Specific Flexibilities, Stretching, and Strength
This post addresses my opinion on the hot button topic of stretching. I’ve been in the sport of triathlon for about 10 years, and dedicated weight lifting for at least 4 years prior to that with a few year overlap between the two. Based on my experiences as an athlete, and in working with others, this post represents my opinion on the topic of stretching. It IS NOT based on the most recent research paper available in the journals which was crafted to achieve a specific objective. On this topic in particular, you can find just as many papers for stretching as you can against. In these situations you have to rely on your own experiences. In general I think too many people site papers for things rather than making their own decisions….get your own ideas people! Use the papers as input to your decisions……that’s a post topic in of itself. Anyhow, here we go:
First off, when I say stretching, I don’t mean a quick hamstring stretch for 4-5 seconds before you run, I’m talking about yoga style stretching, or 30+ second holds for multiple sets……
1) It never seemed like a natural act to me to stretch…..draping a muscle over a bone and then pulling on it for some prolonged period of time. Tugging on a hunk of soft tissue? Have you ever seen an animal in nature doing this? I’m a believer that this unnatural act creates unnatural muscle elasticity that can actually slow you down due to reduced elastic rebound at the muscle.
2) Having said that, there are specific flexibilities which are required in our sport to achieve proper mechanical efficiency. An example here would be adequate soleus flexibly to achieve proper run form. In this case the inability to achieve proper run form will slow you down more than the loss of elastic rebound in the muscle. The trick with this is to achieve just enough flexibility to meet the objective…..no more!
3) Targeted stretching periodically when you may feel an issue start to arise is sometimes required as a Band-Aid. Realize though, the issue is likely not due to the lack of stretching, but typically the lack of strength. I see this one a lot……someone has a tight calf and is told to stretch it as a fix. This alleviates the problem initially, and then the athlete makes the connection that’s it’s the stretching that they lack in their routine. What they typically then find is a bad Achilles again in 2-3 weeks because the root problem was never addressed….calf strength! My favorite saying on this topic is “a tight muscle, is a weak one.” Basically, when a muscle is too weak to adequately handle the stress it sees, its response is to contract and protect itself…..a tight muscle. My point is that although stretching is a temporary fix for a particular issue, the lack of stretching is typically not the root cause. Typically, the cause is muscle weakness.
In triathletes, there are two major areas where you see chronic tightness which leads to injury….the hips (which can cause it band issues, sciatica, hip flexor pain, etc), and calfs (which can cause calf tears, Achilles tendinitis, planter fasciitis, etc). Many folks think the solution to these issues is stretch the heck out of the hips and calfs….this can work over the short term, but does not address the root cause of the tightness which is typically lack of strength! It’s so common in triathletes, that it’s worth including a standard hip and calf strengthen routine throughout the season as a proactive measure. In many, many cases these same weaknesses are the root cause of run mechanics issues which lead to slower run times.
Bottom Line: hip and calf strengthening can go a long way to reduce common injuries seen in triathletes as well as improve flexibility which both, in turn typically improves run mechanics to some degree. Eccentric calf raises, and the typical hip exercises with a stretch band (glut medias, TFL, psoas) do the trick! Consider this approach next time you go to stretch something that hurts and I bet you’ll find the long term solution as well.