Sunday, July 26, 2009

Runner or a gymnast?

Over the years of working with athletes, I have observe that many of our physicians, physical therapists, trainers and coaches seem to be trying to turn runners into gymnasts. They are very good at finding tight muscles and telling the runners to stretch. However, we need to be aware of why a muscle group is tight and what the impact of stretching may have on the the body. Care must also be taken on when stretching is performed and on the intensity of the stretch.

For example a runner may have tight hamstrings. Is that runner tight because they are hamstring dominate from too much time on a hamstring curl machine or from muscle imbalances?

In the case of hamstring dominance, the hamstrings are tight likely because they are too strong as compared to the gluteals (buttocks muscles). This along with a rapid growth spurt can lead to further muscle imbalances (as seen in the picture). The core muscles become weak, especially the lower abdominals. The back extensors (lower back) and hip flexors (front of hip) are tight. These two groups work together to tilt the pelvis into an anterior position which increases the curve in the lower back

This runners hamstrings are tight partially as they are trying to help prevent the pelvis from tilting even further (increasing the low back curve). Aggressively stretching the hamstrings alone to improve their length just because they are tight may not be successful because of these muscle imbalances. Furthermore great care must be taken with the intensity of stretching and when it is done. All runners should avoid going into an aggressive static stretch (strain). Static stretching should graded in the gentle to moderate intensity range and should never be used as a warm-up.

A more wholistic approach would be to include core strengthening of lower abdominals, internal/external obliques and the gluteals without overloading the tight hip flexors. Stretching the hip flexors should be done while engaging the core.

Why are some runners stretching when they are already too flexible? Running performance is not a stretching competition. Runners require stability. An example of this is the female teenage runner who can stretch her hamstring over her head. These runners often say, " I don't feel a stretch" or must lean way into the stretch.

As this highly flexible athlete runs she displays a swing leg hip drop (as seen in the picture) which creates an un-level pelvis. On the stance leg, her femur and knee rotates inward. As her leg goes through swing, the knees almost touched. In other words she has a lot of wasted motion and it all started with the hip drop (Gluteus Medius weakness). These issues could eventually lead to injury. I have seen this gait pattern many times, especially in flexible young female runners. This type of runner is, dare I say TOO flexible! She could improve her running mechanics and prevent injury by actually spending more time strengthening. She needs to work on hip stability/ NOT flexibility.

A visit to a Physical Therapist with experience treating runners is the best way to identify muscle imbalances and the muscle groups which may need more flexibility.

Check out the posts which Lou and I have written on the importance of hip stability.
Gluteus Medius Be hip

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