Okay, these are great stretches for ANY active person!
As a yoga teacher who is also a distance runner and cyclist, I’m often asked for the most effective (and efficient–let’s face it, we’re all busy!) stretches that can be done post-workout. This article will focus on a handful of lower body stretches, so if you are a triathlete, stay tuned. I’ll post some upper body goodies for you soon. 🙂 My massage therapist recommends two minutes of stretching per muscle group after a solid run–are you catching that, marathoners? Half Mary fans, that means you, too. Hell, if you are cranking it out there whatever your workout is, you should spend some time stretching! For runners and cyclists, the hips, hamstrings, glutes/piriformis, calves and quads get beaten up the most. Tight hip flexors and psoas muscles along with tight hamstrings can sometimes present as low back pain, too. It’s important to stretch right after activity, while the muscles are warm and pliable. Otherwise, you run the risk of them remaining contracted and tight. Here’s my routine after a run or ride.
Calves: I usually stretch outside on my deck, so my calf stretch is done on the first step, one side at a time. Let one heel hang off the end of a step, bending into the opposite knee. As you continue to let the heel drop off the edge of the step, you should feel a stretch in the achilles as well as the calf. You can adjust the stretch into the gastroc/soleus muscles by bending/straightening into the knee.
Hamstrings: I go with a good, old fashioned leg-up-on-the-deck-railing stretch. It’s important to feel the stretch in the belly of the hamstring and NOT in the attachment near the glutes. Creating a slight bend in the knee can help. You can fold as far forward as your body lets you. (My rule of thumb is feeling a stretch sensation of 6 out of 10–with 10 being screaming pain, flashing red lights. A six will be more of a fuzzy orange light.) You should feel the stretch happen, but it shouldn’t be painful. If you are very tight, stretching will probably be uncomfortable at first. Breathe deeply and relax into your stretches as much as you can. If you are inside, this stretch can also be done on the floor. Sit down with legs extended in front of you. Bend into the left knee and let your left foot touch the inside of your right thigh, knee dropping toward the floor. Fold over your right leg. If you can’t reach your toes, reach for the calf or ankle or use a strap–a hand towel is a good strap substitute! Remember to stretch both sides.
Hips: You can’t beat a simple lunge when it comes to hitting the hip flexors! You can either keep your hands on the floor with your back leg long and straight with the knee on or off the floor OR come upright.
While in your high or upright lunge, tuck your tailbone a little to feel a deeper stretch in the front of the hip. Depending how tight you are, your knees may be in obtuse angles. Just settle in and breathe.
If you are more flexible, your knees will be at 90* angles and will allow you to get a little deeper. Continue to breathe, drawing the belly button toward the spine and tucking the tailbone down.
If your hands are on the floor (first photo), the movement of drawing the tailbone toward your back foot is more subtle, but still effective. Try not to let the front leg take the brunt of the work. You’ll know that it is when you feel a sensation at the top of the hamstring near the inner thigh/glutes. If this is the case, draw that hip back a little to focus the stretch more on the front of your opposite hip.
Quads: You can do this stretch standing or kneeling. If you are standing, keep knees moving toward each other even as you draw the foot toward your bum. It will protect your knees. If you are kneeling, bring the front foot out to the side a little to create a wider base for stability. Bend into the back knee and bring the foot toward the bum. If your knee is bothered being on the floor, adjust your position so you are on the fleshy part above the knee or put something soft under it to add some cushioning.
Adductors/groin: When it comes to lower body stretches, everything is connected. If you want a complete, 360 stretch in the hips, you’re gonna have to get up in there and hit the groin as well. This particular stretch can be done in stages, depending on your flexibility. 1) From the low lunge position, keep your hands on the mat on the inside of your front foot–the back knee can be down or up.
2) If that feels okay, you can come down onto your forearms. 3) Turn your front foot out 45* and either drop in lower OR walk your hands to the opposite side. Let your head hang like fruit on a tree. Don’t strain to support the weight of your head.
4) The bonus stretch comes if you bring your hand to your knee and give the stretch an assisted boost.
Glutes/piriformis: So, while we might work hard to get a high-and-tight ass, we should also ensure that it is stretched properly. There are a few ways to do that. 1) If I’m still on the deck stretching, I hold onto the railing, cross one ankle over the opposite thigh just above the knee (to make a figure 4 with my legs) and then sit back as I bend into the standing leg. The top foot is flexed and I’m continually drawing that knee down toward the floor. If you hold on to that rail, you’ll get a bonus stretch in the low back. 2) Pigeon pose (see photos below) offers a great stretch and can be adjusted to meet your body’s needs. If you are in down dog, which looks like an upside-down V on your mat/floor, simply bring one knee forward, landing between your hands, and lower the rest of your body down.
Checkpoints: If your front knee bothers you, try adjusting the angle of the knee. If your hips are off the mat/floor, you can either rock off to the side so you land on your hip or prop yourself up with a pillow or a yoga block. Check the back foot to ensure you are on the top of the foot and the ankle isn’t sickling. If everything feels good, you can start to fold forward over your front knee. The more you can square your hips (think about LED lights on your pelvis–shine them straight ahead!), the more you will feel this stretch.
Two poses that are great for hitting the piriformis are cow-face pose and double-pigeon/firelog pose. (I’ll spare you the sanskrit names this time!) They are especially awesome if you suffer from sciatica. 3) From pigeon, lift your chest if you folded, rock onto the front hip, and swing your back leg around. If your hips/glutes are tight, go for double-pigeon/firelog. Stack one ankle above the opposite knee, and the knee above the opposite ankle:
You can either stay here, supporting your knee OR you can begin to fold forward. Remember to breathe deeply, relaxing into the stretch with every exhale. You can fold as deeply as your body will let you, the weight of your torso adding to the stretch.
4) Cow-face pose takes this stretch a little further. From pigeon, rock onto your front hip, swing the back leg around and stack your knees. Move your feet to the side so you aren’t sitting on your heels. Hands can remain on your feet if this is enough of a stretch for you.
If you are ready to go deeper, start to fold forward. This will really hit the glutes/outer hips/piriformis! Again, going as deeply as your body allows, breathing fully.
If you can stay in these stretches for at least 30 seconds each–remembering to do BOTH sides–and do them regularly, you will definitely notice a difference in your flexibility. AND you’ll be able to knock them out in under ten minutes! If you want to hold them longer and you have a smart phone, set your timer, check your email, update your Facebook status, or check your new favorite blog *ahem* and then switch sides. Happy stretching!