How to Balance Muscle Spring Stiffness and Muscle Flexibility – Can You Have Your Cake and Eat it Too?
By Rick Morris
There is a dichotomy in running that can cause not only a lot of confusion but may affect your running performance and chances of suffering from a running injury. I am referring to the relationship, or more appropriately, the adverse relationship between muscle stiffness and muscle flexibility. A higher level of muscle stiffness will usually result in more power in your running stride because of the stiffer “muscle springs” in your legs. You are able to store and return more of the energy you build up during the loading phase of your running stride. You become a more efficient runner. More muscle stiffness also provide additional support and protection to your joints. The joints of your hips, knees and ankles have less laxity and become more injury resistant.
On the other hand, a looser, more flexible muscle give you more range of natural and function motion. A more flexible muscle can also reduce your risk of muscle damage and muscle soreness, especially if you are putting your legs through a lot of eccentric contractions. An eccentric contraction is one in which your muscle both lengthens and contracts at the same time. Downhill running places a lot of eccentric stress on your quadriceps muscles.
Can you have your cake and eat it too? Is there a way to reach an acceptable balance between performance enhancing muscle stiffness and range of motion increasing flexibility? I think the answer to that question is a very definite yes and no! No, you probably can’t maximize your muscle spring stiffness and your flexibility at exactly the same time, but you can reach a workable compromise by concentrating on each attribute at the appropriate time. You can focus on muscle stiffness when you need to maximize your power and performance while concentrating on flexibility and range of motion during cool down periods or when your flexibility level is below par.
A good generic flexibility plan is to perform dynamic warm up drills that improve your functional range of motion while maintaining muscle stiffness before your run and doing static stretching to maintain range of motion after your run, but there is always some fine tuning you can do. Here are my recommendations for balancing both muscle spring stiffness and flexibility in various situations. Always keep in mind that you should never perform any type of flexibility drill or stretch when your muscles are cold. Always perform a warm up before stressing your muscles.
|Workout||Pre Workout Warm Up||Post Workout Cool Down|
|Training Runs||Brief cardio warm up followed by a small number of dynamic drills||Easy static stretching|
|Mile to Half Marathon Racing||Moderate cardio warm up followed by complete set of dynamic drills||Complete set of static stretching|
|Marathon to Ultra Marathon Racing||No warm up. Use moderate race pace as a warm up||Complete set of static stretching|
|Recovery Runs||Easy cardio warm up, some dynamic drills and brief static stretching||Easy static stretching|
|Injury Rehabilitation||Complete cardio warm up, easy dynamic drills and very easy static stretching||Easy static stretching|