Monday, 24 October 2016

Are you relaxing as well as contracting?

A fascinating post by Joanne Elphinston brings up the issue of muscle control and relaxation. For the body to move efficiently and beautifully there needs to be coordinated muscle control including appropriate relaxation. Without this, muscles can only partially release resulting in inhibited movement and eventually fatigue. To observe this for yourself try comparing extending your leg behind you with your quadriceps contracted then again with them relaxed; or rotating your trunk with your abdominal muscles first tensed, then relaxed.How far can you go each time? 

Often the person affected will read this as tightness and will try to address the problem by stretching - but of course this is futile if the muscle can't relax to allow the movement. Aggressive stretching can end up being counter productive as it may trigger the stretch reflex in self protection.

One answer is to practice self awareness by consciously contracting and then releasing different muscles in turn, maybe beginning at the neck and then working down towards the toes. This is a common relaxation exercise but you can practice with individual muscle groups whenever you like. Another is to practice seeing how minimal an effort and how few muscles can be used for a movement such as turning the wrist, raising the arm or rotating a leg. Practice the movement, observe which muscles you are activating, think if you really need all of them and then try again. An example is raising your arm up to shoulder height in front of you; are your shoulders remaining relaxed or are you hoisting with your whole shoulder? Practice the movement slowly and observe any changes as you focus on allowing smooth, relaxed movement.

Joanne observes the importance of rapid and effective release of muscle tension in generating power and preventing injury; just as important as rapid and appropriate muscle recruitment. I have observed in my own clinic practice that there is more often an issue around 'letting go' of muscles rather than the ability to recruit.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Mia's Memorial Campaign

I met Mia Ayliffe-Chung ten years ago, when she was ten and I used to climb with her mother, Rosie. Mia came to the crag with us and was a funny, confident, astute girl with a lovely personality. I also noticed that she was an excellent listener who would very likely be quick to pick up on nuances of conversation and spot what it revealed about the speakers. All my friends who met Mia remember her as tremendous fun to spend time with.

I only saw her once as an adult, at Rosie's 50th birthday celebration; she had grown up into a striking and stylish young woman, still confident and evidently enjoying life enormously. I hadn't met up with Rosie much in the intervening years after I stopped climbing and life got significantly busier, but we'd kept in touch through Facebook and I enjoyed her posts on what Mia was up to. 

   On the morning of Wednesday 24th August I switched on my tablet to catch up with Facebook before work. I am selective with what I allow on my newsfeed and this is normally a pleasant way to begin the day, seeing what friends are up to and looking up interesting articles and other items that they recommend. I noticed that Rosie had posted and assumed it would be another update on Mia's travels; she had just begun unpaid work on an Australian farm in order to extend her Visa. It was an update, but a truly shocking one to inform us before we saw it on the news that Mia had been murdered in a brutal attack by a fellow worker at the farm she was staying on. Although I didn't know Mia well, I felt overwhelmed by a profound sense that a bright presence that enriched the world was gone. I could not begin to imagine the pain and devastation that Rosie was enduring.

As Rosie found out more she shared it with us. When Mia first arrived on the farm four days before the attack Rosie had become aware that things were not right and that her daughter was worried about conditions there. Rosie is a strong woman and since Mia's death she has channelled this strength into finding out more and taking action. On travelling out to Australia she realised just how exploitative the labour for Visas system is, and she set up a campaign in Mia's name to raise awareness and bring about regulation and better, safer conditions for foreign workers. Rosie is extremely intelligent and articulate, and you may have heard her speaking on the radio about Mia's life, death and the campaign for regulation or read her articles for the Independent newspaper. Rosie's dignity, compassion and strength whilst in the public eye has been inspirational. 

Rosie set up a petition asking the Australian government to implement regulation of obligatory farmwork service. It so far has more than 4000 signatures but this is not enough. Below is a link to the petition, together with Rosie's own words explaining why this regulation is imperative.

If you scroll down, you can find updates on the campaign. 

We will never know if regulation would have saved Mia's life, but it could make the lives of many other young people travelling and working in Australia much safer.       

There is now a campaign called Tom and Mia's Legacy, dedicated to improving conditions for migrant workers.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Functional stability

From my course, Functional Foundations for Health, Fitness and Wellbeing Professionals:

Joanne Elphinson spent a lot of time talking about the importance of the body being capable of producing appropriate responses to the many and varied external elements challenging it, for instance being knocked into, tripping over, stretching and twisting to reach something, carrying something heavy, changing direction rapidly. 

She clarified core stability versus strength, and highlighted how it is one thing to keep on training for a stronger set of central muscles but another to be able to utilise that strength effectively. She finds that many people already have more then sufficient core strength for what they wish to achieve and need only to learn how to engage it as part of their functional stability and effective movement and management of forces.

Joanne has drawn up what she calls the Pillars of Functional Stability in her book 'Stability, Sport and Performance Movement: practical biomechanics and systematic training for movement efficacy and injury prevention'. 

She sees these pillars as the foundations from which to develop speed, power, strength, agility, flexibility and injury resistance. They include:

'Functional mobility: the ability to move through the full range of movement under dynamic conditions.

Balance: the ability to organise the body over its support point quickly and accurately.

Posture: the neuromuscular relationships that optimise joint motion and muscular action, trigger automatic stabilising activity and minimise structural stress on the body.

Optimal functional motor pattern: the timing, proportion and sequencing of muscular activation.

Neuromuscular response and control: the unconscious, automatic activation of joint stabilising muscles to prepare for the impulse to move, or respond to rapid, sudden or unexpected body control challenges of loading.

Movement symmetry: the balance of movement and counter-movement around a controlled central axis in the body'
(Elphinston 2013 p28) 

Much of the four days of the course was spent exploring this in ourselves and each other. It was fascinating how different challenges revealed weaknesses in one or more of our 'pillars' and how quickly (sometimes!) the brain and hence body could adjust and adapt given suitable cues. Sometimes we performed well initially but problems emerged as the challenge increased. It was also fascinating to see how we all develop compensation strategies that are often extremely successful and don't cause any problems at all until we wish to to push ourselves that little bit further.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

JEMming away....

I have just been on a course which many of my clients will have heard me talk about: Functional Foundations for Health, Fitness and Wellbeing. It is run by Joanne Elphinston, a well respected physiotherapist who focuses on efficient, robust and adaptable spontaneous movement in people of all ages and levels of activity. Whilst Joanne is often working with top level athletes who are experiencing injury or performance barriers, her approach is applicable to absolutely everybody; raising self awareness and reducing stress on the body in order to achieve more effective movement. A core principle of JEMS is considering the whole person and their environment.

Part one of the course included looking at effective force management: its generation followed by sharing across a large surface area and transmission throughout the body before finally dispersing. We also looked at functional stability. A key focus throughout was on sensitivity and proprioception, and there was careful attention to visual and verbal cues. By the end of the four days many of us noticed improvements in how we were moving and feeling: subtle but profound changes. Part two extended this and whilst I found it helpful in consolidating part one, I was rather overwhelmed by the volume of content and intend to redo these two days (Joanne says that it is very usual for people to repeat parts of the course; it's a relief to not be alone in needing this!) The depth of knowledge and experience of Joanne and her team was inspiring, and their enthusiasm as well as effectiveness in sharing their skill with us kept the four days enjoyable.

The course was very practical as well as covering the background theory. I will not be able to use all of what I learnt over the four days straight away and will be going back to redo part two to ensure it is embedded. However some of it I am using already and I will be integrating yet more over the coming months. It combines extremely well with my soft tissue work and my aim in using it is to consolidate and maintain the improvements in well being gained through massage treatment. So far I have had positive feedback and some excellent results which is very encouraging.

You can find out more about JEMS here; Joanne's blog posts can be found on her site and are always interesting:

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Nearly not broken....

So there I was about to begin running again when I overdid things and ended up with an abdominal strain. The lumbar took on an extra work load in an effort to compensate and so stiffened up, the hamstrings tightened, my knees hurt and, well, no running after all! Just walking up and down our local hills was a challenge and as for crushing garlic and sneezing, that was really sore! However, I have taken it as a learning experience; not only will I treat hammering in fence posts with more respect, I have also directly experienced secondary symptoms which I previously only had theoretical experience of and so now have a deeper understanding of them. Yes, I would have preferred not to have the abdominal strain but one must always look for the silver lining. I also took it as a sign to start doing some regular yoga. Three weeks on I have resumed resistance training - cautiously - and am enjoying the strengthening, balancing and stretching benefits of the yoga. I note that where I used to find the yoga relaxation poses dull when I was in my teens and twenties, I now very much relish them; ah, the bliss of a lie down!

Once I feel ready I will be getting out for some evening runs. This time of year is so perfect; long hours of daylight but still relatively cool. I am out with the dog every day in the local woods where the greenery has leapt up in the last few days. The canopy has fully opened to create a green, shady tent and the paths are lined with fool's parsley and garlic mustard,with wood forget-me-nots peeping up sweetly. The garlic aroma of the ramson flowers fills the air with their last huzzah before they fade away. Out on the field the hawthorn is decked in its bridal finery, with the rowan and elderflower in attendance. Whilst I love the yellows, pinks and blues of spring and summer, this fresh green foliage and white blossom is always a delight.

I will be having the first few days of June off as a holiday (maybe even going for that run!) I will be back as normal from the 7th June.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016


I have been experiencing something completely new for me; training one to one with Ian Shore, a personal trainer based in Sheffield.

Why? Well, after years of being fit and active I've experienced a few years now of not being able to do the running and long distance walking that I enjoy so much, and I want to change that. I feel the problem is an underlying muscle imbalance and inefficient movement pattern left over from a knee injury ten years ago, after which all my issues began to appear one after the other. I have never used modern gym equipment so this was also an opportunity to see what my massage clients get up to. My wished for outcome: make sure the postural muscles are switched on and doing their thing, address weak areas that I am compensating for and develop efficient movement patterns.

I have known Ian for a while; he is the epitome of cheerfulness, the kind of positive person you like to spend time with. As a personal trainer he has an infectious enthusiasm that makes you try that little bit harder than you thought you wanted to, because it's fun! His gym room is light and airy which helps keep the energy levels up. He got me doing antagonistic resistance training, working upper and lower body. Weak areas became apparent; there was nowhere for them to hide. Ian took me through a sequence that whisked me between opposing muscle groups; just as I felt I was ready to keel over from one exercise we would switch and give those muscles the chance to rest and regroup, albeit briefly, whilst their opposite numbers took up the strain.  We also did core as a bit of light relief for me; my core is by far my strongest area! I liked that it was all active movement that felt like it related to movement I would do outside of the training, where many muscles work together to stabilise and control the action in open and closed kinetic chains.   

Immediately afterwards I felt that my shoulders were open and my posture more balanced; relaxed but also poised and ready for action! I could feel my gluteals activating as I walked home. Two days later I felt I had the right amount of DOMS: enough to know I'd worked but not enough to inhibit normal activity. The next session and the after effects were just as positive, and I am looking forward to my first run of 2016. 

Ian is passionate about his work and how exercise can help people transform their lives. This is reflected in his ongoing professional development that you can read about on his site. 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Bracing against high winds.

I've noticed a sharp rise in people coming in complaining of neck and back stiffness and pain since the gales began in November. One possible factor is constant bracing against the extreme winds; when added to tension already present this can result in protective spasm. Bracing in slippery conditions such as mud and ice can have a similar effect. As ever, stiffness and restricted movement can lead to inefficient movement and compensation patterns that cause the problem to spread. 

So, what to do?

Remind your body to relax. Lie on your back on the floor, knees bent and feet flat on the floor, and imagine your spine sinking down into the ground. Relax like this for at least half a minute, a couple if you can. This can be extended by consciously tensing and relaxing different muscle groups starting from your scalp and working down in turn to your feet. Tense each muscle group for ten seconds then release and appreciate the contrast before moving on to the next.

Test your range of movement with simple yoga stretches for the back. Remember to include rotational ones if you are able to do these safely; these can lead on from your relaxation exercise. There is a demonstration of a seated one on our 919 Clinic website; look for the back pain video in the Exercises section. I also like the half moon stretch, which I often do against a tree whilst walking the dog in the woods when no one is around to see. Again, hold it each side for thirty seconds.

When out and about check in with your body to see if you are tensing. In strong winds this is probably unavoidable but you may be doing it unconsciously at other times when it's not necessary. Practice consciously tensing your muscles, holding for a few seconds then allowing to relax.