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How To Keep Your Muscles Healthy

Posted by [email protected] on April 21, 2014 at 1:10 AM

I've been the “team therapist” for Round Rock Fit since 2008. With their help, I ran the San Antonio Marathon the first year, and hope to run Austin in 2012 (foot injury set me back after the 15-miler in 2010). I am available for brief free therapy sessions or self treatment advice after the Saturday runs, and I have a home office in Pflugerville where I give a $10 discount to all runners (i.e., $60). If you are experiencing pain, I have a self-treatment advice on my web site. If that isn't enough, come see me before any injuries you have get worse!!! While everyone is not the same, loosening up chronically tight muscles will allow you to perform at your own personal optimum. Often, people with tight muscles and no particular pain or problem will show increases in speed and move toward a smoother, more natural gait by going through “Runner's Protocol” on the massage table. If all excessive muscle tension in the legs is reduced, you will run better!

Here are some tips that I have found from my own experiences as well as from working on runners over the years. Much of this I learned from Ken at Therapy Central of Round Rock during the months that I trained and worked with him at his clinic..


Hydration: Dehydrated muscles are like dried leather, and are prone to cramping, injury, & exhaustion. Partial dehydration is not always obvious; I used to think I was drinking a lot, but noticed I'd lost 7 ponds after a 10-mile run (almost a gallon!!!). I now drink about a quart of fluids for every 5-6 miles, and have found I recover more quickly and run more easily.


Ice Baths: Soak for 15-20 min after long runs!!! It enhances recovery by reducing inflammation, increasing blood flow to contracted muscles, and reduces pain. The ideal temperature for me is 50-55 °F; you don't have to have so much ice that you get the water to 32 °F (usually 15 lbs- or about 2 gallons- of ice in a tub is sufficient).


Mix It Up! Not only does cross training build auxiliary muscles that help with running, but it avoids “wearing out” your muscles. In addition to pedaling, swimming, and other activities, unless you are a seasoned ultra-marathoner, doing the exact same motion for hours (and months!) can cause muscle fatigue. I've found that I can run longer with less effort by both walking a bit every 2 miles (when I drink), and by occasionally increasing my stride or running faster for 100 yards- it keeps the muscles more “active” and reduces the chances of cramping. Running along side of the road on the uneven ground also helps by engaging (& strengthening) the muscles slightly differently during each step.


Gaining Strength & Endurance: Aerobic capacity and VO2-Max are less important than strength training when it comes to long distance running. When you challenge your muscles by requiring them to produce more power, you recruit more muscle fibers and encourage mitochondrial (cell power-houses) growth in each cell. The more active muscle fibers you have available, the more help you have when you start getting tired. Speed training, hill training, and even targeted exercises in the gym make your muscles stronger, which in turn leads to better endurance. So add some short really hard sessions to your training (and give yourself an off-day to recover afterwards).


No Pain, No Gain? You know your body better than anyone else; it is often fine if you are feeling some pain or discomfort and choose to try and “run through it”. But if you get to the point where your form is suffering and you are gimping along and compensating, unless you are in the home stretch of a race, STOP!!! Running improperly will over-stretch and hurt weaker muscles,and allow tight muscles to contract even more. Plus, you may slip into compensation patterns that, even if they work in the short run, will cause more wear and tear on your body and may eventually cause more severe problems. If you are injured, deal with it... sooner rather than later!


Proper Form: I recently looked down while pedaling; while I had no pain, I was shocked to see one leg wobbling from side to side at the knee (while the other one looked like a piston in a race car!). I see lots of runners that have “issues” with either one or both legs... get someone to run behind you and give you feedback, or have a professional gait analysis done. It is almost always muscle tension from over-use or a traumatic injury, that causes gait issues that will wear you out before your time. If possible, try to develop a mid or forefoot strike; landing on your heel sends a shock wave up through your knees, hips, and back, and also slows you down. The braking action then requires more energy to spring off for the next step; if you can instead “fall forward” and avoid heel-first landing, you conserve energy, take stress off your body, and might even get faster!


Stretching: To me, flexibility is the most important muscle issue; you can always get back into shape next year, but when you lose flexibility and range of motion, it is often very hard to get it back. That isn't to say that you need to be as bendy as a gymnast; a physical therapist told me that tight hamstrings actually help runners (but not too tight to cause problems!). The key is to be flexible enough not to have major aches, pains, or spasms; if you have been running at the same level for years without issues, you are likely flexible enough for how you use your body, but as you ramp up the mileage, overworked muscles are likely to rebel and tighten up.


When you do a nice hard stretch, the “burn” you feel is your muscle tightening up to stop the stretch (the “stretch response”). While there are lots of different philosophies of stretching, I've found that long (2-5 min) easy stretches are best for actually releasing excessive and long-term muscle spasm. Stretch only until you feel the start of pain/burn, and then back off and relax into every exhale. Every now and then, ease up more and then lean back into the stretch for a few seconds. You might notice you'll “trick” the muscle into letting go bit by bit, and might even feel a “clunk” as a muscle fiber bundle lets go. After using this technique, I often find that while it takes longer, I eventually reach full range of motion (and by then hardly even feel a stretch!)


Sleep Posture: Your hip flexors are anchored on the inside of your spine and pelvis, and attach to the upper portion of your thigh; since they lift your legs, they are some of the hardest-working and most important muscles for runners. Not only do they have to be strong enough to repeatedly lift your legs, but they have to be flexible enough to stretch behind your body when the other leg is moving forward. Sitting for long periods of time and sleeping on your stomach or side with your knees pulled up places the hip flexors in a shortened position, which can tighten them up as the body “shrink wraps” the muscles with fascia to support their most common position. To stretch your hip flexors, lie on your back, pull one knee to your chest, and hang the other leg off the bed for at least 2 min. Also try to sleep on your back (with a pillow under your knees); this is the most neutral sleep posture there is, and will help avoid a host of postural problems. If you sleep on your side, at least put a pillow between your knees to level your hips, and bend your knees as little as possible.



Injuries: When you are injured, the traditional advice is often “don’t run for 6-8 weeks”. An alternate strategy considers the fact that tissue heal better under load and normal use. While you certainly don’t want to do anything that causes intense pain or makes you ache for hours, strength work during healing often speeds recovery. Immediately start with gentle stretching and range of motion exercises, and as you can tolerate it, build up to walking. When you can walk without much pain, try easy running, but keep the distance down to meters instead of miles! As tolerated, try to build up to a normal-intensity run for 100 m, and return slowly to normal distances. Again, any sharp pains or pains that last more than 20-30 minutes after running means you are doing too much, too fast.


Active Release of Muscle Tension: One of the most effective techniques I have learned for releasing muscle tension is to push into the tightest (i.e., most sore!) part of the muscle, and then move it through its normal range of motion. The easiest way to do this is to have someone like me work on you; while deeper pressure gets faster results, I've found that less pressure (and less pain!) will still work in time. It still might not be as pleasant as a relaxing massage, but I've had an 86 year old client survive without crying!


Self Treatment: I also have self-treatment options for many of the major muscles. The key is to find the sorest spot in the muscle belly (no nerve pain or pushing on pulsating blood vessels!) and pressing into it with at least enough pressure to engage the muscle and feel the tightness. You can use your hand, a ball, or Theracane to deliver the pressure, and then move the limb in such a way as to flex the muscle fibers where you are pressing (feels like moving into and out of the pain zone). It is important to continue the movement until the pain eases at least somewhat (muscle release), to demonstrate to both the brain and the muscle itself that good things happen when you let go! You can use less pressure, but don't stop until you feel some relief.

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