The human body is an incredibly designed machine, its mere form and function and what it is able to achieve is quite spectacular. Think about the amazing ability our bodies have to adapt.
As CrossFitters, our bodies get pushed and placed under stress on a regular basis. For many of us, we will be attending our CrossFit class three plus times a week. Often within a few months of starting, we notice that we are starting to lift heavier, move faster and last months’ PB is this months’ warm up (mild exaggeration, but you get the gist).
But, for many of us, at some stage, we find ourselves stuck on a plateau. There seems to be no improvement or change in our abilities and performance. Sometimes we may even lose a few of the hard earned gains that we worked so hard to achieve.
By this stage, you may have developed a “niggle” in your shoulder that no amount of pain balling seems to alleviate or there is a sudden ache in your lower back after deadlifts that you never felt previously.
So what has happened?
One of the reasons for this could be a muscle spasm build up in the body.
When our microscopic muscle fiber has been overused, strained or not given the time it needs to recover, it stays in a contracted position. A healthy muscle fiber needs to contract and release in order to function optimally. If one fiber stops working, then the surrounding fibers are negatively impacted as the muscle pattern is disrupted. The spread of the spasm will soon alert the nervous system and ultimately bring on a pain response.
Something else to consider is that our muscles were formed with certain responsibilities. They all have a primary function to either flex, extend, rotate or stabilize. Additional to their primary responsibilities, they also have a secondary and sometimes even tertiary functions which allow them to assist their fellow muscle colleagues.
Additionally, our nervous system is designed to activate a muscle pathway when we begin to move. The nervous system recruits the primary chain of muscles required to ensure that the movement we do is the safest on joints, as well as being strong and efficient in its execution.
The problem we face is that as our muscle spasm spreads and the pain begins to linger (because we are secretly hoping the issue will disappear by itself), our body will find a different muscle pathway to use to avoid the painful, distressed area. Our movement pattern begins to alter. The primary pathway of safe, strong and efficient muscle can no longer be used and the central nervous system starts recruiting secondary muscles to take over those movement responsibilities.
Sometimes our bodies will heal the primary spasm by itself and the original pathway is restored automatically. However this is not always the case as sometimes that primary spasm does not heal and the new, dysfunctional secondary muscle pattern begins to take strain as these muscles are not designed to permanently do what is now being required of them.
Shoulder and elbow joints are often the first to start aching as the rotator cuff start taking strain; lower backs and hamstrings burn after what should be a glute dominant workout, or a simple run could feel as challenging as a tortoise trying to stampede through peanut butter.
What we need to do is focus on not getting to this point by working to prevent the build up of muscle spasm on the microscopic muscle fiber level. Foam rolling, stretching and mobility drills are the very basics of physical maintenance that every CrossFit athlete should be putting both time and effort into doing.
The work an athlete can do on themselves is essential to slow down the build up of a spasm, but unfortunately, this does not eliminate it altogether as we are only able to access the larger muscle groups.
The benefit of massage therapy is that it is an extremely effective way to get into the smaller, intricate muscles that are elusive to the infamous pain ball and foam roller. Your massage therapist will also be able to assess which muscle pathways have been overused and are at the risk of becoming sidelined due to spasm.
The demand for sports massage has increasingly dramatically as it is recognized as a skill that aids recovery, enhances performance and highlights problematic areas within the body. Your therapist can detect variations in the muscle tissue such as spasm, trigger points, strains or just plain DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) which once identified can be released and treated.
One of the greatest benefits of sports massage is aiding to prevent injury; therefore sports massage is most effective when used as a regular part of your training schedule not only to prevent a build up but more importantly, to keep the muscle tissue healthy and functioning at its optimum capacity.
The benefits of regular massage include:
– Reduction in the severity of DOMS
– Increased recovery rate
– Realign muscle fibers to their correct tension and length for optimal muscle function
– Maintain muscle flexibility
– Improved range of movement in joints
– Reduce spasm and cramping
Unfortunately, however, most CrossFit athletes ignore their pain or stiffness in the hope it will miraculously disappear by itself. Eventually, though, when the pain starts to impact our daily lives and mundane tasks, the athlete will only then make their way to a referred massage therapist in order to endure more pain as the therapist starts to work on a few months’ worth of spasm, inflammation, and dysfunctional muscular patterns. This scenario is not only painful, time-consuming and expensive but it is also completely preventable.
Most of us sadly, are unaware of how good our bodies are actually supposed to feel. Spasm builds so slowly, that we are unaware of its arrival and unaware of its growth – by the time pain arrives, our bodies have already compensated by forming a new dysfunctional pattern. Regular massage – even when you are feeling good – is critical for any athlete that is training regularly in any form of stressful environment.
The general rule of thumb is one full body treatment every 4 to 6 weeks for the individual who trains regularly but is not increasing their load excessively. Athletes that are on programming to increase performance should be having a treatment every 2 to 3 weeks. Massage can cause stiffness the following day, so even though training after a treatment is not contraindicated, it would be best to plan your off day or an easy session after your massage.
It is important to remember that massage is never a replacement for medical treatment, and if any athlete experiences sharp, shooting pain, joint pain or dizziness symptoms whilst training, then a visit to the physiotherapist or chiropractor should be the first step in rehabilitation.
Author: Michelle Du Plessis
Sport Massage Therapist
Michelle completed her two-year diploma in Sport and Therapeutic Massage Therapy through the Cape Institute for Allied Health Studies in 2004. After travelling for a few years, she joined the team at Sport Science Physiotherapy Centre at the Sport Science Institute of South Africa where she gained valuable insight and experience before heading into private practice in Newlands, Cape Town.
Michelle is particularly interested in recurring injuries and muscle patterns – the body is an intricate and complex design which has an amazing ability to compensate for pain or any other necessary adaption. Michelle is a trail runner and CrossFitter (with a history of mountain biking and a future of ballroom dancing), and so she has had her fair share of injuries and experiences when it comes it the body not performing the way it is supposed to.
“I understand the commitment we have to our sports and doing what we love.”
Contact Michelle at:
Michelle du Plessis
Sport Massage Therapist
Dean Street Arcade
Newlands, Cape Town