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.
It always amazes me that as soon as the snow starts to melt, runners hit the road. Despite the fact it is 32 degrees with a brisk head wind, I see runners in shirts, no jacket and shorts, dodging remnant snow piles, pot holes and all forms of traffic to get their runs in. You runners are a very motivated bunch and apparently impervious to cold.
If you are one of these diehards, you are probably no stranger to tendonitis, plantar fascitis, shin splints and sore calf muscles. A basic yoga program can help prevent injury, and should that fail, promote recovery from a variety of running related maladies so read on….
In this series, The Fast & the Flexible, I am going to address the specific needs of runners, one section of the body at a time. I will suggest a few poses which will help any runner improve their performance, prevent injury and promote recovery, and hopefully take their running to the next level. First up, feet, ankles and calves.
The feet are probably the most under-rated appendage we have. Here are some fun facts: the feet contain 25% percent of all the bones in our body; each foot has 26 bones, 33 muscles, 31 joints and over 100 ligaments; and, finally, the feet have over 250,000 sweat glands (Gads! that explains a lot). These are very complex pieces of machinery, and need a little attention to keep them running smoothly (pun intended).
In my previous post, What Every Soccer Coach Should Know about Yoga, http://nextlevelyoga.net/2014/03/20/what-every-soccer-coach-should-know-about-yoga/ I detail Hero’s Pose with toes tucked and un-tucked. This is a runner’s first line of defense against shin splints and plantar fascitis. Any serious runner should practice this pose several times a week, it is easy to do while watching TV, reading or if you are like my husband, while playing Call of Duty.
Virtually anyone who runs knows the pain of a shin splint, it is an inflammation of the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue around your tibia. Shin splints can put you out of training for weeks until they heal, and if you simply go back to your program without adding some flexibility conditioning, the likelihood of re-injury is very high.
Plantar Fascitis is inflammation of the tissue in the sole of the foot that causes pain when you put weight or pressure on the foot. Both fascitis and shin splints are generally caused by repetitive motion activities. The Hero’s pose series will help gain flexibility and increased blood flow to the ankles and feet which can help you avoid these issues.
The Achilles tendon is the largest tendon in the body. It connects your calf muscles to your heel bone and is used when you walk, run, and jump. Although the Achilles tendon can withstand great stresses from running, it is also prone to tendonitis, a condition associated with overuse and degeneration. Upright Frog, (which also goes by the name garland pose, or the less dignified, “squat”) is a great pose to condition the Achilles tendon, while stretching the calf and opening the feet, it is the trifecta for the lower leg.
Stand at the top of your mat with your toes angled out so that the balls of your feet on the floor while your heels remain on the mat. With me so far? Bend your knees slightly and bring the palms of your hands together. Place your elbows on the insides of the knees and flatten out your back. This may be where you stop, but for those intrepid “soles” (ahh puns, the comic currency of the immature, I love them) ready to venture on, you will start to allow your hips to sink down.
The key here is to keep your heels firmly on the mat, if they start to lift, back out a bit, take a few breaths and test it again. It may take several tries before you obtain the flexibility in your ankles to get all the way down. Under no circumstances should you force your way into this pose, you will hurt yourself and frankly that is simply counter-productive.
And here you are, in the elegant and ever so dignified Upright Frog pose. Try to stay here for 30-45 seconds, taking deep breaths to ease the discomfort.
CROSS LEG FORWARD FOLD
The “calf muscle” is made up of three separate muscles which unite to form the Achilles tendon. The calf seems to be the one area most runners know to stretch, unfortunately they do it half-heartedly. We have all seen that guy pressing against a wall or tree with one foot back, he stands there for about 10 seconds and BAM he’s off. Good luck fella, I won’t be surprised when I run pass you later as you are standing next to the trail grabbing your lower leg.
Calves need a good long, gentle stretch. Never leverage your heel down while standing on a step, the force on your Achilles is too much and you will probably strain something. Instead, give Cross Leg Forward Fold a try.
Stand with your feet hip distance apart, then cross over one foot, lining up the knees. Hinge forward at the hips and bring your hands to your front knee and flatten your back. Stay here for a few breaths and then, on your exhales, start working your hands down the shin and maybe to the floor or to a block.
When you get to your furthest extension, pause and check in with your hips. We tend to let the hips fall back in the pose, so make sure your keeping the hips up over the ankles to avoid putting too much pressure on the back of the knee. Hang out here and breathe for 60-90 seconds.
If you can commit to 10 minutes a couple of times a week to do the Hero’s set, Upright Frog and Cross Leg Forward fold, I can almost guarantee you will decrease or completely eliminate lower leg injuries from your running experience. Now what I can’t do is teach you to wear a coat when you decide you must run in 30 degree weather, that one is on you.
Hey coaches, I’m talking to you. As a yoga instructor who works with sports teams I’ve heard every excuse; we don’t have time, it’s not in the budget, or my favorite “this is not a girls’ soccer team you know.”
So I get it, well not the third one he is simply a fellow I will never understand. But here’s the thing, you know your players need yoga to balance out all the strength, agility and endurance training you are putting them through in pre-season conditioning. And frankly, if you are being completely honest, you could use some mat time yourself.
So this is what I’m going to do. I am going to give you three poses you can teach players all by yourself. I promise they will be easy, no snapped tendons or sprained ligaments, just three simple poses that will benefit your players and not intrude into your already overloaded practice schedule. Pretty nice of me, right? Well, I’m a giver.
Hero’s Pose set. If you are averse to using yoga names, please feel free to call it ankle extension and flexion series, I don’t care (but you should really work on these hang ups of your’s, I feel they are holding you back). While you are going over scheduling, or just chatting about soccer topics after practice, have your players take off their shoes, kneel down and sit on their heels with their toes untucked.
You may find they really struggle with this, so suggest they fold up a towel, sweatshirt or jacket on top their shoes and place the shoe lump under their tailbones to take some of the weight off their ankles. Be sure their toes are tracking backwards and not to either side. And just make them sit there. Three to five minutes would be ideal, but they will probably start chirping at you after about 30 seconds, so make good choices and build them up slowly.
After the toes untucked version, have them tuck their toes and sit on their heels, this is a far more intense pose as it opens up the soles of very tight and probably tired feet. Two to three minutes would be great, but you are probably only going to get to the 30 second mark before you have a full scale mutiny on your hands. Don’t force them to stay in this pose if they have an active case of plantar fascitis, as you really can do some damage, so again, make good choices.
Hero’s pose is great to loosen up tight ankles and feet. It can help avoid shin splints and plantar fascitis (inflammation in the sole of the foot).
Reclined Figure 4. After Hero’s pose, your players may or may not be speaking with you anymore, but after this next pose you will be (dare I say ) their hero.
Have them lie on their backs with bent knees, feet on the ground. Place one ankle on the top of the other knee, similar to how you sit in a chair with loosely crossed legs. Raise the foot on the floor, maintaining a right angle in the leg. Reach through the triangle that is created by the legs and grasp the back of the thigh and draw the leg towards the chest. Have them hold this pose for 60-90 seconds on each side.
Reclined Figure 4 is a fantastic pose to release the low back, hip, glutes and, to a lesser degree, the hip flexors and hamstrings.
Legs Up Wall. Now this one may be a little tricky if you are outside and it may take a little prior planning, but it may get you nominated for coach of the year.
Have your players lie down near something they can put their legs up on. Ideally a wall, hence the name. If that is not available other things that work which may be available include, vehicles, goal posts, buildings, concession stands, bleachers, get creative. Tell them to wriggle in and try to get your backside as close to the wall as possible. The closer the butt is to the wall the angle will be more acute and the hamstring stretch will be more intense. Don’t go crazy, find the edge of your resistance and stay there, this should feel good.
If you absolutely have no support structures, you can use some sort of strap. Sure a yoga strap would be awesome, and if you had hired me I would have brought them, but lets not quibble about that now. Other things that work include, neckties, jump ropes, tube socks tied together, you get the jist. If using a strap have your players lie on their backs, extend their legs up in the air, soles of the feet to the sky. Wrap the strap around the soles of the feet and pull down to help stabilize the pose. Let them stay here 3-5 minutes.
Legs up a wall is great to deal with that feeling of heaviness that comes from lymph drainage in the lower body after long periods of running. Your players will roll out with fresh legs, ready to go.
Hopefully this will help you and your team take your performance to the next level. If not, give me a call and we will see what we can do. Good Talk.
Yoga for athletes is not simply athletic yoga. It is a conditioning program which uses the principles of yoga to improve sports performance, prevent injury and promote recovery. Programs are tailored to meet the athlete’s needs based upon the demands of their specific sport.
More than just stretching, emphasis on breath awareness improves focus and mental endurance. Increased flexibility and balance improve overall body strength, efficiency and power. In short, yoga will make a good athlete, better.
Tara Kestner is a registered yoga instructor who specializes in working with athletes of all levels. She designs programs based on specific sport requirements and challenges. Utilizing the principle that strength plus flexibility equals power, her classes give athletes the tools they need to enhance their performance.
Her overall goal is not to turn athletes into yogis, but to make yoga accessible and useful to help them meet their goals. Knowing the best ability any athlete can have is availability, Tara’s programs help prevent injuries and promote recovery.
> Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT 200) with Yoga Alliance
> 200 hour teacher certification- Aura Wellness Center
> Power Yoga for Sports with Gwen Lawrence- teacher training course
> Yoga for Athletes with Sage Rountree- teacher training course
> Yogafit- certified teacher
> Group Exercise certified teacher- YMCA
> CPR and First Aid certified- American Safety & Health Institute