Better weather is here, and for a great many of us that means more mileage.
I’m no different from you, and typically when I get into summer gear, I overdo it. I take that back; typically isn’t the right word. Chronically. Perhaps tragically. When the weather turns from rain to sun sometime around mid-May, I go from shrugging off the hopelessly lazy winter miles to 60mi/week in a matter of days.
Unfortunately, this rapid increase in activity level invariably yields an unsurprising tightening of all the muscles in my lower body, and voila: here we are, a few days from June 1st and I’m suffering from plantar fasciitis in my right foot, IT band syndrome in my right leg, and some form of psoas injury as yet undiagnosed. Happy Summer!
So in the interest of, hopefully, nipping the “too hard, too often, too soon” monster in the bud, I’ve got a little lesson in preventive maintenance for the lot of you. And it all comes down to how you treat your muscle fascia, believe it or not (overtraining notwithstanding).
“What is muscle fascia” you may ask? Aside from a site of chronic inflammation on my body, fascia is a “tough membrane of varying thickness which envelops and separates everything in the body, from whole muscle groups and bones down to each individual cell, providing protection and communication.” Simply put, it keeps all your bits in line and separate from one another, but also serves as a connecting point binding different muscle groups and other soft tissues together.
Normal, healthy fascia has the ability to stretch and move without restriction. But when the fascia becomes overused, the tissue can become dehydrated and thus loses some of its elasticity, often resulting in muscle pain and tendonitis. As the fascia dehydrates, it can become thicker as the collagen fibers which comprise the fascia shorten and clump together. Fast forward a few weeks, and this thickening and restricted fascial mobility can be debilitating, as in the case of my IT band and foot.
To prevent, and reverse the negative effects of fascial thickening and restriction, there are really only a couple things we as runners have the power to do on our own. The first is probably fairly obvious: stretching. Working in a comprehensive total-body stretching routine as the coda to any good training session is the first line of defense against muscle tension and myofascial pain. When performed properly, a high percentage of overuse injuries can be avoided from the very get go.
The other big one: myofascial release. “Myofascial release” according to Kipp Dye, MSPT, “is the term referring to a collection of techniques for separating layers of fascia, releasing restrictions, restoring elasticity, conductivity, and hydration. It can be accomplished,” he adds, “using a variety of techniques including gross or ‘cross-hand’ stretches, focused stretched, ‘windmill’ or J-stretches, fascial glide, deep 3-dimensional stretches, and foam rolling.” All but the last of which are a two-person operation.
Foam rolling, in the context of your muscle fascia, refers to the use of a dense or hard tool to manipulate the muscle tissue and fascia longitudinally using leverage or gravity as the primary force. In most instances, it means lying on top of a goofy foam noodle and rolling around until it hurts. Silly as it may sound, it’s surprisingly effective.
Having fought back from several debilitating bouts of IT band syndrome, I can say without a moment’s hesitation that no amount of yoga, stretching, electrostim, or ultrasound therapy has had a greater impact than foam rolling to gain relief. My college athletic trainer would cringe to hear the old “rest, ice, and stim” cocktail wasn’t, in fact, what cured my ailments…
That said, having used and abused foam rollers on the order of a baker’s dozen in the last 2 years, I’ve recently pledged my unyielding faith in market newcomer Thera-Roll (www.thera-roll.com). A simple design, featuring closed-cell foam technology, fuses sinusoid ridges with any of three different density foam cores to create a rugged (and extremely effective) alternative to traditional foam rollers.
The ridges help to condense the surface area of the foam roller in contact with the muscle tissue, and make for a significantly more concentrated massaging action for the purpose of breaking up scar tissue and adhesions along the fascia. Mine works brilliantly well, and after months of near daily abuse has shown no signs of wear. The steeper price tag (around $40-$80 depending on size and density) is more than justified by its relative durability; I would have gone through 3 cheaper foam rollers under similar usage.
Short of getting a deep-tissue massage from a licensed massage therapist, I can’t think of a better way to self-medicate and preventively treat overuse injuries. Now, if I could just actually listen to my own advice. But that’s another story altogether…