(Editors' Note: This article was part of Club Industry's June 2019 "Making Space for Recovery in Your Health Club" report. You can download the full free report here.)
Injury, recovery and movement enhancement are all common parts of an athlete’s life. Balancing the movement between these three areas can be tricky.
Let's start with injury. Soreness after training is technically an injury because muscle soreness is muscle damage. Recent research from Brigham Young University shows that immune system cells help to repair muscle damage after a workout, a normal response to injury, but do we want our immune system always activated after working out? What does this reaction do to our movement enhancement? Knowing soreness is an injury and that chronic soreness decreases performance, learning a process to recover (or prevent) soreness should be a critical part of everyone’s plan.
As for the recovery from injury, we need a safe, pain-free environment for optimal adaptation. All recovery techniques can be categorized into either pain control or conditioning. Pain science has taught us that the solution for pain is to change the sensitizing agent(s) and/or to build a tolerance to the sensitizing agent(s) or the structural change. Pain is a sensation of a perceived threat. Perceived is the key word. Pain, regardless of how one describes it, is not always directly correlated to the degree of tissue damage. For example, a paper cut hurts a lot but has a minimal impact on tissue damage. Conversely, a cancerous tumor may not hurt at all but can cause great damage
The solution to reduce soreness and enhance movement after exercise is to first decrease sensitive tissue regions followed by building up tissue tolerance. This leads me to what I refer to as “soft tissue hygiene.” We are all taught how to maintain good dental hygiene—brush and floss—but what about the rest of our tissues? Teaching athletes daily soft tissue hygiene, utilizing tools that improve soft tissue resilience/tolerance, is key to mitigating chronic damage—just like brushing and flossing. We don’t brush only when we think we need it; we learn to create a habit. The only way to make a chronic change to your tissues is to make soft tissue hygiene a habit. Research published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association demonstrated that tools that compress tissue slowly change the internal fluid matrix in a beneficial way. When there is increased viscosity (thickness) in the internal fluid matrix, it can adversely affect many mechanisms in our body. Free nerve endings and other mechanoreceptors can be altered, leading to chronic soreness, pain and/or stiffness, and altered motor control. In addition, if the tool used to compress the tissue includes vibration with compression, there is a greater benefit than just massaging over the skin or using an implement to roll up and down body parts. Since the change occurs in the viscoelastic components of the soft tissue complex, slow compression/shear/vibration and heat tends to bring positive benefits in the conditioning phase.
In summary, chronic soreness is really an injury and should be avoided. Proper soft tissue hygiene can help (relieve or prevent) soreness. Let's teach people soft tissue hygiene.
Lenny Parracino, CMT, FAFS, is a soft tissue therapist for the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team. He writes, lectures and teaches with the Gray Institute on topics of performance, training and conditioning, injury prevention and rehabilitation. He is on the advisory board for Hyperice.