Last time on Diary of a Redliner, we talked about cross-training– specifically strength-training– with the help of a shirtless dude. Today marks the second segment in this once-in-a-while series, in which we talk about how to make sure your appendages move in the directions they’re supposed to. Hooray for flexibility training!
What is flexibility? A lot of times we talk about it simply as “stretching.” When you’re not flexible, you might call yourself, “tight.” Over in fitness-professional-land, we talk about flexibility in terms of “joint range of motion” and “muscle elasticity.” The terms sound about like what they mean– joint range of motion has to do with how well your joints move in the directions they’re supposed to, and muscle elasticity means how much a muscle can stretch through it’s full range of motion. The two can be related (ie, an inelastic muscle can prevent a joint from moving properly), but they can occur independently as well (for instance, a joint may also be impeded because one of the muscles around it doesn’t work hard enough to move the joint properly.)
You’re going to run into a couple different flexibility issues as you skate more. First, you’ll notice that you may not have the joint range of motion to perform certain moves, like mohawks (skating sideways, with your feet turned out) or even the basic skater stance, because certain muscles are always shortened/inelastic (read: tight), thereby pulling your body out of proper alignment and messing with your skating mojo. In this situation, you’ll want to work on stretching the problem muscles for thirty seconds at least three times a week (and after practice) to help them fully lengthen.
Second, you’ll notice that certain muscles get tighter because of skating, and need to be stretched regularly to correct the imbalance. For instance, your right butt and hip muscles will get tight from pushing to the side with the right foot, and will need to be stretched to keep your pelvis from getting misaligned and, therefore, keep lower back and knees happy.
Below I’ve illustrated a few stretches that are necessary for every skaters’ cross-training repertoire. I’ve highlighted the areas where you should feel the stretch in red.
The Stretches Every Derby Girl Should Do:
Hip flexor stretch – Get into a half-kneeling position. Squeeze the butt of the back leg to push that hip forward– you should feel it along the front of the hip. Deepen the stretch by reaching up with the arm on that same side.
Quadriceps stretch – Pull one heel up behind you. Keep your knee from floating away to the side of your body and squeeze your butt to keep your hips extended. You should feel this in the front of your thigh.
Piriformis stretch – Lie on the ground. Cross one ankle over the opposite knee. Pull the bottom leg to your chest. You should feel this in the butt of the top leg.
Hamstring stretch – You probably know a bunch of ways to stretch the back of your leg. The best way to really isolate it is to actually bring your knee of the leg you’re trying to stretch towards your chest with the leg bent; then attempt to straighten the leg out. Unfolding the leg this way (rather than pulling the leg up from the ground while it’s straight) will help keep you from using your lower back to cheat the stretch– even if you don’t get the leg entirely straight, it’ll get a deeper stretch for the muscle. If you can’t reach your leg with your hands, then you can use a strap or rope to help pull on your leg.
Chest stretch – Go up to a corner and place your arm on the wall, so both your elbow and shoulder are bent at a 90 degree angle. Walk forward and turn away from the extended arm. You should feel the stretch in the chest, particularly near the shoulder.
Trapezius stretch – With your face forward, gently pull your head to the side. Imagine you’re holding a heavy suitcase with the opposite arm. You’ll feel this in the side of your neck.
You may have heard at this point that holding stretches before a workout is useless or even harmful. Let me clarify: That’s sort of true. Holding a muscle in a stretched position, called “static stretching,” causes the muscle to relax and reduces the amount of work it can do for about an hour after the stretch. Thus, it’s probably not the best idea to stretch your quadriceps along the front of your thigh and then try to go do a bunch of squats, which use the quadriceps to drive the movement.
That said, sometimes a muscle is way too short and working too hard, which throws off the exercise—in a squat, that might be the hip flexors or the calf muscles. Stretching the muscles that are overactive and starting off too short can actually help maintain better alignment for the movement because you want those muscles to be less powerful than they usually are.
Conversely, sometimes muscles are tight but shouldn’t be stretched—for instance, the muscles of the lower back will often activate to stabilize the hips and spine if the glutes and interior abdominal muscles aren’t working well enough. In this case, you’ll find that no matter how much you stretch the muscle in question, it always stays tight and you can’t move the full range of motion that you should be able to. This situation usually indicates that some other muscles need to be stronger; until they start working as hard as they need to, the other muscles will continue to overwork and stay tight. Think that’s happening for you? Go back to my strength-training article and do the exercises I listed.
You Want Me to Do What With That Tennis Ball?
A lesser known form of flexibility training is self-myofascial release (SMR). When stretching, you release muscle tension by pulling on it until the muscle relaxes and lengthens. With SMR, you apply pressure to the muscle until knots in the fascia (the saran-wrap-y tissue surrounding the muscle) release. Most often this type of work is done with giant foam rolls, but it can also be done with tennis balls, golf balls, god-awful knobbly things, etc. Denser or deeper muscles often need smaller, harder objects (That’s what she said!), while more superficial muscles will need a softer implement. In other words, you may find to really work on your butt, you may need to sit on a tennis ball, but for your calves, one of the foam rollers at your gym (or floating around the fort) will be fine. You apply pressure to the painful knots in your muscles for thirty to ninety seconds, when the tension usually releases. SMR is great for areas that are difficult to stretch or lengthen, like the IT Band along the side of the leg. SMR can be performed daily, and is actually great to do before you workout because it helps calm down overactive muscles.
Although I think SMR is fantastic for most people, I really recommend it if you’re someone who’s experiencing tight muscles when skating, but actually have full range of motion when at rest. What’s that mean? You may find that you can’t rotate your hip much when you’re skating, or you lean over a lot more than you should, but the second your skates are off and you go to stretch, you have to seriously contort yourself, do splits, or perform other yogic feats to feel any sort of stretch in the muscle. In that case, your muscle may be long enough, but overactive— SMR will be more helpful in getting the muscle to calm the [expletive deleted] down.
Once you find a foam roller (available at most sporting goods’ stores, as well as the weird little massaging chair store below the gym where I work and, of course, the interwebs), here are some ways to make it useful.
Calf rolling – Sit on the ground. Put your calves on the foam roller. You can add pressure by crossing one leg over the other or lifting the rest of your body off the ground (or, if you enjoy pain, both).
IT Band – The IT band is a web of fascia that runs from your hip to your knee along the side of your leg. You lie sideways on the foam roller, the bottom leg straight. Then loop the top leg over it, so the foot is on the ground. Lift the bottom foot of the ground. If you want to add pressure, stack your legs. You’ll usually feel knots around the hip area, mid-thigh, and near the knee.
Piriformis – The piriformis is a finicky little muscle deep inside your butt. The sciatic nerve runs through it, so when the piriformis is overactive, you can feel pain all down your leg and into your back. To roll it, you sit on the foam roller, one ankle crossed over the other knee. Put the opposite hand on the top knee. Tip towards the hip of the top leg.
Quadriceps – Lie face down. Roll on the front of your thighs, with your feet off the ground. You can cross one leg over the other to apply more pressure. Usually you’ll feel knots in the middle of the thigh and by the knee.
Hip Flexor– Lie in a similar position as with the quads, but lift one knee up to the side. The other leg will remain straight. Roll along the top of the thigh, right below the hip bone (the ASIS joint, for you anatomy nerds). Swipe the straight leg around like a windshield wiper to find other sore spots.
Adductors (inner thigh) – Still lying face-down, straddle the foam roller, with the roller at a slight angle so it’s perpendicular(ish) to the leg you’re rolling. Yes, rolling your inner thigh looks inappropriate. How else do you expect to make friends at the gym? You’re welcome.
Remember, even if stretching and foam rolling seems like a waste of time, it’s not– it’s just as important as strength training in a derby player’s regimen. Flexibility training helps prevent injury (always good) and helps you use your muscles more effectively, so you become a better derby player. And we all want to be better derby players, right? (Unless you’re just reading this blog to look at my pretty stick figures. I totally understand.)
Next time on Kat’s Really Long Monologues About Cross-Training: Get Your Ass Off the Elliptical and Do Some Useful Cardio.