Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is It Best To Stretch Before or After Working Out?

Answer: After.

A recent study in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2010; 24 [9], 2274-79) suggests that static stretching before exercise may adversely affect performance. The study participants, ten collegiate male athletes, were evaluated for their performance on two different occasions for a 60 minute treadmill bout. The athletes performed static lower body stretches for 16 minutes prior to one of the runs. Before the other run, they simply sat quietly for 16 minutes.

The authors of the study found that "performance was significantly greater in the nonstretching vs. the stretching condition, with significantly greater energy expenditure during the stretching compared with the non-stretching condition." It's likely that stretching before exercise stimulates "protective mechanisms" within the muscle, overriding muscle spindles (sensory receptors that detect changes in muscle length and play an important role in regulating muscle contractions).

So, if you are somebody who likes to combine exercise with yoga or a stretching routine, start with exercise and conclude with stretching.

Happy Holidays!!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Calf Stretches: Traditional vs. Yoga

Traditional calf stretches, like the one pictured to the left, are effective at isolating and stretching the gastrocnemius and its Achilles tendon. I joke around with runners that they like to finish a run, poke around with a few stretches like the one shown and then hop in the car off to brunch.

In this post, I'm offering an alternative calf stretch that requires you to sit down, pay attention to your body and breathe. The sitting down part is actually pretty nice after a long run, ride or game. Without having to exert any effort, it allows you to release not just the calf muscles, but your body as a whole. You will be able to connect the tension in your calves to the entire back of the body - hamstrings, low back, mid-back, all the way to the base of the skull.

My friend, Gia, a student in my Yoga for Runners class, was nice enough to model this one for me - see pic to the left. Sit with your left leg out and right leg in and folded across the body. Allow your inner thighs to come as close as they can to each other. Flex your left ankle, drawing the toes in. If your calves feel very tight this may be difficult. Stop at the point of mild discomfort.

Keeping your shoulders relaxed, lean your torso forward so that it puts mild pressure on the right thigh and perhaps increases the sensation in the back of the left leg. Drop your chin to the chest. Breathe into whatever you feel.

To go deeper, grab hold of your foot and gently pull your toes in. Keep your shoulders free of tension. You don't want to cram your shoulders toward the ears as if shrugging. If you can't reach your toes, loop a belt around your foot so that you can keep the shoulders smooth and relaxed. Continue to lean forward with the torso and then tuck your chin.

As you breathe here, trace the strong sensation that you feel in the lower leg into the hamstrings. Then move your breath along into the lower spine, the mid-back and ribs, and eventually the base of the neck.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

IT Band Opener for Runners

The iliotibial band (IT Band) is a layer of connective tissue that runs from the iliac crest on the outside of the pelvis to the lateral side of the knee. It links the gluteus maximus (the largest butt muscle) to the tibia (shin bone). The IT Band plays a major role in stabilizing the knee during running. When the IT Band is tight, which often happens in runners, it can cause iliotibial band syndrome. This condition occurs when the tissue becomes inflamed from excessive friction caused by the band rubbing over the lateral epicondyle of the femur. The tightness may cause pain in the outer knee or pain along part or the entire length of the band.

IT Band Syndrome was, and to some extent still is, my nemesis. It S-U-C-K-S. So, as cheesy as it sounds, I can attest to the fact that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I recommend that all runners work on IT Band flexibility whether or not they are experiencing pain in this region.

My friend, Jess, who had been running a mile here and another there, recently upped her training to 3-5 miles at a time and completed the Ben Franklin Bridge 6-mile run last month. She also expressed that her IT Bands were feeling tight!

She helped me take pictures of a great IT Band opener. You will need a belt or a yoga strap. Lie on your back. Loop the strap around the arch of your left foot and extend that leg at the knee. Allow as much strap as you need to keep your shoulder blades grounded and the knee straight but not locked out.

Take both pieces of the strap into your right hand and bring your left hand out to the side with the palm facing down. Draw your left leg across your body to the right, allowing the back of the pelvis to come off of the floor. (The body is drawn into a twist.) Keeping the back of the left shoulder on the ground, draw the left foot as far to floor as possible, knowing that it may very well not touch the ground.

Breathe into the outer left leg and hip.

Work to create space between the left armpit and the left outer hip. As this happens, pull the foot up towards the head while still extending the knee fully.

Do both sides:)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Twists for Racket Sports

Ralph is a professor at UPenn who blows off steam playing squash three to five days per week. The stress relief from this activity is a must for him, but lately, he has been experiencing a nagging and uncomfortable pain on his right lower back, just to the side of his sacrum. The pain increases with the frequency of squash games and subsides with rest. It sounded muscular from his description, like the muscles in that area were in tight knots. I asked Ralph if he stretched and he said, "Well, a little bit." So I took that as a no!

In our work together, Ralph and I have mainly focused on strength-training, but we decided to start working on a few yoga postures that would target the affected area. The pictured pose, jathara parivartanasana, is a lying twist that opens the muscles on the outer hip (gluteals, IT Band), torso (rectus abdominis, internal and external oblique, erector spinae) and upper chest/shoulder (pectoralis major, anterior deltoid).

This pose is executed by lying down, bringing the arms to a "T," and pulling the knees all the way in to the chest. To twist, allow the legs to fall over to one side, hugging the thighs in towards the belly, and look to the opposite side. As you can see in the picture to the left, this pose creates open space from the left armpit to the left outer hip. As you look to the picture on the right, you can see that the right side of his body is tighter and his right shoulder has a harder time releasing down to the floor.

Like Ralph, other athletes who play racket sports may experience similar asymmetries due to their engagement in repetitive motion on one side of the torso. Jathara parivartasana, nicknamed "belly rolling twist," is a first step toward balancing the body.

I would suggest practicing this pose after each game or practice. Rather than holding for 30 seconds on each side, I suggest counting breaths on each side: 15 on the more open side, 30 on the tighter side. Breath in and out through the nose. On the inhale, breath into the outer hip, ribs and front shoulder. On the exhale, allow breath to leave the belly, both shoulders to soften to the floor, and the thighs to succumb to gravity.

**Tip: Though this is not shown, you can place a folded blanket or pillow underneath the arm for support if it is dangling in the air.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Set Your Alarm for YogATHLETES!

Calling all runners, cyclists, swimmers, rowers, rock-climbers and athletes: 2011 is the year to start taking care of your body. YogATHLETES is devoted to helping athletes recover from the intensity of their sport. Yoga is a valid form of cross-training for injury prevention. The practice will improve circulation facilitating lactic acid removal. And best of all, yoga improves sleep quality, boosting the body's ability to repair muscle tissue and synthesize glycogen stores. In this community of athletes, you may even find a new running buddy or a bike partner!

No experience necessary. (It's ok if you can't touch your toes!)

Starts Monday, January 3rd