[Are you hoping to get into a running habit for the first time? Or perhaps you are planning to get back into running, but it has been quite a while since you last ran? This article is for you!]
The take home message: Allow adequate time for rest and recovery
If you want to “cut to the chase” before reading through the article, my bottom-line recommendation for new runners and jumpers is that you should allow two or three days of rest or non-springy exercise in between your days of springing or ballistic exercise. In other words, run only twice a week (three times max) if you are conditioning your tendons for running, and do some non-ballistic (non-springy) kind of exercise on your “rest and recovery” days. Training in this way will help you avoid tendon injuries and muscle pulls, thereby allowing you to increase your distance and improve your speed in the fastest and surest way.
The same thing applies to conditioning yourself to run in “barefoot” shoes. Even if you are a seasoned runner, if you are wanting to try training with a minimal shoe, you will avoid injury and recondition your tendons more quickly for this new demand when you train in your regular shoes on your “rest” days and use your new barefoot shoes only twice a week, perhaps for several months. As you increase your frequency of running in minimal shoes, if you start to feel a tweak or strain in your calves or tendons, consider dropping back to just twice a week again to allow repair time for fascial remodeling.
Knowing a bit about myofascial structure and function will further help you to understand tendon health and the importance of rest days. [Myo- means muscle, so myofascial refers to the layers of fascia associated with the muscles. Rest in this case means lower demand.]
Even if you think you know all about myofascia, don’t miss the section below explaining how tendons function as springs.
Fascia is a vast supportive network
Most of you imagine fascia as a tough wrapper, a layer of supportive connective tissue, wrapping around our muscles like a body stocking, which helps to transfer force throughout the structure. In part, you are right, this is facia. (Those of you who have prepped chicken breasts for cooking, and have tried to trim off the excess fat, know just how tough and difficult to tear the fascial wrapper actually is.)
Now, imagine that wrapped around every single muscle cell there is a similar material, and this material also wraps around every bundle or cluster of muscle cells. All of this material can actually be categorized as part of the fascial net. Fascia occurs throughout the muscle, not just as a wrapper on the outside.
In comparing a muscle to a section of orange, first imagine that the juice in the orange section represents all the contractile cells of the muscle. Then, imagine removing all the juice: the three-dimensional network of membranes that remain is very similar to the three-dimensional distribution of fascia within a muscle.
Tendons are part of the fascial network
Where the muscle tapers, becoming tendon, the number of contractile cells is dramatically reduced. As the three-dimensional network of fascial layers within the muscle continues reaching toward the bone, and the aggregation of these fascial layers without the contractile muscle cells becomes much denser, this tissue is now labeled “tendon.”
Continuity of layers is one of the reasons why tendons, along with the periosteum (the connective tissue wrapper around the bones) and ligaments and joint capsules, are considered to be part of the “fabric” of the myofascial system.
In addition, all of this material that supports and connects the bones and muscles has a similar tissue make-up: dominated by collagen fibers, with intermixed bits of elastin, reticulin, fibroblasts, and other types of cells.
Now here comes the interesting bit, which may be a new concept to many of you who have studied muscles before:
Tendons are the springs in the fascial system
We used to think tendons did not change length, while muscles did all the contracting and releasing as we moved around. We also thought that strong muscular contraction was what made people spring into the air.
However, research in recent years has demonstrated that tendons do change length considerably as we jump or leap. In fact, this lengthening and shortening of tendons is what makes a pole-vaulter or sprinter (or your cat leaping eight times it’s height onto the counter, or a kangaroo bounding through the outback) spring so nimbly well.
Without healthy fascial systems (including supple and springy tendons), we won’t be able to move with youthful vigor, and we won’t be as fast and resilient.
If you want more detail about the bio-mechanics of this, I’ll refer you (especially the inquisitive, science-minded athletes and anatomy geeks) to an article titled “Fascial Fitness,” written by Dr. Robert Schleip and his colleague Divo Müller.
Here, I offer just a brief summary of their explanation of how tendons create springiness:
The contractile part of a muscle’s initial job is to “pre-tense” the tendon in preparation for “eccentric loading.” (Eccentric loading means that the muscle-tendon unit is lengthened while under a workload.) Which means that the calf muscles contract a bit as the jumper starts to crouch. Crouching further loads the Achilles’ tendon with tension, and at this stage of preparation for flight, the tendon is measurably lengthened. Next, as all the contracting muscles fire in concert to send the jumper into the air, the load on the tendons (particularly the Achilles’ tendon in this example) is released and the tendons spring back to their original shorter lengths, giving the jumper much more height than they would achieve through simple muscle contraction alone.
Implications for training and running (also summarized from “Fascial Fitness”)
Tendons get stiffer and less resilient over the months and years when they are not subjected to springy or ballistic loading. Stiff tendons are subject to tearing. Yet, through careful training, tendons can be remodeled; you can recover the youthful suppleness that you used to have in your tendons.
When you put a greater demand on your tendons (through springy activity) than what they are used to handling, you will produce micro-tears. Your body has a natural process for breaking down and renewing this damaged tissue in the tendons. This breakdown and repair phase takes two or three days to complete.
Running too often (during the conditioning phase when you are increasing the dynamic load on your tendons) doesn’t allow your body enough time to repair the micro-trauma, making you more vulnerable to macro-tearing and the accompanying pain that will sideline you, slow you down, or put you in the bicycle seat. Thus, running too frequently can actually delay you from meeting your running goals. [Too much enthusiasm about wearing your new Vibram® Five-finger shoes can also lead to injury and set-backs, because minimal shoes require you to “bounce” or spring within a greater range, increasing the dynamic workload. Wear the shoes just twice a week to begin with.]
If in the past you experienced “muscle pulls,” muscle or tendon pain, or tendon inflammation from running, and you concluded you could never be comfortable running, you may actually want to try again but with a different strategy. This time, don your running shoes just twice a week, and sprinkle non-impact or low-impact exercise into the in-between days (yoga, Nia®, swimming, biking, walking). You will gradually build resilience in your tendons and the rest of your myofascial network.
For manual and movement therapists, serious athletes, and athletic trainers
In addition to reading Robert Schleip’s article, “Fascial Fitness,” you may be interested in one of the classes that that has been developed from his collaboration with Thomas Myers (author of the book Anatomy Trains).
“Fascia-nating” is Robert Schleip’s favorite made-up adjective and pun. Both Tom and Robert love to explain fascia and can do so in a riveting and enlightening way. Clicking here, you can find a description of the Fascial Fitness class taught by Thomas Myers, in addition to other articles about fascial health. His next class takes place in Boston, May 19-20.