Stretching your way to pain free running

 
 
By Gavin Morrison PT
 
 
 

As a physical therapist who specializes in the treatment of running injuries I see numerous patients each summer who come to my clinic with any number of running injuries. By far the majority of the running injuries, especially those encountered by beginning runners are due to lack of flexibility in the ankles.

Having ample flexibility in the ankles is crucial for runners who want to run more than 4-5 miles at a stretch. A tight calf is the primary muscle that restricts ankle motion.  Restricted ankle motion causes problems with the foot and ankle mechanics, which in turn can cause plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, calf pain and knee pain. This phenomenon of ankle mechanics causing pain in other joints and muscles is similar to the way in which a car that is continually driven with a loose wheel will soon have things go wrong with its axel, suspension, brakes and transmission.

If you have persistent pain with running it is wise to be evaluated by a healthcare professional that is trained in the biomechanics of running. Many physical therapists have specialized knowledge of running injuries, the dysfunctional mechanics that cause them and the best treatment for those injuries.

One of the first things that I look for in a runner with any kind of lower extremity pain is ankle flexibility or more specifically ankle dorsiflexion. Ankle dorsiflexion is how far one can pull his or her toes up.

Without 25 degrees of ankle dorisflexion anyone running more than 4-5 miles at a stretch is at risk for some kind of running injury.

The good news is that in most cases it is relatively easy to increase your ankle dorsiflexion to 25 degrees with a rigorous stretching program. Research has shown* that sustained stretching can produce permanent elongation of muscles and increased range of motion at joints. Sustaining a stretch for 8 minutes has been shown** to be a sufficient amount of time to get lasting results when stretching muscles. I have found that patients who are able to stretch their calves for 8 minutes twice a day can easily gain up to ten degrees of increased ankle dorsiflexion in 4-5 weeks. Two sessions of sustained stretching along with active functional stretching through out the day (4-5 times) is often the most effective treatment for many running injuries that are caused by restricted ankle motion.

Sustaining a stretch on your calf for 8 minutes requires the use of an adjustable stretching strap.

This strap is looped around the ball of your foot and then around your waist while sitting with legs out straight. You then tighten the adjustable buckle until you feel a good stretch on your calf. This stretch can be maintained for extended periods by leaning back into the strap while sitting. This can be done with shoes on or off.

Active Functional stretching is best done using a Pro Stretch calf stretcher. This is done by standing with one foot on the Pro Stretch, keeping your knee straight and dropping your heel until you feel a good stretch on your calf. You then pick up the other leg bending the knee, to waist height and swing that leg back and forth creating a rotation at the hips the goes down to the ankle that you are stretching. This hip and ankle motion helps distribute the calf stretch to the entire calf muscle while putting the foot and ankle through a functional range of motion similar to what it goes through when you run.

Both these items can be purchased through Amazon.com. Follow this link to find these items and see videos about how to use them.

Runner's Stretching Tool Kit

Stay well and keep on stretching.

References:

Threlkeld, A. Joseph. The effects of manual therapy on connective tissue.  Phys Ther 12/1/92 - click here

** Bohannon RW. Effect of repeated eight-minute muscle loading on the angle of straight-leg raising. Phys Ther. 1984;64:491– 497.

 

 

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