Runners often complain of tight muscles. While they’re correct in identifying tightness in their bodies, they might not be correct that it’s the actual muscle that is tight, or understand where that tightness originates. To better understand flexibility, consider how our bodies are constructed: The soft tissues of muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia comprise our myofascial system, and dysfunction in any of these tissues can cause that tight feeling or restriction in movement.
Each of the tissues is made up of both collagenous and elastic materials. Collagenous tissue has more collagen, a strong, inelastic protein, while elastic tissue has more elastin, an extensible protein capable of stretching. The different tissues contain a varying mixture of collagen and elastin. Muscles contain more elastin, so they have a better ability to stretch. Ligaments, which connect bone to bone, are comprised mainly of collagen so are less capable of stretching. This is a good thing, as ligaments function to provide support to joints.
Fascia is an interesting tissue that has been researched in great detail over the last decade. It’s a soft tissue that surrounds and interpenetrates all internal structures including muscles, bones, organs, nerves and blood vessels. Fascia forms an internal web that gives the body its humanoid shape as well as providing support and shock absorption.
Fascia is divided into three layers:
- Superficial fascia that lies below the skin.
- Deep fascia surrounding muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels.
- Visceral fascia, which encapsulates the organs.
Deep fascia is of most concern to runners as this is the layer that will have most impact on mobility and flexibility. It can contract and relax, much like a muscle, and will respond to the same receptors as muscles. With repeated stress in one direction or in the same pattern, fascia will lay down new material to become stronger in order to protect the surrounding tissue. Too much build-up of new material, however, can also lessen the extensibility of fascia, restricting movement and altering movement patterns.
Running, being a repetitive movement, can often cause fascial build-up, especially if the runner has faulty biomechanics or is doing too much volume or too much intense training. The new material is made up primarily of collagen so it’s less capable of stretching and can restrict the running gait. This is that feeling of tightness that can increase a runner’s risk of injury.
To help release the tightness, runners must do some form of flexibility work or get manual therapy. You can perform self-myofascial release using foam rollers, small balls, the “The Stick” or other such devices to break up fascial adhesions. Active forms of stretching using contract and relax methods should also be incorporated. These techniques are much more effective than simple static stretching.
Here are some exercises and stretches to help keep your fascia in shape
It’s quick and easy to use The Stick self-massage device on these muscles.
Instructions: With 10cm strokes, move back and forth quickly over the area, focusing on one section of the muscle, then moving on to another. The pressure should be firm but not painful.
The gluteal group is also prone to tightness. Using a small ball on this region is a great way to release fascial restrictions.
Instructions: Sit on the ball with the affected leg crossing over the knee of the opposite knee. Roll around the muscle until you find a trigger point that feels tense or tender. Sit on this spot until the tension subsides by 75%. The pressure should feel firm but not painful.
Use contract-and-relax methods – they’re much more effective than simple static stretching.
Runners’ hip flexors are often tight and this kneeling hip flexor stretch can be quite effective in releasing them. This contract-relax method uses the opposing muscle group, in this case the glutes, to help release tightness in the hip flexors.
Instructions: Kneel on one knee with other leg in a lunge position. Flatten your spine by tilting your pelvis backwards. Squeeze the glutes and raise the same side arm overhead. Push your hips slightly forward while contracting the glutes and hold this position for 10 seconds, then relax. Repeat two or three more times.
Another contract-relax method uses a contraction and relaxation of the same muscle such as the quadriceps.
Instructions: Grab your ankle and pull your lower leg back into a standard standing quad stretch position. Hold at the point of a mild pull in the quads for 10 seconds. Now contract the quads at an intensity of 3 out of 10 for 10 seconds then release and pull the leg further back. Repeat once or twice more. Be careful not to contract the muscle too intensely. And don’t pull the muscle into a painful stretch; let your body feel how far it wants to let the muscle go.
These can help reverse fascial restriction. They include fascial massage, intramuscular stimulation (IMS) and Active Release Techniques (ART).
Curb Ivanic is a strength coach based in Vancouver and the creator of www.corerunning.com.