Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Tight or Toned?

New to the gym or an old hand, eventually you’ll become aware that some muscles might feel a bit “tighter” than they used to. You might be tempted to put this down to getting more toned, but that might not be the whole story.

Muscles are meant to operate at a certain length. In fact they are at their optimum power just short of what is called their normal resting length. When a muscle is overworked it can become shortened and tight. This has a knock-on effect throughout the body. Muscles work in pairs or groups and tight, shortened muscles can stress their partner muscles and are themselves under stress.

At the most basic level muscles work in pairs. When one muscle contracts the muscle that performs the opposite motion relaxes so that movement can occur. They need to be balanced in order to work at their most efficient. Any tightness on one side will upset this balance. But it’s not only the opposing muscle that can be affected. That pain you sometimes feel in the back of your shoulder when you’ve been running for a while-well it might just be that it’s related to a problem with the opposite hip, or even the ankle.

Tight muscles on one side can lead to weak muscles on the opposing side. For example, if your job means that you spend a lot of time sitting down, then it’s possible that the muscles that flex the hip can become shortened and tight. This in turn can lead to the muscles that extend the hip becoming weak. Typically in the hip that means the big gluteal muscles become weak and the knock-on effect of that is that your hamstring muscles have to compensate for the the weak gluteal muscles and they in turn become stressed and overworked!

So, what’s the solution? The first thing you need to understand is that there is no point trying to strengthen a weak muscle until you’ve got the shortened muscle back to its proper resting length. In fact strengthening the weak muscle will probably make the problem worse because now you will have tightness on both sides of the joint, reducing flexibility and preventing fluid movement. Manual therapy like massage and manipulation can help relax the stressed muscles and restore length. Simple, regular stretching can help maintain the new length and begin to restore range of motion and flexibility. Left untreated, shortened muscles can lead to tendonitis, a condition that causes inflammation and pain in the tendons.

There are a few simple things you can do to help yourself as you train. Firstly, always make sure you have good posture when you exercise. Shoulder back, round and down, was a phrase my PT always used to repeat as we did various circuits. Don’t just use the mirrors in the gym to admire your biceps, use them to check your posture! You can support your posture too by making sure you include exercises that work the muscles groups you can’t see in the mirror. You could even ask someone to do a simple posture check by looking at the alignment of your ear, shoulder, hip and ankle. Most postural problems lead to a forward head position.

Secondly, make sure you are doing some work on flexibility and that you are stretching regularly. We all know that stretching can be the tedious part of any exercise routine, but we can’t ignore its importance.

Thirdly, build rest and recovery into your training plan. Vary your training load and intensity so that your body gets to recover. And last, but not least, stay hydrated. A 2% fall in hydration can lead to up to 20% loss of function, so keep drinking plenty of water as you train.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Rest & Recovery

This is a short piece I wrote for our summer newsletter at the gym where I run a weekly clinic.

How is your fitness plan going now we’ve landed in the summer holidays? Are you still putting in the miles, hitting PB’s, upping the intensity, or are you taking a break, relaxing, making the most of time away from the treadmill? You might, if you've opted for the latter approach, be feeling a twinge of guilt. You might feel that if you don’t get out and do something you’ll suffer for it when you get started again, or maybe you worry you’ll never get started again.

Perhaps you’ve just joined the gym, having decided it’s time to get fitter, lose some weight or simply get active. You’re hitting the cross-trainer, looking at classes and are all pumped-up about the new you waiting to be revealed!

Whenever you start a new exercise or fitness routine one of the sometimes overlooked aspects of the plan is rest and recovery. Along with all those stretches we’re supposed to do pre- and post- training, but never quite find the time to actually do, taking rest and recovery seriously simmers away on the back burner of our training schedules. Someone somewhere once mentioned periodisation, but we can’t remember what it is and why it’s important. And anyway, we’re too busy training to take time off.

But here’s the thing, over-training can create chronic conditions that can be hard to treat and can even lead to not being able to participate in training the way you want to. Typical over-use injuries include things like tennis elbow, runner’s or jumper’s knee, tendonitis, joint and muscle pain. As their name implies, they come on slowly over a period of time rather than suddenly, although some show up suddenly with an acute pain, the symptoms have probably been developing over weeks and months. Some seem to cure themselves, usually because our technique improves, but others simply persist.

The good news is that if you factor in proper rest and recovery, you can reduce the risk of suffering a chronic injury. Soft tissue therapy can also play an important role in helping keep tissue healthy and helping in rehabilitating injuries when they occur.

Periodisation doesn’t have to be complicated and it isn’t just for competitive athletes. Everyone can develop a simple approach to keep themselves motivated and energised about their training. A simple plan might be set out over three months and broken down into three four-week cycles. Weeks 1-3 might be you’re most intense training patterns and the fourth week would be a light, rest and recovery week. You could even schedule a Sports Massage for week 4!