Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Can you touch your toes?

At our orienteering school camp earlier this year I was absolutely shocked to see how many of these young teenagers were unable to touch their toes with legs straight. It's a fundamental!

There's good reason that flexibility is so often in the same sentence as fitness, strength and muscle endurance.

Flexibility has been front of mind for me for many years - from discovering flexibility limitations. First from early dabbling in yoga, then from pole fitness, then from more focused yoga (and pole) and now from circus school.

I never really got the strength-flexibility connection; it recently has started to click into place.

I'm fortunate in that I've generally always been reasonably flexible. Part natural - perhaps - and part because I've always incorporated stretching elements here and there - but never with much focus or attention.

I can touch my toes (the ground actually with a flat hand) and sitting on the ground with legs extended I can pretty much get my stomach on my thighs (thank you circus school). Even so, I can't do the splits (in any direction) and I'm not very good at sitting with legs in a v and striving to get my belly on the ground. Not the worst but really not good.

For me flexibility has always been about range of motion. More flexible = greater range of motion.

On Monday night at circus school we did a warm-up and then some conditioning drills. Leg lifts are a HUGE part of aerial performances, regardless of this discipline: silks, pole, aerial hoop, trapeze, rope... you name it. At some stage you'll be hanging above the ground by your hands and you've got to lift your legs above your head. C.O.R.E. strength. Big one. When I started at circus school in July last year I couldn't lift my legs much past half-way (90 degrees). I've progressively improved - as have my classmates. I thought I was pretty strong before. Not half!

So, Monday night our trainer takes us through a bunch of core drills with plank variations and other nasty-but-nice stuff. Then, we go to the pull up bars and he demands six leg lifts - all the way up. And you know what? We got it! Almost all of us completed the six reps with a great deal of proficiency. We haven't done this for a while so it was quite a kick. Just watching my classmates' successes was as good as experiencing my own. Watching them, I got a feel for that whole flexibility-strength connection.

For me, both elements have improved over the months. Because my touch-my-toes flexibility (pike) has improved, my leg lifts have improved. My strength has improved because I'm able to lift my legs over a greater range of motion. And, I've got this greater range of motion with straight legs - so I'm lifting a longer lever (harder) and it looks way better than bent knees. Ping-pong! The connection!

While flexibility can be measured (and improved) in every joint, I find that the good 'ol bend over and touch your toes is probably the most beneficial one to work on and a good measure of whether you're missing the party or not. Aside from being linked to the ability to cut your own toenails with ease, it's also beneficial for your running (stretch those hammies!) - and everything else too.

Cruising the web tonight I spotted an interesting paper linking hamstring flexibility and overuse injuries (running). Two groups of runners were used in the study: one group of runners who had sustained at least one overuse running injury and one group of runners who had been injury free throughout their running careers. There were no significant differences between the groups in average running pace, weekly distance run nor any of the other training variables analysed.
The sit and reach test, in which the IF [injury free] group performed better than the I [injured] group, was the only anthropometric variable that differed significantly between the groups. This result appears to support the speculation of several authors who have suggested that a lack of flexibility could lead to overuse injuries in runners. Lack of flexibility may increase the stiffness of a muscle, possibly placing more stress on the adjacent joints. Poor flexibility could also be indicative of a muscular imbalance, which would facilitate the earlier onset of fatigue, thereby leading to improper mechanics during the latter stages of a run.
Interestingly, there is no experimental evidence to demonstrate that stretching before or after running reduces the risk of overuse injuries. Similar results were found in the present study, with no differences reported in stretching habits between groups. 
These results suggest that maintaining flexibility of the hamstrings may be important in preventing overuse running injuries, while the use of stretching as a means of warm up or cool down is not effective in reducing overuse injury risk.
Yes, hammies are the big problem. Tight hammies mean that you'll never get those hands under your toes, much less to your toes. Hamstring flexibility can improve with time and attention. It really does.

After working out, give some thought to your hammies. There are a dozen (and more) hamstring stretches that can be done (like here and here). Sitting standing, legs together, legs apart. It all helps. You'll need to put in a bit more than a quick five-second fold over if you want to see improvements. Aim for >10-second hold with a few repeats and every time you breathe out, sink deeper into the stretch. Don't overdo it though - easy does it.

How about we make May 'Touch your Toes Month' with the aim to improve from wherever you are now?

Nice hamstring stretch video from Runner's World.

[The other big toe-touching barrier is a large belly; if your stomach prevents you from touching your toes, then you're missing the plot (unless you're pregnant). Self-inflicted disability, folks].


Unknown said...

A very controversial topic. Runners World a few years ago ran a good article where some top athletes said they never stretched and others swore by it. Some people like Yoga masters they say are probably over stretched for optimum running performance. But I loved one quote when they asked a muscle specialist. He equated muscle stretching to violin strings "cannot be too tight or loose, but be just the right tension" .

adventurelisa said...

hahahahaha - and I think that is so true. Good one ;)