Have you had an injury in the past due to tightness? Did you know tendinitis is generally due to tightness in one of your muscles? Do you stretch? This may be a common question you hear from your doctor, PT, or other athletes you surround yourself with. The truth is, most athletes don’t stretch. The excuses come out of the woodwork for this one. There just is not enough time in the day, your workout seems to trump the 10+ minutes you need to stretch afterwards, you are washing your hair, the dog needs walking, etc. Most people live by the seat of their pants. Wake up, drink coffee, run, shower, off to work. Eat, sleep, work, repeat. Do you fall into this category?
Over time our muscles lose the elastic capabilities that we were born with. Age causes reduction in elasticity of muscles and tendons, decreased lubrication in the cartilage surrounding joints, muscle loss, shortened ligaments, and so much more. It is only a matter of time that you will start feeling the effects of tight muscles on the surrounding joints, if you have not yet. Some people can run or bike and never stretch and seem to do ok. Others run for a day without stretching and seem to wake up achy and stiff the next morning. Every body is different and responds different to exercise. With these age-related effects, muscle tightness creeps up and eventually leads to injury. Knowing how to prevent injury is key to continuing with your training regimen without any hiccups.
Have YOU ever noticed aches and pains because you felt tight? Or have YOU decided to hop on the stretching bandwagon for a week, or two, or 8, but nothing seems to change? Ultimately it may feel like you have been trying to manage symptoms, but nothing is working. Let me tell you why!
Muscle tightness generally occurs with a cyclic tendency and can be challenging to break. Reading through the steps of how muscles effect joint position and how joint position effects muscles will help you recognize why the lack of stretching early on in a training program can cause injury later on.
Muscles taper off at each end and form into tendons. Tendons attach to bones. The bone attachment is part of a joint. As a muscle contracts, the joint(s) moves. Easy peasy, right? Wrong! If one step is effected all subsequent steps are effected and eventually compensation will occur. With both exercise as well as sedentary lifestyles our muscles get tight. It is a natural occurrence. With the individual that exercises, their muscles shorten and lengthen hundreds and sometimes thousands of times within one workout. With the individual that is more sedentary and has more of a desk job or isn’t able to exercise as much as they would like, their muscles shorten in the position that they are in most of the day. As you can see, tightness does not always involve a lot of movement.
In a normal world muscles have three different lengths: resting, shortened, lengthened. With the "resting position" your muscles are not moving or working, they are resting. The tension on the fibers inside the muscle are completely relaxed in a position that is not straining. The "shortened position" is due to muscle contraction, such as with a hamstring curl, the hamstring muscle shortens and pulls on the knee to move your lower leg up towards your butt. The "lengthened position" occurs from stretching or a slow controlled movement that is elongating the muscle fibers. To continue with the hamstring curl example, a slow lower into a straight leg position from a bent knee position is creating a lengthened effect on the hamstring versus a shortening effect on the quadriceps.
With exercise your muscles cycle through short and long lengths and become tight by the end of the workout. Unless you stretch after your workout, those involved muscle groups will remain in the shortened position. Over time with multiple workouts those same muscle groups continue to shorten and pull on the joint that they are attached too. The shorter the muscle, the greater the tension placed on the tendons and joints. With enough time this tension leads to pain from straining or overworking the tendons or pain in the joints from too much pressure. As the tendons pull on the surrounding joints, the joints start to compress and resist movement. This compressive force leads to poor mobility in the effected joint. When a joint becomes stiff or stuck, your body has a difficult time managing a neutral joint position and starts to compensate. The compensation occurs by recruiting other muscle groups to fire, or by grinding away at the surrounding joint surfaces. Both of which cause pain.
By the time pain occurs, stretching and foam rolling may not be enough to manage symptoms. You could stretch and foam roll multiple times a day and you would still have limitations. Your pain may linger for days, weeks or even months until you break the cycle. Symptom treating will never fully resolve your underlying issue. Meaning, it may go away initially but once you return to higher level training you may see the symptoms rearing their ugly head again. This frustration continues until the cause is treated, usually joint stiffness. By working on muscle tension early in your training you can manage neutral joint position and muscle tension appropriately, reducing your changes of injury.
This tendon tightness and joint stiffness cycle occurs often and can be frustrating to say the least. Knowing and understanding why your injury occurred and how to properly treat it is the most important aspect to changing the symptomology. Do not fall into the PT trap of getting massage to the direct point of pain, as this is likely not the cause of your pain. Direct massage can be another form of stretching or rolling that will force you into the multiple visits’ week after week. Instead, try working with your PT to understand why you are tight and how to properly fix the cause with the surrounding joints to prevent it from occurring again.