The ‘First Law of NeuroKinetics’

Have you ever had the experience of releasing tight muscles one day, only to be right back there within a day or two with the same level of tightness in the same place? I certainly have, and have now learned the ‘First Law of NeuroKinetics’! (This is my labelling, rather than a formal academic name!) But it is very useful indeed as a framework for daily bodycare!

What’s the solution?

The challenge of releases – whether a sports massage, stretching or releases is that usually the results are transient. The muscle patterns are leading to overload on that muscle group are not changed by releasing the muscle. So for all that it feels good, it does not change the cause of the tightness and hence it comes back very quickly. So rather than recovering, it can feel like painting the Forth bridge – constantly going back over the same areas.

So I have learned ‘the first law of NeuroKinetics’, ie that releases must always be accompanied with focused activation and strengthening of the opposing muscle in the pair. And then into additional activation that recruits the synergists correctly – probably involving bigger movement patterns than the more focused agonist/antagonist activation exercises. [I have to admit that there are some parts of the body where the interactions are more complex and one muscle may be inhibiting two, three or four others! Still the same principle, but a much more complex unit.]

Looking back I can see that this was in some of the programmes that I have been given. But having it front and centre of my mind is very useful indeed.

Working through a case study

As a ‘for instance’ – if the adductors are tight it suggests that they are doing a lot more stabilising of the hip region than they should be. The simplest opposing movement is abduction, which involves the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus and tensor faciae latae (TFL). And the synergist to adduction is the inside edge of the quads, whilst the synergists to abduction are more spread across the lumbopelvic area – involving the psoas, piriformis, quadratus lumborum and rectus femoris.

Releasing

The first job is to release the adductors – and there are a lot of them. Some people talk of the ‘long’ adductors (which give you the feeling down the inside of the leg between the groin and the inside knee) and the ‘short’ adductors (which you can feel in vertical lines as you move out from the groin across more towards the hip and before you reach the rectus femoris).

There are five adductors and one of the mnemonics to remember them starting from nearest the hip and moving through the groin and into the inside leg is ‘Please Baby, Love My Groin!’ – ie Pectineus and Brevis (the ‘short’ adductors), Longus, Magnus, Gracilis (the ‘long’ adductors).

The reason that it is useful to understand this is in the stretching and releases. The long adductors are normally stretched with the legs more than shoulder width and dropping the weight vertically over a bent knee on one side. However, there are three different foot positions for the straight leg and these stretch the three different adductors. The short adductors are usually stretched with the ‘frog’ stretch, but it will take some hip movements side-to-side and the weight forward and back to stretch both of the adductors involved.

Likewise, using the edge of a foam roller or a ball to get into the areas for release will require different locations to find which ones need the most release and then getting into them to release them.

For completeness, I need to mention that good breathing methods and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) can really make a difference to the quality of the releases and stretches.

Activating

Then we need in the exact same session to get into the activation exercises. There is no need to fear that they will tighten up the area that you have just released. In fact, it is the exact opposite! The more the agonist contracts successfully, the better the antagonist switches off and relaxes. 

The reason that you do the exercises is two-fold:

  1. Neuromuscular repatterning. You are programming the nervous system to send the right messages and the muscles to respond to them. It is likely that the body has got out of the habit – and this is why perfect form is so important (you need to teach the body correctly) and why usually it is sets of 15, 3 times with a recovery interval of around 1 minute between the sets (to ensure that the body ‘hears’ the message).
  2. Muscular strengthening. You will also be putting the demand on a muscle that may not have been working for a little while. So the load over a period of a couple of weeks will ensure that new fibres are made and the muscle strengthens.

So back to the example, side-leg raises are a great starting point and then we can include some abduction movements (opening the hip) either on machines or via the ‘opening the gate movement’. More complex movements can include side plank (or side half-plank if it needs regressing) with moving the top leg up and down, forward and back and then in half-moon movements starting from close to the floor in front of the lower leg and finishing close to the floor behind the lower leg.

Then we can move into some more overall movements to get the synergists moving – for instance a front or back lunge, probably breaking it into stages of movement to make sure that each part of the movement is balanced and strong, whilst moving smoothly between the positions.

If it still remains tight

If after two weeks of a daily programme on both the releasing and the activating is not making any difference to the tightness, then it does not mean that the law is wrong! It just means that with the complexity of the body’s movements and interactions we did not choose the correct opposing movement and therefore probably have the wrong muscle pairing. So we need to go back to the analysis stage and look at what other interactions are going on and simply go again with another pairing. Patience and focus does pay dividends.

Best of luck!

PS – for any Urban Dictionary readers, this is all IRL!

Love your feet!

I guess that I should have known how important feet are, but I will admit that I took mine for granted. And so when I lost all feeling in my right foot after my accident, I was still way too nonchalant. After all, the Paralympians run like the wind with blades – I was sure that I would learn.

The foot is so complex

Each foot has 26 bones, 33 joints (20 of which are actively articulated) and more than a hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments. Wow! And feet can move in so many directions and with amazing levels of control. And these link all the way up the leg into the lower back.

This is all so important to us, as tiny differences in the pressure and our movement at the foot level are all multiplied up through the body as the distance from the feet increases – with compensating and balancing to ensure that we stay upright and are able to do what we want to do. Think of how crucial footwork is in any fast-moving sport like tennis, squash, football, rugby, hockey etc.

So what should we be doing?

Given the importance of our feet, we really need to invest the same level of body care as we would in the other major muscle and movement centres. I went to a seminar with a physiotherapist who was proposing that runners should really do a 15 minute footcare workout every day in order to protect themselves from injury!

The toes are very important – especially the big toes

I remember a friend having an accident when we were in our 20’s and after it being crushed on a building site, he had to have the first section of his big toe amputated. This meant that balance and running were always really difficult for him, and he almost always wore walking boots with ankle support to stabilise his foot.

But it does not need to be as severe as that for us to lose mobility – in our feet and all of the way up through our body. Here’s a quick test – can you do the ‘vulcan salute’ from Star Trek (splitting your fingers between the 2nd and 3rd fingers) with each hand? Can you similarly control each of your toes?

Toes are very trainable – you only need to type ‘painting with feet’ into YouTube to be inspired at dexterity that people can develop in their toes.

A couple of foot work exercises for the toes

When sat down, can you use your toes to pull a towel along the ground? (without lifting the sole off the ground).

When you are lying in bed – when your feet are pointing upwards can you move your big toe up and down without the rest of the toes moving? And then the other toes, without the big toe moving? And now when you move your foot to point your toes, can you do the same toe flex and curl?

Difficult? You can help your toe mobility by continuously challenging your toes. Do also massage under the foot – through the arch just below the pads in the forefoot, feeling each of the bone/muscle and ligament complexes that control each toe (go gently, as it is always tender in there!).  Then extend the massaging and movement to each of the toes – pushing against your hand in different directions and with your foot in different positions.

Also, do roll the arch on a tennis ball. Be amazed by the simple test of touching your toes and remembering how far your hands reach. After 30 secs of rolling the arch on a tennis ball, focusing on those gritty, grainy parts with smaller circles. Then touch your toes again and check your reach. Amazing! (Some people sneakily have a tennis ball under their desk to do this arch-rolling in the office during the day!)

The amazing ankle

For all that the ankle is a hinge joint, you can do so much more than just the dorsiflexion/ plantarflexion movement of pointing the toes. You can actually roll the ankle from side to side in the inversion/eversion movement where from the feet being parallel, you can then bring the soles of your feet together and then roll the soles outwards.

This movement is incredibly important and useful for stabilising in walking and all sports.

So exercising it is good. Sit on a chair and with our hands on our knees to stop them moving, roll the ankle from side to side, so that the weight is over the big toe and then over the small toe. This may seem difficult to at the start, but is very trainable.

The feet are controlled from the lower leg

A lot of what happens in the feet is influenced by the leg (and indeed all of the way up the body).

Releasing the muscles in the lower leg associated with the foot movement is also very useful. It needs a lacrosse ball and careful placement and flexing, but this is worth doing daily if possible.

More inspiration

If you are battling with this, I have found the following website and podcast interesting and useful. Best of luck with getting your feet supporting your movement in the best possible way – reducing pain and increasing performance. Best of luck!

https://corewalking.com/

Masters athletes: looking after ourselves to avoid injuries

With half of the adults in the UK now over fifty, looking after ourselves and avoiding injury is something that is on the minds of a lot of athletes. And so many training harder for longer, and turning out new age-group records every year, there can be pressure for age group athletes to push ever harder, and potentially into injury.

I was struck by an interview with James Cracknell OBE last week, in preparation for rowing in the Cambridge Blue Boat for the Boat Race this year, aged 46. He claimed that he can still put out close to the power (in endurance terms) that he did in his 20’s when he rowed to Gold medals in both the Sydney and Athens Olympics, but that the recovery is completely different; he talked about nurturing every aspect of his body to make the start-line in a couple of weeks’ time. And of course James Cracknell is an inspiration in terms of injured athletes, having suffered a brain injury after being hit by a petrol tanker whilst cycling across the USA in 2010.

The realities of the body with age

Medical studies show that from our 30’s onwards, there are changes in the body (which we intuitively play into by moving into longer distances and more endurance events, rather than the short, explosive power of our younger years):

  • Muscle loss due to fewer, smaller and weaker muscle fibres
  • Greater rigidity and brittleness of tissues such as tendon and ligaments, reducing flexibility
  • Reduction in bone density
  • Slower release of synovial fluid in the joints
  • Reduced power due to fewer fast twitch muscles
  • Reduction of sensory inputs and responses for good balance
  • The long-term impact of posture and lifestyle factors

The good news is that exercise can hold back these declines

Weight-bearing exercise is excellent for bone strength, and also maintaining power and muscle strength.  There is also clear evidence that sports and interests that develop flexibility and balance can maintain these too – so things like yoga and tai chi can be low intensity things on your rest day that really benefit your body too.

The challenge is injuries get more frequent and recovery takes longer

The part that older age groupers will all tell you is that the battle to avoid injuries is more challenging and recovery takes longer. This just means that you need to listen to your body and give it what it needs.

Some simple ways to avoid injuries

Proven approaches that are worth building into your training plan are:

  1. Warm up for longer and do a good selection of drills that raise your heart-rate to the target zone, as well as mobilising your joints and activating the key muscles
  2. Have a longer and more gradually tapered cool down after aerobic exercise
  3. Follow a good stretching and muscle release schedule – daily if possible
  4. Focus on correct technique and good posture, ahead of the length of the session
  5. Make sure that you follow the goal of each session – and therefore have the right mix of lower intensity and higher intensity, not just always doing the same sessions at the same intensity
  6. Give yourself the right amount of recovery time, taking more if needed. Within this, uninterrupted overnight sleep is really important.
  7. Do resistance training as well as cardiovascular exercise. Use cross-training to reach your goals when you are concerned that you can get overuse injuries, and think about reducing impact and moving in multiple planes and with movements in multiple parts of the body.
  8. Keep working on flexibility and balance
  9. Keep your training plan adaptable, so that you can listen to your body
  10. Keep a training logbook that includes aches and pains, so that you can spot warning signs for injury early and act on them
  11. Take injuries seriously – don’t try and push your way through them. And give your body the rest and recovery that it needs
  12. Go for the health checks that you are offered – especially the checks on blood pressure and cardiovascular health

And of course, above all, enjoy your training and racing.

We only have one body for life, so it is worth taking good care of it as it matures