I’ve been reading Anatomy for Runners by Jay Dicharry (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012). It’s conversationally written. You can picture yourself in a seminar setting with Jay presenting PowerPoints, cracking jokes, and noting anecdotal evidence. The book covers the entire gamut of running, with a focus on injury prevention. It’s pretty opinionated but includes an extensive reference list from which he draws. Dicharry is a seasoned clinician and has no doubt seen many versions of all the injuries about which he writes. He discusses in depth a concept worth expanding on — pliability, which Webster defines as “flexible, supple, yielding.” Dicharry uses it in the context of muscle function.
We all know what it feels like to be tight and stiff. This, often in spite of regular stretching and taking it easy between hard efforts. As Dicharry explains, the tension in muscles is not the same up and down the line. And does not dissipate evenly. Let’s look at hamstrings, the oft strained muscle in runners. The biceps femoris attaches both at the hip and below the knee. With insertion points crossing two joints, the tension varies along the hamstring. For example, when running, one end of the biceps femoris contracts concentrically while the other end is eccentrically contracting. Talk about inherent differences in tension along the hamstring! So how can we realistically expect recovery will be the same along the entire muscle?
Another reason for uneven recovery Dicharry discusses is accumulated scar tissue, He notes scar tissue results in a random orientation of muscle fibers. Collagen, a primary component of muscle, provides a framework, when intact, has muscle fibers lining up in parallel so they pull in the same direction. But when scar tissue sets in, a “sticky” grid impedes smooth muscle function. Dicharry suggests this can be from not only traumatic injury but also the cumulative effects of hard workouts from which we have not fully recovered. And that lack of recovery can build incrementally from week to week, month to month, and even year to year. Further, this deviating grid ensures tension along the muscle will vary, meaning some parts have to absorb more tension than other parts along the muscle, which can then lead to strains and tears. It’s a repeating cycle we are all too familiar with. We have a strain, let it rest some, come back to action, and after a while incur an injury at or near the same location. The key then is to break the cycle. How can we do that?
There’s not a simple answer that applies the same for everyone. But universal is a need to realign the collagen in parallel so the load can be more equally distributed, eliminating the stress points of reinjury. Naturally, we’re better off if we can keep up with the damage as it incurs by mobilizing the scar tissue early in the cycle. But each of us is where we are, with our own injury history and have to start somewhere.
Dicharry describes some ways to mobilize scar tissue. Deep tissue massage by a trained massage therapist is certainly an effective way, but one with the cost of time and money. Perhaps the easiest way is to incorporate foam rolling before and after exercise as well as strategic rolling on a softball or lacrosse ball. The latter is painful but can be applied from the hip at the tensor fascia latae — the top of the ITB and the glute medius as well as along the hamstrings, quads, and calves right down to the Achilles. As to foam rollers, I recently saw an ad for a vibrating roller. I was skeptical at first, especially since it was promoted by TB12, Tom Brady’s sports equipment and consulting arm. But I looked at the options beyond TB12’s $150 model and found some good ones for $100. Looking through the reviews, I think this could be a good addition to an array of home exercise equipment. I’m going to order one and try it! I’ll report how this works in a future post.
Whatever we do, we will benefit by smoothing out the rough edges of our muscles and increasing our pliability. The last thing we want is to pull up lame during a race, as I recently experienced (see Expect the Unexpected post)!