How Somatics Can Help Runners

Running is one of the most convenient activities available for those who want to move vigorously. 

University of Utah biologist David Carrier hypothesized that our ability to run long distances evolved in humans for the simple reason that the ability to pursue predators for long distances (endurance hunting) meant a steady food supply. We were born to run, but for some people, running is a painful and laborious activity.

As with any sport – and especially one that can be taken to an extreme, runners suffer from injuries and sensory motor amnesia. The most frequent running injuries are knee pain, iliotibial band syndrome,  plantar fasciitis and hip pain.

Running when injured creates more injury.

Many runners will often continue to run, even when they are nursing an old injury. Some of the runners I’ve worked with say that they figured they could just “run it out” thereby fixing the problem. Unfortunately this causes more harm than good. Here’s why:

  • When you’re injured, your muscles reflexively adapt and learn to move differently. This is called compensation.
  • Long term compensation develops into sensory motor amnesia (SMA).
  • Running while compensating for an injury doesn’t doesn’t change what your muscles are doing; it only creates more compensation.
  • You must first eliminate the compensatory pattern (the SMA), and then you can regain your original running form.

Runners often run on uneven, paved roads.

A majority of runners in cities and suburbs run on uneven asphalt roads. The road is slightly graded to allow for water runoff, so rather than using the legs and hips equally, they run with a slight tilt in the hips, with  more weight on one leg than the other. This causes the waist muscles on the higher side of the graded road to contract tighter than the other side. It’s slight, but when this kind of sensory motor amnesia develops it alters the gait and contributes to iliotibial band pain and knee pain. The angle of the road also put the foot an an awkward angle to the ankle.

Runners often have limited hip movement.

When hip and pelvis movement is limited, you will be more likely to have iliotibial band syndrome, back pain, hip joint pain and hamstring strains. A pelvis that doesn’t rotate gently doesn’t allow the body to move gracefully and efficiently. If the body is stiff and the hips and pelvis rigid, the swinging action of the legs while running (or walking) will come solely from the hip joint – what I like to call “running with your legs instead of your whole body.” This can create overuse injuries of the hips and hamstrings. Here’s a ChiRunning article that goes more into depth about pelvic rotation.

Orthotics and “supportive” running shoes reduces the foot’s ability to move.

The feet are one of the most important sensory organs of the body. When we encase our feet in  shoes we risk losing sensory awareness and motor control of the muscles of the foot and lower leg that help us stabilize ourselves for upright movement. There is more of a tendency to “heel strike” when wearing thicker running shoes. This is both jarring for the spine and inefficient for forward motion.

Orthotics, thought to fix foot problems, interfere in the ability of the feet to absorb impact properly and adjust to changes in terrain (as in trail running). Thankfully there’s a trend toward more minimalistic and “barefoot” running shoes, which allows both the foot and lower leg muscles to move naturally.

Here are 5 somatic exercises for an easy “warm up” before running:

  • back lift – for control of the back muscles
  • cross lateral arch and curl – for control of the abdominal muscles
  • side bend – to equalize waist muscle function
  • steeple twist – for gentle twisting of the shoulders, spine and hips
  • walking exercises – for proper mechanics of walking and pelvis rotation

After your run, try these:

Click here to purchase my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD or any of my other “Pain-Free” instructional DVDs.

Martha is available for specialty workshops and clinical teaching in the US and overseas. Contact her for more information.

Many thanks to Jim Hansen, a runner and Somatics enthusiast whose shared running experience helped me write this post. Check out his blog here.

Why Iliotibial Band Stretches Don’t Work (and What Does)

Iliotibial Band Syndrome is a common problem with runners and cyclists and those who have suffered an injury.

The iliotibital band, commonly known as the “IT band,” is a band of tissue extending from the hip, along the outside of the thigh and knee.  With “Iliotibial Band Syndrome” the IT band becomes very tight and sore, making it difficult to exercise.

How does the iliotibial band syndrome occur and what can you do about it?

Iliotibial band syndrome occurs when the IT band becomes inflammed during repetitive flexion and extension of the leg in running, biking and hiking (this is a very simplistic explanation). I would offer another perspective – because not all runners, cyclists and hikers suffer from a tight iliotibial band and/or accompanying knee pain.

Iliotibial band syndrome is the result of a “trauma reflex.”

The most common muscular pattern I see in people with iliotibial band pain is the “trauma reflex.” The photo at right is of a recent client – a soccer player – who complained of right sided iliotibial band pain, hamstring and knee pain. It is a perfect example of the trauma reflex. Notice the following:

  • the waist muscles on the left side of his body are tighter, hiking the left hip up higher than the right.
  • his left shoulder is pulled down in response to the tightening of the waist muscles.
  • the shift in his pelvis causes him to shift his weight to his right side.

When this occurs, the pelvis is pulled out of balance and twists slightly. This can occur if you’re a runner who slips in the mud, or a cyclist who falls off his bike, or as you slip down the stairs. This “trauma reflex” alters the gait in such a way that one will run or walk as if he were a car with one flat tire. This kind of accumulated muscle tension on one side causes the IT band to tighten in order to stabilize the relationship between the pelvis, hip and knee. In this client’s case, we did a clinical session for the trauma reflex, and in one hour, his hamstring, knee and IT band pain disappeared once he learned to even out his waist muscles and regain symmetry in his pelvis.

One common treatment is stretching out the IT band.  The trouble is that it doesn’t work. Here is why:

Stretching fascia that is attached to to muscles that are constantly contracting suggests a lack of understanding about how the muscular system works. Fascia is tight because the muscles are tight. Muscles become tight through habituation – in the case of IT band pain – a trauma reflex, which creates a postural imbalance. Because muscles are controlled from within – both voluntarily and involuntarily fascia will become more pliable once the muscles relax. Fascial work is an example of attempting to fix the problem from the “outside in” when in fact, it can only be fixed from the inside out – through sensory motor retraining. Learn to change the way in which you sense and move your muscles you are on road the targeting the root cause of your pain: your brain.

Try this easy pandiculation for the iliotibial band pain relief:

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