While it is recommended that all individuals stretch at lease 3-4x per week, it is ideal to perform some type of stretching exercise six to seven days per week. It is especially important for young athletes to stretch regularly. This is where parents can step in to support their child’s healthy lifestyle habits by encouraging their children to stretch after a light warmup on their off days of team practice. Young athletes’ muscular flexibility is often negatively impacted by their growth in height, in other words they lose flexibility during growth spurts. Regular stretching can help growing athletes maintain the optimal muscle extensibility for ideal athletic performance.
Flexibility in the muscles of the lower leg, specifically the gastrocnemius and soleus, is critical to success in track and field. Appropriate amounts flexibility of the gastrocnemius and soleus has two main benefits. First, it is essential to injury prevention. Inadequate muscular flexibility is commonly a contributing factor in strained, torn and even ruptured gastrocnemius and soleus muscles and tendons. Second, these muscles play an important role in foot and lower leg alignment which ultimately contributes to athletic performance and speed.
The running cycle can be thought of as a cycle including a stance phase and a flight phase. The stance phase occurs when one foot is in contact with the ground and the flight phase occurs when neither foot is contacting the ground. Having adequate flexibility in the muscles of the lower leg and calf allows athletes to position their foot ideally to contact the ground and push off during the stance phase of the sprint cycle. Appropriate stability in the foot and ankle during the stance phase of the sprint cycle positions runners optimally for forceful muscle contractions which will optimize the flight phase of the spring cycle and finally maximize speed.
A common stretch for the gastrocnemius and soleus is the “Runners Stretch” (pictured below). The leg in the back is being stretched. When the back knee is straight the stretch targets the gastrocnemius and is felt in the upper part of the calf. When the back of the knee is bent the stretch targets the soleus and is felt in the lower part of the calf towards the ankle.
While completing this stretch it is important for the runner to keep their toes pointed forward. A common error when completing this stretch is to rotate the foot and leg outward so that the toes point out to the side rather than forward. With this compensation, the gastrocnemius and soleus are not stretched and instead the joints of the knee and mid-foot are stressed. This compensated pattern can contribute to instability in these joints and future injury.