Active Isolated Stretching – The 21-Day Challenge

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Photo Credit: Gorilla doing his stretches, from Flickr user The_Gut, used under a Creative Commons license.

In a season where I’m pushing up the mileage in pursuit of a new PR at the Towpath Marathon, all the old injury ghosts (hamstring tightness to the left, Achilles and calf issues to the right) are letting their presence be known. It has been a challenge to keep things rolling on a daily basis.  Active Release Technique (ART) treatments from a couple of local chiropractors helped initially, but it’s tough to afford keeping that up all season. One of the chiropractors taught me some improved foam rolling techniques, and that has helped, but it has its limits too. Compression sleeves help, but that’s more of a Band-Aid than a solution. And traditional static stretching has never done that much for me, no matter what time of day I employ it (after a run, before bed, at lunch, etc.).

There is little debate about the fact that i am not particularly flexible (physically, that is).  There may be some debate as to how important flexibility is to running performance and injury prevention.  I personally believe that there is some minimum degree of flexibility, or at least “mobility” (perhaps a more dynamic or motion-based application of flexibility), is helpful on both accounts – if you take a lack of flexibility to an extreme, you can barely place one foot in front of the other.  I have long employed mobility drills as part of a typical warm-up and cool-down routine, but it’s tough to know how much effect this has – clearly not enough to chase away all of my ghosts.

After listening to a podcast interview of Phil Wharton by Jay Johnson, I was turned on to the idea of Active Isolated Stretching (AIS).  A lot of the principals Phil espouses make fundamental sense:

  • Static stretching is too broad in the muscles or ligaments that each stretch targets, thus spreading and diminishing the effect.  Additionally, some stretches actually cause the targeted muscle to contract, thus eliminating any potential gains from stretching.
  • Muscles instinctively contract to protect themselves when stretched to a point where they are “threatened” – this again diminishes the effect of static stretching.

So after noodling on things for a few months, I decided to take the leap and buy Phil Wharton’s The Stretch Book and a suitable-looking stretch band.  In the introduction (which contains some questionable claims, such as the importance of drinking before you are thirsty), Phil challenges you to try the techniques for 21 days, so I decided I’d do just that.

To address the issues with static stretching, the AIS approach incorporates a few different ideas:

  • Improved isolation of the targeted muscle through appropriate body positioning that focuses the stretch.
  • Contraction of the opposing muscle to force relaxation of the targeted muscle.  For example, in stretching the calf muscles, you contract the tibialis anterior (shin muscle) to raise your toes.
  • Short repetitions of each stretch – no more than 2 seconds – to avoid the protective contraction effect.

The book is well-organized, with 55 different stretches grouped by body area (legs, foot and ankle, etc.) and dozens of different activities (work or play) with recommended stretches.  The stretches are adequately described and illustrated (though some reviewers have stated that they are difficult to understand).  And Phil provides a self-assessment approach to help you establish a baseline and measure your improvement.

Each stretch takes around 1 minute (10 reps of 2 seconds each on each side, though some stretches are performed in a few different manners – foot turned in, foot turned out, etc.).  It is pretty easy to mix and match from key areas like key hamstring and quad stretches and calf stretches to create a routine that can be done in 10-15 minutes.  It is appropriate, though, to “go deep” a few times a week and do the stretches that target the more obscure (and often smaller) muscles and ligaments, specifically in the foot/ankle and hips.  Another principal (which Phil may stress as well, I don’t recall) is the idea of making sure you work opposing muscles.  Even if you don’t have issues in, say, your quads, you should stretch these (and your hip flexors) when you stretch your hamstrings so as not to risk developing future imbalances.

To give you a sense of the isolation in practice (and how small some of the muscles you can address in this manner are), Phil demonstrates the foot and ankle exercises in this video (courtesy, also, of Jay Johnson).  Phil does the work automatically, obviously, since he is well-practiced at it.  I find it necessary to be a bit more mindful to make sure I don’t rely on my hand or stretch band and instead tense/contract the appropriate muscle as much as possible.  Thus, while you can zone out to the television or reading my blog posts on your iPad while doing static stretches, AIS requires a bit more focus, especially at first.  Over time, you can put away the book, at least.

So what are the results?  Well, I’m still running, still achieving (sans some issues with a stomach bug) weekly mileage goals, and hitting key workouts better than last year.  All this without further visits to the chiropractor.  The stiffness in the Achilles and hamstring are still there, but manageable.  I have to believe that AIS is playing some small part in keeping things together this year.  At the least, it’s an approach I’m definitely going to recommend to Team Predawn Runner clients as part of a comprehensive approach to strength and mobility.

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  • CCWagner

    Very helpful – thanks!

  • Darin Armstrong

    Hello Greg,
    Just a quick message to ask if you would be interested in a ‘mutual’ following on twitter. I am currently following you now and am awaiting for your follow-back. (#FYI I do RT’s ‘anytime’ for all #Triathletes #Cyclists #UltraRunners & #Marathoners who follow me on Twitter and have something important they want mentioned…)

    All the very best for the rest of 2012 and beyond Greg. Look forward to hearing from you…


  • Salty

    It’s funny how common it is for a runner to have problems with the lower part of one leg and the upper part of the other. I get left foot issues and right butt and hip issues. The real reason I’m commenting though is that I’m curious what you think about this: there always seems to be trends in things like stretching and strengthening and the right warm-ups and cool-downs. To what extent is this all gimmickry and to what extent is there actually a holy grail of injury prevention/performance enhancement in these extras?

  • Greg Strosaker

    I think a couple of things about this. First, physiology is physiology – the human body doesn’t change (though the type of body that is a runner has changed over the years – thus driving the interest in injury prevention). There must be some fundamental approaches that do work, though since people are different, this may vary by runner. Much of the routines getting attention today from Jay Johnson, Phil Wharton, etc. have been around for years – it’s just that they are getting marketed better. So I suspect some of them will have staying power in some circles, and others will fade away. When some of these routines are claimed to no longer work, what I would rather suspect is that they are no longer well or properly practiced.

  • AIS Therapist

    For the record, AIS is not the Whartons work. Active Isolated Stretching was developed by Aaron Mattes about 40 years ago. The Whartons took his work and began marketing it for profit. When Aaron threatened to sue them, they changed the name to Active Isolated Flexibility. Nothing original, nothing honorable. Straight up thievery.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for your clarification, and to avoid any impression of attribution of the idea to Phil, I’ve changed the few references to “his” routine to “the” routine. This is not meant to be a treatise on the history of AIS. My opinion is that Phil has done more to “commercialize” AIS (for better or worse) than Aaron Mattes has done, so therefore it’s a bit easier for runners to relate to his work (though I have seen other reviews state that Mattes does a better job of explaining the routines).

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  • Mark E

    Good stuff Greg

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