This article was first featured in Psychologies magazine.
Many thanks for permission to republish.
If you experience persistent chronic strain after running, you may have been forced to give it up. But one long-distance runner has the answer – and it’s surprisingly painless, says Ahmed Zambarakji
There is a damaging axiom prevalent among fitness fanatics that no gain comes without pain. We’ve been led to believe that you cannot have a good workout until you ‘feel the burn’, but doctors, physical therapists and bodyworkers tell us a very different story. That pain is, in fact, our body’s natural way of indicating something has gone awry. That pain is merely the flashing warning light on your body’s dashboard.
In my case, the cumulative effects of compulsive exercise, coupled with little or no recovery time, meant I had normalised physical pain – it was like a background hum that I’d learned to block out. Only when I woke up and lay in bed would I scan my body to find an operatic aching in my joints or an impossible tightness in my limbs. My muscles were weary from years of incessant pavement-pounding and weight-training. Granted, I had the physique I was after; the problem was my body didn’t actually work.
Granted, I had the physique
I was after; the problem was
my body didn’t actually ‘work’
On a musculoskeletal level, my muscles and joints had become short and restricted. This, in turn, created muscle strain, micro-tears, biomechanical problems and bouts of debilitating pain.
Innately intelligent machine that it is, the human body learns to compensate for such gruelling regimes by recruiting a host of ‘back-up’ muscles – just like a hybrid engine that automatically switches to petrol as its source of fuel when it runs out of electricity. While this automatic rebalancing mechanism saved me from (literally) running myself into the ground, it eventually developed into sensory motor amnesia, a condition whereby the brain kept these over-recruited muscles switched on.
The inability to relax these muscles usually culminates in persistent pain. This is often followed by a visit to the GP who will attempt to remove the metaphorical light from the dashboard by prescribing painkillers. And that is precisely when the skills of somatic movement educator Tanya Fitzpatrick saved me, and my body, from the scrapheap.
Somatic movement is a relatively young approach to healing the body and eliminating pain without the use of drugs. It’s gradually gaining popularity with physios and psychophysiological therapists and can be used to treat everything from sports injuries to
back, neck and shoulder pain, as well as postural problems, sciatica and accident trauma.
Pain management without pills
It’s based on simple exercises designed to reset the motor system. Actively lengthening and releasing muscles from a constant state of contraction sends the message to the brain that it’s OK to let those overtaxed muscles relax. This creates a feedback loop between body and mind that dissolves the compensatory pattern, thereby reducing pain and letting the body fall back into natural alignment.
The therapy is imperceptibly subtle – especially if, like me, you’re hard-wired to live at 100mph. The pay-offs, however, are invaluable. As a runner of 15 years, I’d got it into my head that my legs were doing all the work. Somatic movement taught me how
to start using the psoas, a long band of muscle in the body’s core that stretches diagonally from the thoracic spine to the femur.
As a runner, the psoas is hugely important because, as one leg kicks backwards, it starts to lengthen. I had never heard of, let alone felt it. The sensations in my calves and glutes had cancelled out the rest of my body ‘noise’ until somatic movement helped me put the psoas back into focus.
Employing the muscle through daily exercises has not only helped alleviate the pain and reduce recovery time, but it’s also helped me smash my personal best. No pain, all gain.
THREE SOMATIC MOVEMENT EXERCISES
If you suffer from muscular pain, try these easy exercises
Symptom: Hip pain
Compensatory pattern: Habitual contraction of the waist muscles as a result of a repetitive action (for example, carrying a baby on one side only), causes the muscles of the waist – quadratus lumborum, multifidus and psoas major – to remain short and tight.
Exercise: Hip hikes
1 Lie on your side with your knees bent and at 90° to your hips.
2 Place your head on a cushion and relax your body weight into the ground. Inhale into your ribs.
3 As you exhale, lift your foot up, keeping your knees together. Allow your hip to lift up and in towards the waist, tightening the obliques.
4 Inhale and slowly return your foot and hip back to neutral.
5 Relax completely.
Tip: Place one hand on the muscles of your waist (close to your spine) so you can feel how they contract on the lift and lengthen as you bring your foot down. ‘Neutral’ is in between these two extremes.
Quantity: 10 reps morning and night (five on each side)
Symptom: Neck pain and stiffness
Compensatory pattern: Having bad posture where your head is too far forward
puts excess weight on neck and shoulder muscles, including the splenius capitis, levator scapula and upper trapezius.
Exercises: Shoulder rolls and chin tucks
1 Sit upright with your back relaxed, away from the support of a chair. Feel the weight
centred in your pelvis. Relax your hands on your thighs. This is the neutral position.
2 Slowly lift your right shoulder towards your right ear. Gently bring it back to neutral.
3 Next, draw your shoulder past neutral, down towards the waist. Very slowly bring
the shoulder back to neutral.
4 Shrug the shoulder forward. Slowly release it back to neutral.
5 Stretch the shoulder blade backwards, gently squeezing the rhomboid muscles between your shoulder blade and spine. Bring your shoulder back to neutral.
6 Move your shoulder in slow clockwise and anti-clockwise circles.
Tip: Make these movements smooth and bring your awareness to the contraction and
release of every muscle group as you move.
Quantity: Five reps of each exercise on each side.
Symptom: Lower back pain
Compensatory pattern: The pelvis being tilted forward has caused the lumbar muscles to over-contract.
Exercise: Arch and flatten
1 Lie on your back, knees bent and hip-width apart. Make sure your knees are perfectly parallel.
2 Inhale deep into a relaxed belly and roll your tailbone into the floor. At the same time, allow your lower back to arch away from the floor.
3 On the exhale, contract your abdominal muscles and flatten your back into the ground.
Tip: Sense how your abdominal muscles relax and lengthen as you inhale, and how the muscles of your lumbar region tighten. The opposite happens when you flatten. Neutral pelvic alignment – the correct posture – is in between these two extremes.
Quantity: 15 reps morning and night.
For more information about somatic movement and Tanya Fitzpatrick, see alignsomatics.com