a cooldown, which will address the length or mobility of the muscle.  In this post and the accompanying video, I will address a cooldown to improve muscle length.  In the next post, I will discuss what you can do to improve muscle mobility, which for many runners may be a more important issue to address.

 

What Is Static Stretching?

It seems every time I run I see someone performing static stretching, either before or after their run.  You may already know this, but I want to make sure everyone is on the same page.  Static stretching is used to stretch muscles while the body is at rest. During static stretching the muscle is gradually lengthened to an elongated position (to the point of discomfort) and held in that position, typically for 30 seconds.  Static stretching is meant to increase or at least maintain the length of the muscles and tendons, which are constantly being shortened when we run or perform strengthening exercises.

 

Does Static Stretching Really Work To Improve Muscle Tissue Length?

Several years ago when I was in graduate school I worked at the university’s wellness lab where I was earning my degree.  As a graduate assistant at this wellness lab I was involved with exercise testing, developing exercise programs, and demonstrating exercises to university staff and faculty.  At this wellness lab we recommended static stretching for those who exercised there.  However, I remember the director sharing in private with me that even though we recommended it, static stretching doesn’t really work.

Unfortunately, I did think too much about this until several years later as I incorporated static stretching after my own workouts, and have recommended it to other runners I have worked with.  Then I began reading more of the research and here it what I found…

Research suggests that to fully realize the benefits of static stretching you need to hold a stretch for 3-5 minutes!  Also, to lengthen the muscle you need to perform static stretching 4-6 days per week and it will typically take 10-12 weeks before you get positive results.

If I’m in a yoga class, holding a pose or a stretch for minutes is possible because I have the instructor constantly cueing to help distract me.  However, if I’m not in a yoga class, holding a static stretch for 3 minutes, even with my favorite music playing is a real challenge!

 

Is There a Better Option?

Fortunately, yes!  Research suggests that there are more effective ways to improve muscle length than static stretching.  These include techniques such as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) and active stretching usually referred to as Active Isolated Stretching (AIS, developed by Aaron Mattes) or Active Isolated Flexibility.  These techniques typically involve contracting either the muscle we want to stretch first, or contracting the opposing muscle.  This can help trigger the nervous system to cause the muscle we want to stretch to relax, so that we can more effectively stretch that muscle than with static stretching.

I won’t discuss PNF in this post, but will focus on AIS.  In AIS, you contract the muscle or muscle groups opposite the ones you want to stretch for 1-2 seconds and then relax and repeat 5-10 times.  You can gently assist the stretch using a rope or your hand.

In the accompanying video I demonstrate several stretches that I recommend you incorporate into your cooldown.

 

Here is a description of each stretch:

Hamstrings:

–          Lie on your back with your right leg straight and a rope or band wrapped around your foot

–          Keeping your right leg straight, actively lift it as high as possible, then give gentle assistance with the rope until you feel a stretch

–          Keep your opposite leg in the ground by pushing your heel as far away from your head as possible, contracting the glute

–          Pull the rope above your head

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch legs and repeat

Quadriceps:

–          Lie on your side with your knees curled up against your chest (fetal position)

–          Relax your neck, resting your head on the surface or on a pillow

–          Slide your bottom arm under the thigh of your bottom leg and place your hand around the outside of the foot, if you can’t reach the foot stabilize the knee

–          Contract your abdominal muscles to keep you from rolling

–          Reach down with your upper hand and grasp the shin (or ankle or forefoot) on your upper leg

–          If you are unable to bend your knee sufficiently for you to reach your foot with your hand, use a band or rope and wrap it around the ankle and grasp the ends

–          Keep your knee bent and your leg parallel to the surface on which you are lying

–          Contract your hamstrings and glutes and move your upper leg back as far as you can

–          Use your hand to gently assist

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch sides and repeat

Psoas (hip flexor):

–          Get in a table top position on hands and knees

–          Reach back with your right hand and grasp your right ankle

–          Contract the hamstring and glute muscles to lift the right leg until the thigh is parallel to the ground

–          Be careful not to arch your back

–          Use your hand to gently assist

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch legs and repeat

Gluteals:

–          Lie on your back with both legs extended straight

–          Rotate the leg you are not stretching toward the midline of your body by pointing the toes inward, this stabilizes the hip

–          Using your abdominal muscles and hip flexors, lift your bent knee toward the opposite shoulder, keeping your pelvis flat on the surface

–          Place your hand on the outside of the knee and gently guide it toward the opposite shoulder

–          To get a deeper stretch place the opposite hand on the shin and press your heel toward the floor as your knee nears your shoulder

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch legs and repeat

Adductor (Inner thigh):

–          Lie on your back with a rope or band wrapped around one foot, it should be wrapped around the inside of the lower leg

–          Hold on the end of the band or rope in the hand on the same side as the roped leg

–          Actively lift your leg as far to the side as possible, then give gentle assistance with the band or rope until you feel a stretch

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Keep your opposite leg on the ground by pushing the heel as far away from your head as possible, contract the glute

–          Keep your toes pointed upward

–          Keep your back in line and your shoulders on the ground

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch legs and repeat

Abductor (Outer hip):

–          Lie on your back with a rope or band wrapped around the outside of one foot

–          Hold the end of the rope or band in your opposite hand with your free hand out to the side

–          Actively lift your leg across your body as far as possible, and then give gentle assistance with the rope or band until you feel a stretch

–          Exhale and hold for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Keep your non-roped leg on the ground by pushing your heel as far away from your head as possible, contracting the glute

–          Keep your toes pointed upward

–          Keep your back in line and your shoulders on the ground

–          Repeat 5-10 times

–          Switch legs and repeat

Gastrocnemius (Outer calf):

–          Lie on your back with a rope or band wrapped around your right foot and your right leg raised in the air

–          Actively pull your right foot to your shin and then give assistance with the rope

–          Exhale and hold the stretch for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Perform 5-10 repetitions

–          Switch legs and repeat

Soleus (Deeper calf) and Achilles Tendon:

–          Lie on your back with a rope or band wrapped around your right foot and your right leg raised in the air

–          Bend the right knee

–          Actively pull your right foot to your shin and then give assistance with the rope

–          Exhale and hold the stretch for 2 seconds and then relax

–          Perform 5-10 repetitions

–          Switch legs and repeat

 

 

References

Anatomy for Runners.  Jay Dicharry

The Whartons’ Stretch Book.  Jim and Phil Wharton

Core Endurance Performance.  Mark Verstegen and Pete Williams

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