One of the most common problems I see in clinic is runners struggling with tight, rigid muscles. Usually they've tried a host of self treatments with little success. So how do you rid yourself of a concrete calf or a granite glute?
The first port of call for most runners is to stretch, stretch then stretch again. Intuitively this makes sense – it feels tight so I should stretch it – but, while it may help symptoms, they often return fairly rapidly when running. Plan B would be the foam roller. Again a few minutes of rolling around in agony do seem to help but results may be short term. Failing this many head off for a sports massage where deep pressure on the muscle combined with stretches may loosen the offending muscle.
I'm not against any of this, although I will point out that there is a great deal of debate around the benefits of stretching, foam rollering or massage. Like many areas there is a lack of strong evidence to support their effect but anecdotally runners report great benefit. My advice would be, if it eases symptoms and works for you stick with it but don't rely on it alone.
In many cases the cause of muscle tightness is actually muscle weakness. Recent research describes 'fatigue induced muscle disorder' where an athlete reports a firm, tight muscle. An increase in amount or intensity of training exposes a muscle group to greater load, it fatigues and becomes tight. So the solution is either reduce the training load or strengthen the muscle to cope with it (or both if possible).
If strength is the key issue, it raises the question does stretching actually make things worse? Static stretching has been associated with reduction in muscle strength and there is some debate as to whether we can actually influence muscle length. A couple of small studies have suggested that using a foam roller improves range of movement without reducing strength but there is minimal evidence to support long term effects. So here's a thought, if stretching/ rolling doesn't seem to help you maybe you should stop doing it and spend the time strengthening instead? Don't agree? Share your views in the comments, I'm certainly open to other people's opinions on this.
So if you want to tackle that tightness get strong and look to find the cause! We already know there are many benefits to strength and conditioning for runners. This may well be another one!
Adding to my ramblings we're very fortunate to have the views of Sports Physio, Adam Meakins,
“It does sound counterintuitive to think of doing strengthening exercises to reduce your stiffness especially as most of us feel anything but flexible after a session in the gym, but the evidence is beginning to show that it does work.
The mechanism behind this is via a process called sarcomerogenesis (we love a long complex sounding term in this business). This basically is the process of new microscopic muscle units, called sarcomeres, being added on to your muscles in response to the strengthening exercises.
The key to this however is the type of strengthening exercise, it's really needs to be slow, heavy eccentric exercise (when the muscle is lengthening under tension) so examples for the common culprits work be for 'hard up hamstrings' do Nordics exercises for 'crooked calfs' do weighted heel drops and for 'gruesome glutes' get on the dead lifts.
Now a word of warning these types of exercises do actually make you feel more stiff 24-48hours afterwards and you have to ensure you have no tendon issues, but in the long term they do help reduce stiffness and with the added bonus of getting you stronger.
Of course the technique, load and when to do them in your normal running routine is important to consider so make sure you seek out the advice of a physio to help you plan this.”
Closing thoughts: there can be several causes of muscle tightness including overload from a rapid increase in training, muscle weakness, altered running gait and biomechanics. It's unlikely stretching alone will address these. I echo Adam's thoughts that seeing a physio can help you identify and deal with the cause. As ever on RunningPhysio, if in doubt, get checked out!