I put this post together in response to the high number of questions I was getting on tight muscles, trigger points, and IT band issues. While not an exhaustive source by any means, this post should help get you started on treating and avoiding injuries.
Trigger points are hyper-sensitive irritable knots or areas that occur in various parts of the body. They often develop over time, especially during repetitive motion exercises (like running) or as a result of poor posture. As trigger points develop, they can cause pain in the area of the trigger point as well as in areas of the body away from the trigger point. This condition is known as referred pain. In many cases, referred pain often leads people to think they’re injured in the referred location, as opposed to where the real issue lies.
The below diagrams show common trigger point locations on the front and back of the body.
Massage therapy from a licensed massage therapist, athletic trainer, or physical therapist can help identify trigger points and tight fascia (think IT band). Using hands-on techniques, they can apply focused pressure on the trigger point and help restore the normal muscle/tension function. By applying the appropriate level of pressure and motion, trigger points can be removed and the fascia loosened. The most common place for trigger points to appear in runners is in the calves and quads. Often tight calves are caused by one or more trigger points, so stretching, in comparison, has a minimal effect.
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Foam rollers, when used correctly and frequently, can help you manage painful and irritable areas by helping you reduce or eliminate knots and tight fascia. In some cases, a foam roller can do this at a significant fraction of the cost of massage therapy. Personally, I find that sports massage is a lot more effective and faster than foam rolling, but the latter is certainly worth a try and is great for maintenance. Foam rollers run about $20-50, depending on the size and type of roller needed.
Some benefits of foam rolling:
Note: Foam rolling is not for everyone. While extremely beneficial, people with certain conditions, especially with neck, back or spine issues should see a physician prior to starting an exercise program or using a foam roller.
There are dozens of possibilities when it comes to finding the best foam roller, but for most exercises and massage techniques, it really comes down to just a few choices and sizes. In most cases, just 2-3 different types of rollers can cover 90% or more of all the foam roller exercises and massage therapy/stretching available.
Since foam rollers are a low-cost item, it’s my opinion that every runner should have a couple of these on hand. The benefits of foam rolling are well-documented, and rollers can really help with flexibility, muscle tightness, and even injury prevention. Not a bad investment for under $50!
For beginners and casual users, a 36″ x 6″ high-density foam roller (full round) and a stick roller (optional) is about all you will ever need for a majority of exercises and massage/stretching techniques available. After that, you can experiment with other types of rollers, but most are really only different in that they are adjusting for length, surface (smooth vs. knobby), or hardness.
Another variation of the high-density foam roller is a grid foam roller. The main difference is that it contains a rougher surface. These types are best for removing or reducing trigger point pain. The industry standard and recommended roller in this category is the Grid Foam Roller by Trigger Point Performance. It’s awesome, and I love mine! Be sure to get the 26″ version, which is a sufficient size. They also have a 13″ version, but that’s too small for most practical applications.
Finally, the roller most runners are familiar with is a stick or handheld roller. Stick or handheld rollers are portable and best used on the legs (quads, calf muscles, and hamstrings). These are popular among runners, because they can accurately apply pressure to the legs exactly where it’s needed. The most common type of stick roller and one that is especially popular with runners and therapists alike is “The Stick” Original Body Stick . The Stick is my second choice of roller and one that you should seriously consider purchasing after purchasing a 36″ high-density foam roller.
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What are your strategies for dealing with tight muscles and trigger points?
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