Moving up the leg, this second installment of the Fast & Flexible series focuses on the quads, hamstrings and IT band. These are the muscles of the legs that provide strength and stability. The power plants of the leg, if you will.
As you may have gleaned, I’m a bit of an anatomy nerd, in 6th grade I had to memorize all the bones of the body. I was so fascinated by the skeletal system I totally rocked the test, even getting all the extra credit bones right. If only the rest of my middle school career was as impressive.
I think it is important to have a base understanding of how the leg is put together so you can recognize its interworkings. Like how you should know your car’s basic components, not so you can fix it, but so you have a better chance of maintaining it and realizing when something is wrong before it completely breaks down.
With that in mind, the quad consists of four muscles stationed at the front of the thigh. Their partners in crime are the hamstrings which are three muscles at the back of the upper leg. When the leg is bent, the hamstring contracts, conversely when the leg is straight the quad contracts.
Runners have highly developed quads and hamstrings, and are usually tight as piano wire. They also often have over-developed quads which wear out the hamstrings, causing exhaustion related issues like strains. “Pulling a hammie” is every athlete’s worst nightmare and to be clear, hamstring injuries are far easier to prevent than they are to heal.
The IT band (which stands for iliotibial) is a thick tendon which connects the muscle at the outer side of the hip to the outer side of the shinbone, just below the knee. When the IT band is tight, it increases the tension on the sides of the hip and knee, causing a weird pain on the outside of the knee.
The following three poses help establish and maintain flexibility in these important components of the leg.
FIRST POSE- Fixed Firm Pose
Anyone who has dealt with a child who does not want to be picked up (generally around naptime) is familiar with the phenomena of children going boneless. One minute your child is standing like a normal little human, then next thing you know, they are a puddle on the floor. This pose reminds me of that.
Fixed firm allows you to multi-task, it has all the elements of Hero’s pose for ankle extension, but adds a nice quad stretch, as well as a controlled bind for the knees and ankles. I explain the theory of binding to my clients like this. Think of a water hose, when you crimp the hose you close down the flow of water. When you release the crimp, the water rushes back flushing anything clogging up the hose.
Now think of your knee and ankle joints. If we close down the blood flow to the area for a brief period of time, when you release the bind, fresh blood will flow into the joints and hopefully, flush any congestion in the area, leaving you with freshly restored joints. That being said, this is not a pose you would use on surgically repaired knees.
To get into fixed firm, kneel down, sitting on your heels, on a block or other support. If you can, separate your heels and let your backside settle in, on, or close to the floor. Make sure your toes are aimed directly backward.
Start to lean back, you will feel the stretch intensify. If you are pain-free, go ahead and come back on your hands, and then your elbows. I don’t recommend going beyond the elbows because you hit a point of diminishing returns and it is really embarrassing to get stuck and to have to call for help.
Hold for about 30 seconds and then slowly reverse course coming out of the pose. Then, come up on hands and knees and start to extend and bend the knees, roll out the ankles and feel the blood rush back into those areas.
SECOND POSE- Runner’s Lunge Set
I know “Runner’s Lunge” is a little on the nose as a recommendation for runners, but this series of poses stretch the quads, hamstrings and IT band, so it really is aptly named. I never said I would be breaking news here.
For the first pose come into a forward fold, plant both hands on the ground and step back with your left foot. Drop the back knee down and pad the knee with a folded up towel or shirt, trust me, you will thank me later.
Make sure the knee is above or slightly behind the ankle. You can stay up on your hands, drop your forearms down on a block, or if you can, bring forearms to the floor. Drop your chin towards the chest to get a stretch in the upper back, and close your eyes and breath. Hold for 30-45 seconds before moving to the second pose.
This second pose will get further into the IT band. From Runner’s lunge first pose, plant your left hand firmly on the ground and rotate the torso towards the inside of the bent knee. Rest your hand on top your knee and settle in.
If that feels OK, extend your right hand towards to sky. If you want to move further into this pose, drop your hand behind your back with the back side of the hand pressed into the middle of the low back and look towards your back foot. Don’t hold your breath, hold the pose for 30 seconds.
Now lets bring the quads into the equation. From the starting pose, plant the left hand firmly, rotate the torso into the knee and reach back to grasp the back foot and draw it towards the backside. If this seems impossible, try using a strap (necktie, belt, leash, etc.) wrap it around the back ankle and bring it as close as you can.
At this point, feel free to thank me for insisting you pad your knee. Hold until you feel yourself start to accept the pose without struggle, hopefully 30 seconds but possibly less. Release the foot, tuck the back toe and step up to forward fold and repeat the series on the other side.
THIRD POSE- Half Split set.
This pose is all about the hamstring. As you straighten the leg, the hamstring is forced to extend. Whenever I say “half split” in class, everybody panics, trust me, it’s not that bad. The second variation of this pose, prompts the IT band to extend.
From a lunge position start to straighten the front leg, pulling the hips into line, as if you have a rollercoaster lap bar pushing them back. Allow the toes to aim at the sky and settle in. If you feel OK, start to hinge forward at the hips, reaching for the floor to steady yourself. Hold for about 30 seconds.
Return to an upright position, then allow the toes to fall to the outside, this will rotate the inner part of your knee upward and you should feel it in the outside of hip. That is your IT band talking to you.
Again, if you feel good, start to hinge forward to intensify the stretch. Keep a micro-bend in that front leg if you feel like you are hyper-extending those tendons at the back of the knee. Hold for about 30 seconds.
With these three sets of poses, you will establish and maintain flexibility in the quads, hamstrings and IT band. Adding flexibility to the strength of this area will give you more power and help you take your running the next level.
Tara Kestner is a registered yoga teacher in Sylvania, Ohio and owner of Next Level Yoga, Ltd. She specializes in designing programs which help athlete’s improve their performance, prevent injuries, and promote recovery.