Thursday, 7 July 2022

Training our “myofascial system” for running - to elastically recoil and propel us forward!

A few years ago now I wrote two articles on “Running elastically and using less energy" (you can read  Part 1 & Part 2 here) and how this is achieved, for runners (and walking) through the fascia of the foot and the Achilles tendon.  I can’t quite believe it but I wrote these articles over 4 years ago and science moves on and so with an even greater understanding of fascia and its importance to our efficient movement we are looking at training our “myofascial system” to reap the energy saving and performance benefits of our body’s ability to elastically recoil and propel us forward.

Firstly, what is our Myofascial System?

In latin Myo means muscle and fascia means band and fascia is our connective tissue. Our myofascial system consists of all our muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, blood and more.… I sometimes describe fascia as our “one big yellow web like onesie that binds, connects and supports everything under the skin”. It forms the structure of the body and it is very richly innervated in mechanical (movement) and sensory (stimulus from external - light, touch or internal factors - proprioception, blood pressure, hormonal balance) nerve cells. Fascia is now recognised as the largest system in our body as it touches and connects every bone, nerve, organ, muscle and every major system and subsystem of the human body.

Running involves the whole body

Running is a complex spring like movement involving the whole body. There are many people that make running look easy, I always remember seeing Mo Farah (in person) run the Cardiff half-marathon a good few years ago and he and his fellow runners looked effortless, their stride length was huge and they looked like they were flying through the air. And, by the way, we do fly when we run, as we repeatedly hop, fly (both feet are off the ground), hop. Plus, watching Paula Radcliffe, the graceful way her torso and arms moved to propel her on too.

Running (well all movement) requires a continuous balance of tension and compression throughout the body. Movement is created by the concentric (shortening) and eccentric (lengthening) of our myofascial system which in turn provides stability in one area and generates power in an other. and to maximise this air time we need the elastic recoil of the myofascial system.

A simple example of this is when running the ankle should dorsiflex (toes/foot up towards your shin) when landing which means the ankle is in a locked position causing less impact plus the Achilles is well positioned in a lengthened position to absorb the ground force and store this energy ready for release in toe off. This is the elastic recoil of the myofascial system. Also for a golf swing it is important to have mobility in the thoracic (mid back) spine and shoulders for spine rotation and hip and ankle mobility too, the hips need to rotate internally and externally throughout the golf swing to help provide effective rotation and roll through the ankles reducing the need for compensatory movements during the swing. The core provides the stability to maximise the power through the swing. The swing “winds” up the body, ready for release.

Back to Running

Running injuries are common and it is well documented that 70% of runners will sustain an injury over a year period. Injuries tend to relate to one of more of the following:

Poor technique or coordination
Minimal or poor elastic bounce through the myofascial system (stiff tendons or perhaps scar tissue causing restrictions)
Muscle weaknesses or imbalances (perhaps this is from the hip abductors, or are the quads overly dominant versus the hamstrings)
Biomechanical problems - perhaps over-pronating at the foot, or knee valgus (the knee rolls in)
Over-use or too much too soon - causes microtraumas and inflammation
Lack of overall body strength
Inadequate recovery time - over training, too much too soon.

All of these can cause inefficiency, imbalances, stresses in the myofascial body-wide system. For example studies have indicated that skeletal or muscle imbalance at the pelvis/hips can cause knee pain or ITB compression.

Functional Training 

Fascia has a very important role in maintaining muscle function.

So when considering your running training plan, even for the majority of us recreational runners, it is key to include exercises that will functionally train the whole body. Functional training means exercises which are specific to a sport. So in the case of running rather than just strengthening the hip to support the knee training should include the whole body’s myofascial system, shoulder to toe!

Studies have shown that if we train our bodies in their normal range of motion i.e. deadlifts for example, then we only strengthen the fascial tissues arranged in line with the active muscle fibres required for that movement, but running is a much more dynamic and unpredictable movement, therefore functionally training the broader parallel and supportive myofascial tissues is key.

Functional training our Myofascial system for running

Functional training exercises need to mimic the movement of running and so exercises should include bouncing or plyometric movements, single leg movement patterns, coordination drills ( e.g. arm and leg movements).

Energy is stored in the myofascial system in the eccentric (lengthening) phase of movement, landing, and released on the concentric (shortening) phase, toe off in running as the achilles tendon and lower leg muscles releasing the back swing in golf.  So exercises need to start with an eccentric pre-stretch that loads the myofascial system in preparation for the unloading, concentric, shortening movement.

Our fascia has a high elastin content, so loves this loading, it is highly adaptable and provides a lot of proprioceptive input (how our body instantly adjusts and feels).

Example Myofascial system exercises for runners

To follow I have included a few exercise ideas, so this list is not exhaustive or prescriptive to do these only.  These type of exercises can be incorporated into a strength session.  They can be done at home or in a gym.

Extended Arm Overhead Pull with Resistance

The aim is to build abdominal and lateral (obliques) strength, plus pelvic and hip stability from the single-leg stance of this exercise.

(this first exercise does require a bit if imagination to tie a resistance band or loop (I have something I can loop over the back of a closed door (the benefits of lockdown shopping!)

Flex one hip with a flexed knee, with your thigh midline and your pelvis level.
Check you are well aligned, lift the chest and look slightly upwards, then begin to march against the overhead resistance
Slowly increase the pace to a slow run maintaining a firm resistance/tension on the band

Make sure you keep upright and do not over extended the spine and you should feel tension in the abdominal wall area. I like this one.

Quick Step-Ups

The aim is to strengthen the trunk, pelvis, hip, knee, ankle and foot and improves single-leg balance.

Use a step, your stairs, or a step in the garden.
Stand facing the step.
Step one foot on the stair, keep the other on the ground
Check your alignment, hips and feet square, and the explosively push with the back leg up onto the step
Step off with the leg that was first on the step

Repeat alternating legs

Next, these 3 exercises are plyometric exercises (short explosive exercises) which use the stretch and then shorten muscle cycle with the goal of increasing power.

1 - Double leg hopping

This helps to develop strength and coordination of the lower leg, the broader the fascia of the ankle and foot.

Stand upright with both feet on the ground, good posture, and hands by your side
Push off the ground with both feet (jump) and immediately dorsiflex the ankle (toes/foot up to your calf)
Land with the foot dorsiflexed still and land on your toes.
You reman in the same spot and repeat

2 - Single Leg push off and hop 

This helps to develop strength and power of the lower leg and the broader fascia of the knee, ankle and foot

Stand upright with both feet on the ground and hands by your side
Push off the ground on one leg, leaping forward and immediately dorsiflex the ankle.
Try to land one stride length ahead on the ball off your foot on the same leg as you took off from, with the knee is extended.
And then repeat moving forward with alternating legs.

This one I find really hard (I think the picture shows this! Ha!)

3 - Jumping Spilt Lunges

This helps develop the strength and power through the pelvis, hip flexors, hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteals plus the broader fascia of the knee, lower leg, foot and ankle.

Get into a lunge position with feet shoulder width apart. The front leg should have the knee flexed at 45-90° and the hip flexed about the same, the trunk is upright above the pelvis, and the other leg is extended, knee bent behind you in a similar 45-90° flexed position. Have your arms in the opposite position to your legs, so one forward one back (like running or marching).

These explosive plyometric exercises I find a lot harder.  

Plyometric exercises are a vital part of any training and as they are more challenging they form part of the final stages of a rehab plan or performed when you are feeling good (not injured in any way). It is worth investing time in this sort of exercise, for strength, power and speed.

IMPORTANT - NOTE I haven’t included reps or set advice. I am not a qualified run coach, I am a Soft Tissue Therapist and qualified to provide rehab advice. A training and rehab plan is always individual and depends on many factors.  These exercises and ideas are born from my education, many seminars, reading, running, rehabing and training myself - so these are example exercise ideas. If you would like further details on these exercises and others please feel free to get in contact.