Or maybe it won’t.  I mean, with a title like that, you’re probably not going to find me saying, “Nope, no need to worry, move along now…”  Wouldn’t that be nice!  But the truth is, we’re only as fit and healthy as our low back, and unless you’re already engaged in dedicated training to address these muscles, your back is probably weaker and less resilient than you even imagine.  How can it not be?  It’s actually not our fault.  Our daily lives dictate that we spend long periods in a chair and/or car.  Whenever you put your body in a position that’s not neutral for any length of time, inevitably the muscles change; they become overlengthened and weak in some places, and tight and shortened in others.  Thankfully, we now know how easy it is to offset this repetitive stress.  All you need — and here’s the hitching point for most of us — is the willingness to actually take the five minutes to follow through with a few choice stretches and exercises, each and every day (or most every day).  They’re not the kind of “glamour” exercises that make people feel like accomplished athletes; they are, in fact, on the boring/mundane side.  But they are the building blocks that can make all the difference — so that you CAN engage in those more intense, gratifying challenges.  And come on — five minutes?  Isn’t your low back worth it?

If you’re ready to take measures into your hands to protect your low back for the long haul, here are the elements that make up a good low back training program:

  • Core exercises:  A healthy low back depends on strong muscles on all sides of the trunk — front, sides, and back.  Which means you want to train your abdominal muscles, obliques, and low back muscles through a variety of exercises and drills.
  • Stretches for the low back, hips and glutes, chest, hamstrings and hip flexors:  Yes, that’s a long list!  But the fact is, where there’s tightness and lack of flexibility, you’re going to have added stress on the back.  In fact, the body tends to try to “make up” for lack of flexibility in these places by altering the low back and pelvis position in our movements.  In other words, we’re very good at inadvertantly cheating or side-stepping proper form.  We may think we’re getting away with it — or maybe we’re not even aware that we’re even doing it.  But our low back absorbs the wear and tear, either way.  On the other hand, if we take the time to stretch and release even a little bit of the tightness in these other muscles, we instantly take pressure off the low back, paving the way for proper, safe technique.
  • Stretches and exercises in all three planes:  Most of our daily movements are in the forward-backward orientation, also known as the sagittal plane.  Examples are walking, bending over, and sitting.  We need stretches in these areas for this reason, but we also need flexibility in the other two planes of movement — the frontal plane (side to side stretches/movements) and the transverse plane (twists).  By including stretches in these directions as well, we give our backs and the rest of our bodies the benefit of three-dimensional range of motion.  This not only reduces our risk of injury, it’s also more comfortable, and improves our sports performance on top of that!
  • Proper form and technique:  Already mentioned, but worth its own bullet point, because it’s even more crucial for low back training than other forms of sports and fitness conditioning.  Some activities allow for a little “wiggle room” when it comes time to seeing good results.  Ever watch a running race?  You’ll see what I mean:  no two runners run exactly alike, yet somehow they all were able to train their bodies to the point of readiness for a race.  Low back training is different; its power is in its precision, and thus its liability is in improper execution.  Know the difference, and implement it — your success depends on it.

Need more specific guidance on exercises and stretches that meet these criteria?  Consider following my online 5-minute yoga videos, or my downloadable audio stretch workouts, both of which are part of the premium section of www.TheFlexibilityCoach.com.

It’s one of the frustrating accompaniments that often strikes us when we try to do the right thing and increase our activity, such as walking or running.  Within a short time of doing so, we start to feel tightness or aches in the front of our lower leg.  Oddly enough, as much as this is often dismissed as a mere annoyance (albeit one that can sideline a person for a little while), shin splints — aka “medial tibialis stress syndrome” — is no innocent problem.  On the contrary, it can carry the risk of stress fracture if left untreated!  Early prevention is your best defense; here are some tips to minimize the wear and tear that can bring it on:

  • Increase your workout durations slowly:  I always feel like I have one hand on my hip and the other one in front of me, finger wagging a la your grandmother telling you to eat your vegetables, but it’s true!  It’s so hard to take things slowly when you have all that enthusiasm of launching a new fitness or sports program, but your body needs a gradual ramp-up in order to adjust to the added load.  This is especially true of your front lower legs; the muscles here are generally small and not particularly powerful, therefore more vulnerable to sudden increases in repeated use.
  • Stretch, stretch, and stretch again!  You want to particularly hone in on your hamstrings and calf muscles and here’s why:  First, these are muscles become tight just due to the walking or running, as they are among the primary muscles being used to propel you forward.  That’s reason enough to stretch and release the tightness, but with regard to shin splints risk, when you have tightness on one side of a joint or part of the body, it puts added stress on the opposing muscle, because now the opposing muscle has to work harder against the “resistance” imposed by the tight muscle on the other side.  In the case of the lower leg, the tibialis anterior and other muscles around the shin have  to work overtime to flex your foot against the resistance of the almighty and ever-tightening calf muscle and even hamstrings, often resulting in muscle tears that grow into full-blown muscle strain.  By stretching especially at the end of each workout (if you’re unclear of how long to stretch or which stretches to choose, long distance students of mine can follow my audio and video instructions for this purpose here), you do your body the double service of helping the muscles recover from the workout itself, and of releasing the pull on those delicate shin muscles.  And you’ll walk more comfortably out of bed the next morning — bonus!
  • Strengthen your legs and core:  It might surprise you that this is a crucial part of any shin splints prevention kit.  Why would I need to strengthen muscles outside of the ones in question?  The reason is that often, one of the added causes of over-fatigue and stress to the shins is overdependence on these muscles, due to weakness in the legs and core.  Our bodies are amazing machines, capable of finding a way to allow us to walk or run by shifting the burden around if the primary muscles aren’t quite up to the task.  Maybe this helped us escape the sabertooth tiger back in the day, but when we rely on this physiological “Plan B” day after day in our attempt at building a fitness program, we inadvertantly create a repetitive stress environment for muscles that were never meant to be the primary movers for that task, thereby increasing the likelihood of injury and chronic problems.  By training ALL muscles in the lower body and trunk, you create a much more unified distribution of movement, even for tasks as “simple” as walking or running, which means less stress on any one particular muscle or joint.  The exercises need not be particularly elaborate or intense, but what makes the difference is the consistent use of them, at least 2-3 times per week.  If you don’t have access to a good flexibility specialist for such instruction, I have built these exercises automatically into all of my sport and fitness stretch workouts for members of website, and I urge you to find the workout for your goals and level and add this critical tool to your weekly lineup.
  • Be watchful of signs of inflammation, and willing to respond immediately:  This means if you feel some aches or pain in your shin, you’re going to rest and ice the area, and take some time off until the injury subsides.  If it persists, seek the care of a doctor, as you don’t want to let this one build — the results can be disastrous, setting you back by months and derailing your fitness program entirely!

Scary, yes, sobering, for sure, but by taking certain steps to prevent trouble, you can avoid most or all of the occurrence of shin splints, and keep your walking or running program moving forward smoothly!

Evamarie Pilipuf is a stretching consultant based in southern California, and the owner/operator of www.TheFlexibilityCoach.com, a membership site where athletes stretch and do yoga online under Evamarie’s audio and video guidance.

It’s the dilemma faced by any of us who have bought a book, joined a website, taken a seminar, or ordered that lovely set of DVD’s starring Informercial FitMan:  OK, I now have this sparkly new workout material, now how do I actually put it to use?  That’s where most fitness programs fizzle and fade.

To make sure this doesn’t become you, here are five common mistakes people make that prevent them from hitting even the first mile-marker towards their fitness goals, even when the very book/DVD/online program they’ve purchased is the perfect fit for them:

  1. Letting the material “go stale”:  One thing I would suggest is that the minute you have whatever it is you’ve purchased, whether it’s a membership to online workouts or a book or a DVD, is that you dig in as quickly as possible.  Even if all you do is watch or listen — not even do the activity yet, you’re cracking open the material and beginning the process of bonding to it.  This immediately makes it easier to do it again, and then again, and again…
  2. Not being clear about your “real” goals:  You might be aware that you feel tight, or you’re stressed and lethargic and are hoping that maybe some yoga or stretching will help you with this.  But what are you hoping will be different as a result?  That you’ll be more fit?  That it will pave the way for you to become more active and lose weight?  That you’ll sleep better and feel happier?  That your sports performance will improve?  All of these things CAN be helped through proper stretching and yoga, but your approach to stretching and yoga will be slightly different, based on what your goals are.  Furthermore, you’ll feel more motivated to follow through, when you have a firm idea as to what you think this time and effort investment is truly going to deliver.  Yes, there’s much to be said about the enjoyment of the workout itself, but what else are you hoping to achieve?  Keep this in mind so that you’ll be more motivated to stick with it even on those days you don’t want to.  And when you DO start to see positive changes, keep reminding yourself of them to further affirm your commitment!
  3. Not giving it your fullest effort:  In my 20+ years of teaching yoga and fitness, I can very quickly pick out those students who are going to flourish, vs. those who will flounder (and often quit).  The difference?  Nothing to do with fitness or ability levels.  It comes down to, the ones who give it their earnest effort, make the commitment, and keep a positive and openminded attitude, are the ones who see changes, and are often delighted that they achieve even more than they set out to.  The ones who only give it a half-hearted effort, with an attitude from the get-go that they’re “no good” at this, are the ones who inevitably stop and start, and then get frustrated when they don’t see the kind of progress their peers are enjoying.  So….if you’re going to do this, give it your all and you truly can’t lose!
  4. Not respecting your comfort zone:  This probably should have been Number One for its importance.  Stretching and yoga are NOT activities in which you benefit from pushing yourself into painful, uncomfortable positions.  Thankfully I don’t see this very often in the classes I teach (I’m a stickler for creating an atmosphere in which people truly work at their own levels), but for those times I take a yoga class, inevitably there will be “that guy.”  You may yourself have seen “that guy.”  Or maybe you are “that guy” (I hope not, but if you are, now you know what not to do for the next time).  “That guy” is always a man who is clearly very tight, particularly in his hamstrings, low back, and hips, and yet forces himself into some of the levels of positions that are clearly beyond his body’s flexibility limits.  I try not to pay attention to others when I’m taking class, but this is one distraction that always grabs my attention (and makes me mentally review my first aid training).  I can only chalk it up to, he’s just not clear on how stretching works, and thinks it’s a “more is better” format, which of course is not the case.  In fact, in wincing his way through the class in this fashion, he’s unwittingly bypassing the very positions that will actually help him, and worse, he’s setting himself up for injury (and a bad impression of stretching and yoga which no doubt he’ll be quick to tell all his friends about…sigh).  So, please, please, don’t be “that guy”!  Remember your goal:  improved flexibilty and strength, from the range YOU’RE CURRENTLY AT!
  5. Not being consistent:  Yeah, I know you know, but it’s worth repeating.  Nothing happens after just one or two stretch sessions, just like you’re not going to build running or other sports ability based on one or two training sessions.  Nor will you make any progress if you’re just stretching “when you think of it” (my experience as a trainer is that most people think of stretching just slightly more often than “never”).  Find a time in the day or week that you can commit to, and make every effort to follow through.  Check your progress every few weeks and tweak as needed.

So there you have it!  You certainly can create a home-based stretch or yoga program that gets results for yourself.  And now you know what not to do to ensure your success!

Evamarie Pilipuf is a stretching consultant based in southern California, and the owner/operator of www.TheFlexibilityCoach.com, a membership site where athletes stretch and do yoga online via Evamarie’s audio and video guidance.

If I may get personal for a moment, one of the reasons I’m so passionate in my business of helping people stay active through regular stretching, is because I myself fight muscle tightness just like everyone else, especially when it comes to my running!  And quite frankly, I still sometimes feel cranky about this. After all, I’m the Flexibility Coach (darn it), and a contortionist at that! I shouldn’t have to deal with such mortal struggles as tight hammies, right?

Ha! Nice try, stretch girl! But the good news about my own personal flexibility hurdles, is that they keep me experimenting, to find and tweak those methods and stretches that prove the most effective, then pass them along to my members, clients, and readers of this blog. So at least my struggles are not for naught. At least, that’s what I tell myself on those days when I find myself confronting yet another reminder that I’m not just a Hungry Runner, I’m an Over 40 Runner — and my muscles did get the memo, bleh!

Anyway, my latest experiment has been to take up that ultimate alleged no-no of stretching BEFORE my run, and not just afterward. Now mind you, I’ve been advocating for this strategy for years, albeit acknowledging that stretching before vigorous exercise can be tricky, as it serves a different purpose than the stretches that come after the vigorous exercise. When you stretch afterward, you’re primary seeking to help your muscles recover and regain their full length (and possibly even improve upon it), whereas stretching before a workout is more about establishing the full range you already have, but without causing the muscles and their nerves to relax too much. Relaxation of nerve stimulation is not what you want before a workout; on the contrary, you want the opposite, to get those nerves and muscles all fired up and ready to go, especially since maximum recruitment and readiness will reduce the chance of over-depending on an incomplete range of muscles, which could put them under undo duress. But you also want your muscles to be ready to move through their full range, for the same reason: If you’re going into the workout without waking up that range, you’ll be more apt to move in an altered, compensated fashion, putting excess stress on certain muscles and joints, and affecting the quality of your performance.

With that need in mind, I’ve been determined to find that balance: get some stretches going beforehand, yet in a way that doesn’t leave my body and mind feeling more ready for zen meditation than an energetic 4-miler. In particular, my goal has centered around my hamstrings and calf muscles, since these are usually the muscles that are screaming the loudest for stretches by the end of my longer runs.

So here’s what seems to be working: Just as I’ve been advocating, dynamic stretches that aren’t held for very long are better than long-held static stretches. But here’s what I’ve added that I want to pass along: I start with a few light stretches and movements at the stairs, such as cat stretches, foot-on-stairs lunges, easy forward bends (using the railings to help keep the stretches light), and single-leg heel drops to stretch my calves. I then do some light jogs in a small area, maybe 50 feet or so back and forth, but more like a spring: boing, boing boing. A runner friend of mine would call this a “pogo” jog, i.e. like you’re jumping on a pogo stick. I also do some high-knee jogs in place, and then a few bounding jogs. The idea, obviously, is to exaggerate my run gait in every way so as to wake up all the circuits and get the full range of motion going. I THEN return to those initial stretches, holding for just a tiny bit longer and trying to relax my muscles just enough to feel them open up from before.

I still stretch at the end of my run, but I can’t tell you what a difference this has made! Something about that added jog warm-up and the repeated round of stretches really seems to relax and set my form; I run with much better quality in those initial 10-15 minutes than I normally do, and by the end of the run, my legs feel less tight and fatigued. The end-of-run stretches go better, too.

So if you’ve added stretches to your running program and are still struggling with muscle tightness, consider those opening stretches and warm-up. Yes, it takes more time and frankly annoys me as when I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go. But I’m finding it well worth the added time and effort.

Evamarie Pilipuf is a stretching consultant based in southern California, and the owner/operator of www.TheFlexibilityCoach.com, a membership site featuring her collection of online audio and video instruction.

I see this paradox all too often:  an athlete or fitness devotee puts themselves through their paces, whether it’s gasping through speed drills or gritting their teeth through “hard-core core” or squeezing out those agonizing final lunge repetitions…..only to saunter over to the mat or some random wall of the gym, and casually pop in and out of one or two stretches with an effort equivalent to the word “meh,” as if the stretch were just a quick punctuation to end an otherwise thoughtful, well-articulated exposition.  It wouldn’t surprise me if that same person, when asked about what they think of the effectiveness of stretching, gave the same answer:  “Meh.”  Well, DUH, think of what would happen if you only applied such half-hearted enthusiasm to the workout you just completed?  How effective do you think those same exercises would be in bringing you to your goals?  It brings to mind those folks who shuffle along on the cardio machine while supporting all their body weight on their arms, yet wonder why they’re not seeing an improvement in their stamina.  Do you really want to be the equivalent of that person with stretching?

The time has come for us all to treat stretching wtih the same serious focus and committed zeal we bestow to the rest of our training.  For example, let’s take this simple seated “towel” hamstring stretch.  A lackluster, flippant approach to it might be, you don’t have a towel or strap handy, so you decide you’ll just wing it.  Or, you get into the stretch, mind wandering elsewhere, and get out of it after a 7-second “obligatory” hold.  Or you hold the stretch a bit longer, but you’re not minding the details:  your knee is bent, your shoulders hunched over and rounded.  Or you find you’re tighter than usual today, are having a tough time relaxing the target muscles, but ignore this observation and get out of the stretch without attempting to address that fact.

All of these scenarios say one thing to me:  “Get this over with as fast as possible, it’s boring and uncomfortable and I don’t like it.”  Now think of an aspect of your workouts that typically gets your full, undivided attention, where your mind puts all of its concentration on whittling your form and technique, and you give each movement, down to the last detail, your absolute best effort.  You know the effort I mean, the kind that leaves you feeling satisfied with yourself afterwards.  No doubt some of those exercises are also sometimes tedious, less than comfortable (note the difference between that and “painful,” which you should always avoid), and most definitely not your favorite thing to do.  So why do you do it?  Because you like the results and you know this is what you need to do to get them.

Now think of what would happen if you transferred that same, razor-sharp follow-through with your stretching.  Even if you just pick one stretch, how about taking a couple of weeks to do an experiment in which you “stretch like you mean it”?  In the case of this same hamstring stretch example, make sure you have that essential towel or strap.  Take your time getting into the stretch.  Sit up tall, roll your shoulders back, and strive to lengthen you leg as fully as you can.  Breathe deeply.  After one round of the stretch (both sides performed), do it again, and see if you can’t lengthen the hold time and further relax and stretch the intended muscle.  Do it a third and possibly a fourth time.  What, you’re not keen on repeating stretches?  Since when have you done any of your other exercises or drills just once in a training session?  The body needs repetition in all areas if it’s to adapt and change.

Give this approach a try, and see if you don’t lose your “meh” approach to stretching, and more importantly, finally start to see the results you’re looking for!

Evamarie Pilipuf is a stretching consultant based in southern California, and the owner/operator of  www.TheFlexibilityCoach.com, membership-based site featuring her collection of online audio and video instructions.

I’m borrowing one of my favorite one-liners from the show Mythbusters to underscore a common mistake made when stretching:  going through your stretches only once after a workout.

You might wonder why this is a mistake.  Shouldn’t one time through be enough?  Not usually, it turns out.  Remember, the goal of stretching is to either help your body become more flexible, or at the very least, to retain the flexibility you already have.  This presents a challenge any time of the day, whether first thing in the morning or during a lunchtime breather or after a long day of work.  But it becomes a particular hurdle following a workout, as anyone who’s gone for a run or just finished a super-intense training session can attest to the tightness brought on by the continuous contraction of working muscles.  The trick is, in order to stretch effectively, you now have to help those muscles relax their grip and extend back to their full range — maybe even improve upon it.  This rarely happens from one quick pass-through of a stretch.  Think of it:  If the workout was successful, in that it provided the stimulous to increase the strength and/or endurance of muscles, then it stands to reason that those muscles aren’t going to release and surrender to a stretch immediately.  And short-cutting your stretching isn’t just a long-term risk; it can often be felt immediately.  For example, how do you feel when walking out of the gym?  Does your body feel refreshed and loose?  Or are you limping out with aches or soreness, or worse, starting your next training session still stiff from the previous one?

Bottom line:  If you’re an athlete or active fitness enthusiast, what you need is a step-down strategy that gradually helps your muscles safely re-extend and re-elongate.  Luckily, the process to accomplish this is simple:  After your workout, you simply go through each chosen stretch at least 4-5 times.  Let’s call them “rounds.”  Here’s how a good progression of Rounds 1-5 might look:

  • Round 1:  The Introduction.  Light stretch, not held for very long, about 5-10 seconds.  Consider this an opener of sorts, a chance for your muscles to get acquainted with the stretch.  If the stretch is unilateral (one side at a time), do both sides before going on to the next round.
  • Round 2:  Adding the Breath.  Slightly longer hold, about 10-15 seconds, adding deep breaths to help the muscle(s) start to relax.
  • Round 3:  Honing in on “That” Muscle.  Longer hold, about 20 seconds, paying close attention to form, and tweaking it to really hone in on “that” muscle.  You know what I mean — the muscle that’s feeling the stretch enough that your body is trying to alter its form to avoid that stretch.  It’s a good bet that the muscle that feels the stretch the most…is the muscle that NEEDS it the most!  That said, stay tuned to your body’s comfort zone; back off if there’s pain.
  • Round 4:  Further Elongation and Muscle Relaxation.  Here is where the pedal hits the medal:  Hopefully you’re able to elongate your muscle notably further than in Round 1, but whether or not this is true, now is the longest hold yet, about 20-30 seconds.  As you hold, scan your body up and down, checking your form, letting your breath move in and out deeply yet easily, and concentrating on relaxing your muscles AND your mind, since your brain and muscles are in extricably linked by way of your nervous system.
  • Round 5:  Bonus Round.  If Rounds 1-4 weren’t enough to do the trick, you can either give it one more round OR perform a different, but related, stretch.  Sometimes this is all the body needs to “finish” the flexibility and recovery process.

Yes, this added measure will extend the time invested in your workouts, but so too does your post-workout shower, your pre- and post-workout sports nutrition, and logging your workouts, and you wouldn’t think of skipping out on those, would you?  (I surely hope that especially holds true for the shower.)  Every component of training serves its own vital purpose; it’s been my experience that honoring the purpose of high-quality stretching is well worth the real estate it occupies in your busy schedule!

Note/reminder:  None of this should be attempted without consulting your doctor first, and you should stop if you feel any pain. 

As I shared on my Hungry Runner blog, I’m always humbled when at last spring’s milder weather permits me to start taking my running workouts outside, for no matter how faithful I have been in maintaining a base of running on the treadmill on even the gloomiest of winter days, those initial street/sidewalk runs are a mighty shock to my legs and lungs.  Even when I feel as though I’m “running like the wind,” upon checking my pace, I’m dismayed to learn that on the contrary, I’m not even up to what has become my typical warm-up speed on the treadmill!  I suppose the only consolation is that I now have a starting point off of which I almost can’t fail to make improvements in the weeks and months ahead.  But darn it if it feels like for the 3 steps forward I took last year, I took 2.9 steps back over the winter!

Even so, the other notable change is that of my post-run stretch routine, and the need to stay vigilant to staying on top of my muscles’ recovery through proper stretching.  Nothing new here, except that the treadmill normally allows for many creative stretches I can conveniently perform immediately after the belt stops and I’m still swimming in the euphoria of my runner’s-high endorphins.  Not so with outdoor running, and it’s amazing how easy it is to simply “forget” to stretch when there isn’t that immediately easy way of doing so.  I find I really have to discipline myself to hit those brakes en route to the shower, and take time to run through at least the most important stretches, and I find a great way to do this is by using the stairs.  There, I can go through several rounds of stretches for the muscles most in need of TLC when making the transition back to pavement, and those muscles include my hamstrings, calves, and glutes.  It’s also important to release the low back, which often takes a beating due partly to the repeat pounding on a less-forgiving surface than the more resilient treadmill.  Yet, a few minutes of dropped-heel calf releases, gentle twists, foot-on-stair hamstring stretches and some hip openers, and it’s like someone hit the “refresh” button in my body; I can sashay to the shower with ease and look forward to a soreness-free morning the next day.  Amazing what happens when I work WITH my body, rather than ignore its signals!

So, if you’re dealing with “Post Treadmill Shock Syndrome” as I am, make sure you’re not shortchanging your stretches, at a time when those muscles need it more than ever!

Additional information on stretches and flexibility training can be found at my website, www.TheFlexibilityCoach.com