by Roger French
There is a saying that there are three kinds of runners:
Those who’ve had to quit because of leg joint and lower back troubles.
Those who currently have leg joint and lower back troubles and are running
and putting up with the pain.
Those who’ve got it coming!
It seems that running just ‘ain’t’ a natural form of activity for humans,
certainly not long-distance endurance running. What our bodies are designed
for is walking and short bursts of fast running. Nevertheless, it appears
that it is possible to create a fourth category of runner who can continue
running through the years without causing leg and back problems.
The trick to achieving this is stretching the leg and associated muscles
immediately after each exercise session. It’s well known that it is
important to do warm-up and cool-down before and after exercise, meaning
that we build up to a plateau gradually and come down from it gradually.
For example, brisk walking for 5 minutes before running and walking
for 5 minutes afterwards before coming to rest.
It is not so well known that it is equally important to do stretching
exercises after the activity is complete. Or, as some professionals
recommend, stretching both before and after.
The reason is simple. During vigorous activity, a muscle does work by
contracting. If the activity is prolonged, as in 20 or 30 minutes of
running, and the full range of motion of the muscle does not occur,
the muscle tends to maintain its shortened range of movement after the
exercise is finished. After months or years of this, the muscle remains
set in the shortened state and is thus chronically shortened. This makes
that area of the body - as masseurs, osteopaths and chiropractors say
Not only will a shortened muscle be sore to pressure, it will pull on
adjacent areas and produce misalignments. Sometimes the lower back muscles,
when given even a small amount of added strain, will go into spasm and
the person will be in agony. They will moan, “My back is out”. But the
vertebrae aren’t out, the smaller muscles of the lower back are strained
by the pull of the tight larger muscles of the hips and legs.
The added strain that ‘breaks the camel’s (person’s) back’ might be
the result of lifting abnormally heavy loads, sitting in a car seat
for unusually long hours, bending to pick something up, and so on. The
back pain can be excruciating and can take days to wear off, the time
for recovery being reduced only by skilled osteopathic or chiropractic
All this suffering is simply because leg muscles weren’t stretched after
vigorous activity in order to return them to their normal relaxed length.
The following set of exercises is designed to systematically stretch
the leg muscles after running. They begin with the feet and move up
to the gluteus maximus in the buttocks.
For good measure, stretching of arm muscles is also thrown in at the
end of the session. This is particularly helpful for people who might
need arm releasing because they use their hands in a strain-producing
position for long periods of time, such as writing at a desk, typing
at a keyboard or holding an electrical appliance like a drill or sander.
In these exercises, the stretching position is typically held for 20
seconds then relaxed, held for another 20 seconds then relaxed, and
held for a final 20 seconds. If the stretch involves resisting, it is
held for just 10 seconds, relaxed, held again for 10 seconds, relaxed
and then held for a final 10 seconds.
Caution! Be careful not to over-stretch as this can cause tissue injury
and joint weakness. The stretch must be comfortable and not painful.
If you have ever observed a cat stretch, you will know what this means.
At the end of each stretch, it is important that the return to the normal
position is made very slowly. Suddenly ceasing stretching could cause
muscles to lock up, which is exactly what we’re trying to prevent.
Here is the set of stretching exercises which start at the feet and
systematically progress upwards.
1. Ankle Flexibility
Stand upright, supporting yourself with a hand against a tree or door
frame. Raise one leg so that the thigh is horizontal and the knee bent
in a right angle. Rotate the ankle through its full range of movement
so that the toe traces out circles as large as possible. The ankle is
being flexed (bent) to its full extent all the way round the circle.
Rotate say 5 times in one direction, then reverse the direction for
5 times, and repeat this cycle a couple more times.
2. Calf-Muscle Stretching
Lean against a tree or door frame and stretch one leg out as far as
possible with the foot remaining flat on the ground. Ensure that the
leg, especially the calf muscle, is relaxed. Most of your weight is
taken by the left leg. You can feel the strong pull in the calf muscle,
but be sure not to resist it.
Hold for 20 seconds, then change legs and hold for another 20 seconds.
Repeat once or twice more.
3. Lower Calf-Muscle Stretching
The position is similar to the calf-muscle stretching above, but the
leg is bent a little at the knee. It is important that the left foot
is flat on the ground and the left leg remains relaxed.
Hold for the same times as for (2) above.
4. Front Leg-Muscle Stretch
Stand upright, supporting your balance against a tree or door frame.
Place the left foot behind you with the ankle straightened to the limit.
Press the left toe onto the ground and attempt to drag the toe forwards,
without pulling so hard as to cause movement. The effect is to stretch
the muscles in the top of the foot and running up the front of the lower
As is standard, hold for 20 seconds, change legs and repeat the cycle
once or twice more.
5. Hamstring-Muscle Stretch
Stand erect with the arms stretched straight up in the air, then bend
forwards so that the only bend is at the hip joints. The legs and back,
especially the lower back, must be straight. Bend forwards as far as
possible, keeping arms and back in a straight line. Feel the pull in
the hamstring muscles at the back of the thighs.
Hold for 20 seconds and repeat as above.
6. Outer Thigh-Muscle Stretch
Stand upright, supporting yourself against a tree or between the two
sides of a doorway. Place the left toe on the ground outside the right
foot and let it ‘idle’ there without taking any weight other than its
own. Keeping the body in a vertical plane, bend to the left until the
stretch in the right hip is as great as possible. The pull in the outer
muscles and outer hamstring connection to the pelvic girdle will be
felt very keenly.
Hold and repeat for the standard times.
7. Groin/Adductors Stretch
Sit on the ground or floor with the soles and heels of the feet placed
together. Lean forward slightly until the elbows press on the inner
thighs near the knees. Lean further and press the thighs outwards and
downwards with the elbows until the thighs are stretched as far as possible.
The stretching will be felt keenly here too.
Hold for the standard times.
8. Quadriceps-Muscle Stretch
Stand upright using a tree or door for balance. Take hold of the left
foot with the left hand and pull the foot backwards and upwards as far
as the tightness in the quadriceps in the front of the thigh will allow.
There is a natural tendency to resist with the thigh muscles, but leave
them relaxed so that full stretching is applied by pulling the foot
with the hand.
Hold for the standard times.
9. Gluteus Maximus-Muscle Stretch
Sit on the ground or floor with the left leg out straight. Place the
right foot outside the left leg. With both hands on the right knee,
gently pull it close to the armpit.
Make this a resistance exercise by using the thigh muscles to push the
knee against the hands, that is, away from the armpit. Resist with the
hands so that no movement occurs. Hold for 10 seconds. Relax. With the
hands, pull the knee a little closer to the armpit, push and resist
again, holding for 10 seconds. Relax for a few seconds. Pull the knee
closer still to the armpit and again push and resist without allowing
any movement. Hold for another 10 seconds. Change legs and repeat.
The whole cycle using both legs could be repeated once more.
10. Lower Back and Gluteus Muscle Stretch
Lie flat on your back on the ground or floor with the left arm outstretched
along the ground at a right angle to the body. The left shoulder should
also remain at all times on the ground or at least close to it.
Tuck the left foot behind the right knee and use the right hand to pull
the left knee over the right leg. When this exercise is first done,
the knee may not come very far. Attempt to raise the left knee upwards,
resisting any movement with the right hand. The pull should be felt
strongly in the left buttock and hip. Hold for 10 seconds.
Relax for a few seconds, then use the right hand to press the left knee
closer to the ground. Resist for 10 seconds then relax. Repeat this
once or twice more. Change legs and repeat the exercise.
11. Arm-Muscle Stretch Outwards
Stand erect and hold both arms out in front of you with the right arm
and wrist being in a straight line and rotated clockwise. With the fingers
of the left hand, grip the right hand just under the thumb and rotate
the hand further clockwise as far as possible, keeping the hand in a
straight line with the arm. Use only light pressure with the left hand
to rotate the right hand. The pull in the lower-arm muscles will be
felt keenly. Hold for 20 seconds.
Change arms and do the same with the opposite arm, again holding for
Repeat the cycle once or twice more.
12. Arm-Muscle Stretch Inwards
Again stretch both arms out in front of you, keeping the right arm and
hand in a straight line. Rotate the right arm anticlockwise. Using the
thumb of the left hand, grip the right hand on the same side as the
little finger and attempt to rotate the hand a little further in an
anticlockwise direction (as you look down at your hand). Again, be sure
that the hand and arm remain in the same straight line so that the rotation
is about that axis. Use only light pressure with the left hand to rotate
the right hand. Hold for 20 seconds. Change hands so that the left hand
Repeat the cycle once or twice more.
13. Shoulder Rotations
Rotate the shoulders in circles through their full range of movement,
moving slowly. From the side the shoulders would be seen to be moving
through full circles.
As with the vigorous physical activity itself, these stretching exercises
will need to be commenced gradually and gently. In the extreme case,
even stretching exercises can be overdone and finish up causing more
strain than that which they were designed to eradicate or prevent. It’s
simply a case of listening to your body, building up gradually and observing
the effects. If the exercises are properly done, any pre- existing soreness
in muscles is likely to ease or dissipate in a matter of weeks.
If it’s difficult to find the time for these stretching exercises after
running, etc. - which is about 10 minutes - rest assured that it will
pay off in the long run. The amount of suffering that can be prevented
by stretching after exercise will make the relatively small amount of
time required worth every moment!
Thanks for guidance with this article are extended to Peter Ray, osteopath
of Penrith NSW (Tel: 02 4733 3187), and Ellena Jee, massage therapist
of Wallacia NSW (Tel: 02 4773 8899).
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