The thing that stretching when you are warm (post raised heart rate/ aerobic exercise / in the sauna/ in the jacuzzi/ in a warm, salty bath) does for your body is allow it go back to neutral. Your neutral.
And that is why it can help save you from injury.
As a dancer, I spent many an evening, a morning, a lunchtime, most of the time in fact, stretching my body out. Rolling it, gravity led, along the floor into more extreme rotations, lop-sided angles then returning again to where I began but going d e e p e r into the same pattern. But what difference does it actually make? We see many runners, athletes etc in odd forms pre and post class or run, but is there such a thing as ‘stretching wrong’? And is there actually a huge general ‘wrong’ to measure your activity against?
So why do YOU do it? Is it to increase the mobility after a tough session of cross training? ✅ Relieve the tension after sitting on the train, after sitting at your desk all day? ✅ To try and encourage sleep? ✅ Or because you once read you ought to but you are still not sure of exactly what you are doing?
For me personally, stretching gets used to re-align my body. I can feel when tight muscles are forcing my mechanics and skelton to make the wrong shapes. I know this is happening because movement becomes difficult, fatigue sets in faster during activity and sometimes my bodies functions lose their rhythm too. Oh yes! Muscles can have an affect on your organs.
The most important thing to remember is that when you stretch one part of the body there will be a reaction in another part.
This is a broad subject so for the purpose of this blog, I’ll focus on what I consider to be the benefit of stretching the legs and hips across the body to bring about a realignment in the foot.
My preferred way to release the hips, hamstrings and butt is to take all or part of the leg across the Centre line of the body. This can be done in front of the body eg. by lying on your back and lifting the leg to between thigh and the shoulder or behind the body. This is where your body gets involved in telling you what is the ‘right stretching’ for you so do make sure you’re listening to it’s feedback as you move through.
I take my stretches to the warm bath or the sauna where I start by lying down on my back, extending out one leg and spend a good 20 minutes with the other leg and my breathing. By extending the working leg and taking it across the Centre line, I start to release the outer edge of the hip area. It does a lot to brace and support the repetitive forward motion of the run. (You see your thighs people? Strong eh? Well something in your body has to support that muscle strength otherwise it is useless and damaging.) So, the hip area is continually pulling against the power to balance it out. Tiring!
Now I take the opposite hand across my body to the outer edge of the foot on the opposite foot (which is currently up in the air above my chest). I gently start to draw that - note that I did not use the word ‘pull’ here - the leg across the centre line of the body. Breathing deeply and steadily throughout, I begin to drop the hip of the raised leg/ back of the pelvis back down into the surface I am lying on. And here I hang out, breathing and resting but continuously encouraging the stretch upwards and across in the leg and the pull downwards in the hip. I can be here for 2-3 minutes, just spending time feeling what else is being affected by this tight spot. A stretch is like butter in a hot pan. Like a runner hitting and then going through the wall. Allow yourself to sink into the discomfort and move through it to the other side. Having the bravery to do this can have a bring a robustness to you that you didn’t think you had. You have to believe in yourself and your body to stretch well I think.
But back to the hips..... I then move on to working the limb in 2 directions with the raised leg bent and also by bringing the foot towards the face (there are pictures below).
Again, hanging out and seeing it through. When I extend both legs along the bench/ floor, my feet roll outwards and my butt feels less solid.
But it is not those body parts I’m interested in is it? I said the foot at the beginning of this didn’t I? Well, what happens in my big toe and the ball of the foot is that of a gradual unfurling. A release beneath the toes and a settling and softness returns to the ball of the foot. Great eh?! Hip tension can change your foot strike. This can then impact the ankle and knee and that’s something we don’t want! It is not until we reset the body that we realise how subtly it can readjust to accommodate tensions we thrust upon it.
It’s a transition for the body, a journey.
It is not a place of stationary pain and discomfort.
Learn to love your stretch and release work because your body will become stronger for it.