Nichol is on vacation and will be back with you next week. In the mean time, I have a ton of info for you today that I will follow up with pictures tomorrow.
One of my Facebook friends, who recently started the Couch to 5K program, posted on my wall:
“I am doing fine during the runs… it is afterwards that the pain comes… I don’t think I know how to stretch properly… any suggestions?”
The answer in my head was a bit long, so I posted that I would send her a message soon.
Then another friend commented:
“If you can include me on the suggestions I’d appreciate it…I always seem to have crazy pain every time I attempt running or even brisk walking, in my shins mostly and ankles. Makes me stop and give up. “
So I decided to make it a blog post and share it with everyone.
For sake of this post, we’re going to assume that all of the bones and muscles are there, are connected properly, and are not torn or broken. I can’t help you with those sorts of issues.
The Foam Roll Is Your Friend
The biggest help to me when I’ve had pain from exercising was to use a foam roll. I have written two guest posts on other blogs about foam rolling (same content). Instead of rehashing that all here, check out my post (and perhaps what they’re writing about!) one or both of their blogs: fit36 and MizFitOnline. Two very different blogs, but I enjoy both of them.
Foam rolls are available in several different lengths; one and three feet are the most common lengths. If you are especially uncoordinated, the longer ones will be easier to manipulate. I use the one-foot roll frequently to demonstrate; it is really only a bit of a pain for rolling the piriformis. The rest of the exercises, the length of the roll doesn’t matter. That said, if you have a desk job, laying up the longer foam roll vertically and letting your shoulders/arms hang backwards helps to stretch and counteract the hunch that most desk workers have.
If you already know how to foam roll but aren’t a convert yet, do it more often! I use the foam roll before every exercise session. I used to use it after every session as well, but I admit, I’ve gotten lazy. At this point, I’d also like to get in the habit of just using it every day (or at least most days); my IT bands and calves could use the extra lovin’. Yours probably could, too.
That will give you the most help with pain.
How And When Should I Stretch?
Before you exercise, stretching isn’t really necessary, but warming up is critical. When you warm up, you are preparing your muscles for what you’re about to ask them to do. You are also priming your heart and lungs for the extra work they’re going to do.
Any gentle movement that mimics the movement you will be doing works well. For running, that could be brisk walking or jogging up and down one or a flight of steps. (On a curb, for example, one foot up, other foot up, first foot down, other foot down, repeat; slowly increase speed. Half way through, switch the lead foot.) If you’re in a gym, using the stair climber or the elliptical will also work.
Warming up should last five to ten minutes.
When you are finished with your run (or whatever exercise you are doing), add a few minutes on to the end to cool down. Walking works beautifully. You don’t want to just stop cold — it’s not good for your body (especially your heart). Keep moving until your heart rate comes down.
Once you have cooled down, stretch everything! (I’ll be more specific in a moment.) Most of us don’t stretch regularly. Flexibility is important and is given very little press. Legs, torso, arms/shoulders — do it all! If you don’t have time for that, be sure to stretch your quads, hamstrings, calves, butt, shoulders. (Be aware of your shoulders when you run. You are probably holding them up.)
Here are some basic leg stretches. As I mentioned here, you should stretch only until you feel the muscle stretching — not to some arbitrary point that you believe you need to get to. Also, hold each stretch 20 to 30 seconds. By that point, the stretchy feeling should have lessened or gone away completely. After that time is elapsed, you could move a little bit farther into the stretch, or change positions and stretch something else.
To stretch your quads: Using something stable for balance if needed, grab your right ankle behind you and pull your heel towards your butt. Be mindful to pull in to your butt and not towards your hip. You can tweak your knee if you pull out to the side.
Modified quad stretch: If, for whatever reason, you are not able to grab your ankle behind you, you can either hook your foot on a chair or other lower-than-your-butt object, or you can kneel with your shins on the floor and sit back towards your heels until you feel a stretch. (This would be stretching both legs at once.)
To stretch your hamstrings: Stand or sit with your feet slightly wider than hip width apart. Reach towards your toes. Repeat with a reach towards the right, and another towards the left. (Each of those counts as one stretch and should be held for 20 to 30 seconds.) I prefer this stretch from a seated position. This also stretches your lower back; keeping your feet apart relieves some of the low back pressure while still allowing a stretch.
Hamstrings are great to stretch with a resistance band, if you have one. Hook the band over your right foot. Lay on your back on the floor. Keeping your left leg flat on the floor, lift your straight right leg until you feel the stretch. The band allows a “partner-assisted stretch” without a partner (or the dangers that being stretched by a partner can bring) and also allows for your weight to be off the leg.
Note about stretching leg muscles in particular: Whenever possible, you don’t want the muscle that you are stretching to be bearing weight. When a muscle is supporting weight, it is contracting (shortening), which is the complete opposite of what we’re trying to do when we stretch. Taking the weight off of the muscle will give you a better stretch.
To stretch your calves: Facing a wall or other tall, sturdy object, stand with your feet hips-width apart. Take half a step forwards with your right foot and a fairly large step backwards with your left foot. Keep your left leg straight and bend your right knee. Lean forwards, leaning on the wall with your hands or forearms, and keep as much weight as possible on your right foot. This stretches the left calf. Keep your left heel on the ground.
You’re expecting me to tell you to switch legs after 20 to 30 seconds — but not yet! There’s another muscle in your calf that is tight on most people. After you stretch as directed above, move back to neutral position, then turn your left foot in towards your center line. Following the same steps as above, lean forwards and stretch. This time, you should feel the stretch more down the outside of your calf. Then switch legs
To stretch your butt: lay on the ground with your feet flat on the floor, knees up. Cross your right ankle just above your left knee. Grabbing the back of your left leg, pull the left leg towards your trunk. Both feet will be off the ground.
To stretch your shoulders: Keeping your right shoulder in a relaxed (down) position, cross your right arm in front of you at or near shoulder height. Pull it towards you with your left arm.
Pictures of the stretches and foam roll positions will go up tomorrow.
Your Knees Might Need A Bit Of Strengthening
When I had troubles with my knees, a combination of two things helped tremendously (and I haven’t had knee pain since). One, as you might have guessed by now, was foam rolling. If the muscles and such that attach to your knee are tight, they pull on your knee in a way that your knee was not designed to be pulled on, which over time causes knee pain.
The other is this little exercise, which hardly even feels like an exercise. Around the knee, there are a bunch of small, stabilizing muscles. The majority of work that we do strength training does not help these guys out, and they become disproportionately weak.
Lay on the floor, flat on your back. Put the foam roll directly under your right knee so that your leg is bent and your heel is on the floor. (You don’t need a foam roll for this. They just happen to be the perfect height and are both dense and round enough to work well and be comfortable.) Keeping your leg on the roll, straighten your leg, hold for a moment, then rest your heel back on the floor. Do 10 reps on each side three times.
Your Hips And Ankles Might Be Tight
Your hip and ankle joints might also be tight. Here are some tips to help loosen them up, in addition to all of the above. These can be added into warm-ups and cool-downs/stretching.
For your hips:
Stand with your feet hip width apart with your hands on your hips. Keeping your feet still, sway your hips from side to side as far as you can comfortably move. Switch to forward and back.
From the same starting position, do circles, as if you were doing an exaggerated hula hoop. Be sure to change direction (clockwise, counter-clockwise).
Keeping one leg on the ground, move the other in circles (both directions).
For your ankles:
With your foot off the ground, draw imaginary circles in the air with your toes. Again, remember to change direction.
For a bit of time efficiency, I like to do ankle circles while doing the butt stretch listed above.
Please make sure when you are running that you are landing midfoot. Landing on your heels is not good for your feet, ankles, knees, hips, or back.