As the weather starts to warm-up there are a lot more races for runners happening on a weekly basis. This is great for distance runners and the community, as it promotes exercise and living a healthy lifestyle. I do credit runners for their training discipline and being active on a consistent basis, which sets them apart from other exercise-goers. However, an area I see that is commonly neglected is properly recovering from the high mileage demand of distance running. Sports involving high volume, repetitive motions can cause significant wear and tear on your soft-tissue, which increases the chance of injury. In this post I will discuss the process of muscle repair, and why the soft-tissue should be treated regularly.
How Do Muscles Repair?
When you strain a muscle, new muscle forms in its place, correct? Not exactly… During muscle repair following injury or repetitive stress, your body actually lays down different substances which are weaker and less elastic in nature, called scar tissue. Just think about that for a minute… After injury, your soft-tissue just isn’t the same. That is why it’s essential to not just rest completely following soft-tissue injury, but gradually stretch, strengthen and re-align the tissues manually. Once the scar tissue is laid down, it happens in almost a haphazard fashion. These new substances that fill in to repair the tissue need to be aligned in the same direction as the original muscle fiber, or the muscle will not function optimally and the incidence of future injury is high.
Do you have tight muscles? Have you ever considered that the tightness may be a protective mechanism by the brain to prevent further damage? Take a peek at the diagram to the right. Stress can start a vicious cycle, which if not treated properly can lead to injury. Even the low intensity, but repetitive running motion can cause microtrauma to the muscles. In some instances there might not even be a pain response, but often an increased level of soreness for the next few days that people usually disregard as having a great run or workout. This is all it takes on a weekly basis to increase your likelihood of muscular strain, tightness, compensation, and injury.
Maintaining the resiliency of your soft-tissue is key if you want to excel in running, prevent adhesion/scar tissue build-up, and thus prevent injury. And, the great thing about soft-tissue treatment is there are tons of methods out there. Foam rolling may be the cheapest, do-it-yourself form of self-myofascial release (SMR). A foam roller costs anywhere from $15-$30 and is a must have for all runners. Although there is still some research needed on what exactly foam rolling is doing, there is no doubt that it makes you feel better after and allows greater improvements in flexibility. Other SMR techniques include using tennis balls, lacrosse balls, a theracane, etc. Whichever one you choose is fine with me, as long as you are making an attempt of improving tissue quality. Here is a quick video on foam rolling the Iliotibial Band.
Another great method is massage. It is definitely sufficient to maintain tissue quality with a foam roller, but the direct, hands-on application of a massage therapist is far superior. To manually palpate, and find specific restrictions within the soft-tissue will provide a better outcome. And, you usually don’t have to do a thing. Unlike a foam roller, which usually takes a little bit of work, a message will have more improvements than just to the soft-tissue. By improving lymphatic drainage, increasing blood flow, decreasing pain, and causing a longer lasting state of relaxation, I highly recommend this method once in a while.
As a certified active release techniques provider, I am biased to ART as the most superior method. ART is a diagnosis/treatment technique which takes into consideration not only which way the muscles fibers are oriented, but the movement of the muscle itself. By placing a specific contact on the tissue and then moving it from a shortened to lengthened position, either actively or passively, it allows the therapist to feel and break up any scar tissue/adhesions within the tissue. In terms of tissue repair, this technique makes the most sense by re-aligning the haphazard fibers to regain proper length and function.
Regardless of which soft-tissue method you choose, consider adding something into your maintenance routine. Not only will it allow you to improve flexibility and feel good, but it will reduce your chance of injury. Remember, exercise without proper recovery is like preparing dinner and never putting it into the oven. Why put in all the work if you’re not allowing yourself to reap the benefits. Think of it like getting an oil change for your car, once in a while we need it to continue running at our best. To find a certified active release techniques provider in your area, check out the ART website.
Garrett McLaughlin is a licensed athletic trainer and personal trainer in Nashville, TN. He thoroughly enjoys helping people make improvements within their lives. Aside from one-on-one personal training, Garrett is a certified active release techniques provider. ART is a soft-tissue manual therapy technique to quickly and safely restore the natural function of muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, and fascia. Contact Garrett for more information.