Flexibility Can Make You Faster
March 28th, 2011

IT WAS NOT A PULL, but more a strain of my hamstring muscle. I had injured the left hamstring while training last summer for the World Veterans Championships in Gateshead, England. Going over hurdles did me in. I strained the muscle further while running a sub-par 1,500 meter run at Gateshead. Warming up for the 2,000 meter steeplechase two days later, I could barely move, so pulled out of the race.

A month later, even though I could still run, the hamstring was not getting any better. That was a problem, since I had a commitment to run a 12-mile leg in the Klondike Road Relay in Alaska within a week. Running a sub-par race bothered me less than letting down my teammates.

That’s when I decided to see Debbie Pitchford.

Pitchford is a physical therapist for Novacare and works at Medical Group Outpatient Rehabilitation in Michigan City, Indiana. She had run cross-country and track (300 meter hurdles) in high school in Brownsburg, Indiana, but her main sport was gymnastics. Pitchford placed tenth at State in the uneven bars her senior year, despite competing with a broken ankle. "Landing was an adventure," recalls Pitchford with a rue smile.

She did not participate in sports while obtaining degrees at Purdue University (B.A.) and the University of Evansville (B.S.) that led to her current career as a physical therapist, but jogged for enjoyment, an activity she continues today. Pitchford usually runs 3-5 miles, 3-4 times a week near her home in New Buffalo, Michigan.

As a physical therapist, Pitchford understands how to stretch correctly, something she claims not all runners know how to do. She offers the following advice for runners who want to increase their speed and prevent injuries by developing flexibility.


Warm Up and Cool Down: Stretching is important during your warm-up, before you run, because it increases blood flow to the muscles. But stretching during your cool-down may be even more important. "After running, stretching helps to remove lactic acid from the muscle, which in turn reduces muscle soreness," says Pitchford. "That promotes better flexibility." Stretching afterwards also will help you relax.

Don’t Overstretch: While stretching can promote flexibility, stretching too far actually can damage the muscles—particularly if you’re recovering form an injury. "A healthy muscle can elongate up to 1.6 times its length," suggests Pitchford, "but generally doesn’t respond well to that much stretching." By overstretching, you create an automatic myotatic reflex that actually will cause the muscle to recoil to protect itself from tearing and injury. Also, don’t bounce while stretching. Holding your stretch in a static position works best.

Combine Stretching and Strengthening: A good time to do your stretching exercises is while resting between lifts during your strength training. (See: Strength.) Strength training will not decrease your flexibility, says Pitchford, as long as you do it properly and perform your lifts through their full range of motion.

Use MICE Rather Than RICE: Health professionals frequently promote RICE as one way of treating an injury: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. But Pitchford promotes MICE. "Move it," she says. This is because immobilizing a muscle can lead to decreased blood flow and muscle atrophy. If you stretch properly while recovering from an injury, you can speed that recovery.

Resist Aging: Pitchford believes it a myth that aging is the only factor that causes us to lose flexibility. "It’s lack of exercise," she says. "Studies show that a sedentary lifestyle is a bigger factor in decreasing flexibility than aging." If you stay active aerobically and use stretching to maintain your flexibility, you will look and feel younger because of the way you move.

Finally, the key to the exercises presented below is to maintain good form. Don’t look sloppy stretching. The 90-degree angles featuring straight backs and carefully positioned limbs that work in the strength exercises promoted by personal trainer Cathy Vasto also work well in many of the stretching exercises promoted by Debbie Pitchford.

Pitchford’s five fantastic stretching exercises follow. (Hold each stretch for 10 seconds, repeating 10 times.)

Available at http://www.halhigdon.com/15Ktraining/Stretch.htm