It started as a tightness in my calf not even a half mile into the run. I stopped and tried to stretch it out. It felt a little better. Kept going. The tightness came back and now it was increasing. I stopped and stretched again. “This is really going to affect my time.” I got back to running. The tightness returned. “OK, stretching isn’t working. I’m just going to run through it. It’ll go away after awhile.” But it didn’t. It got tighter and tighter. Until, shortly after mile 4 the pain in my calf muscle erupted into the edge of a dull knife tearing down my leg. I limped back in pain wondering what I was going to do next.
Sound familiar? Then you have experienced the joy that is a muscle knot, or trigger point as the medical community calls it. Or in my case, several of them. The good news is muscle knots are painful but easily treatable.
While there is some disagreement about what exactly causes trigger points, what gets rid of them is without doubt. (Keep in mind what we’re talking about here are muscle knots that arise from physical activity and not a medical condition such as fibromyalgia.) The question you have to ask yourself is, am I sadist or a masochist?
Sadist or Masochist?
The most effective treatment for calf muscle knots from running is deep, tissue massage. Now, when my coach told me that I should go get a massage, I was all for it! Unfortunately the type of massage we’re talking about here isn’t the kind that makes you feel like you’re in heaven.
A deep, tissue massage is a specific set of techniques used to get inside and break up the knots, or more specifically the abnormal connective adhesions that artificially bind together two tissues that should be separate..
You want to get back up and running as soon as possible right? A professional massage by a trained massage therapist is the most effective treatment for muscle knots.
This Is Going To Hurt
According to Wikipedia, deep, tissue massage “sessions are often quite intense as a result of the deliberate, focused work.” About.com describes the technique this way, “Massage therapists may use fingertips, knuckles, hands, elbows, and forearms during the deep tissue massage.” This type of massage is more like what you’re used to getting from your older brother when mom wasn’t looking.
Sometimes you just gotta suck it up.
There’s a phrase in the Marine Corps, “suck it up,” meaning sometimes you just gotta put up with some stuff. If you want the quickest, most effective relief from muscle knots, you’re going to have to “suck it up.”
Fortunately, my chiropractor focuses on sports fitness, so his massage therapists are trained in how to do deep, tissue massage correctly. Not everyone who calls themselves a massage therapist is going to be as well trained or practiced in the art of deep, tissue massage.
If you aren’t already using a massage therapist you trust, check Yelp for reviews on local deep, tissue massage therapists or look for chiropractic clinics that focus on sports medicine and see if they also employ massage therapists. Don’t let price be your deciding factor here. You get what you pay for.
We’re trying to get back to our training schedule as quickly as possible, right?
Or You Can Do It Yourself
By the time I limped back the 4 miles to my truck and talked with my coach, my chiropractor was already done for the weekend. I could barely walk. There was no way I was waiting until Monday to take care of this. No fear. You can work on these knots yourself. In addition to massage, my coach recommended the tennis ball technique.
It’s called the Tennis Ball Technique but you can use any ball. Science writer (and former massage therapist) Paul Ingraham describes the tennis ball technique this way, “trap the ball between your body and something else: usually the floor, sometimes a wall, another body part…
The goal of tennis ball massage is to achieve a “release” by applying just the right amount of pressure: enough to do some good, but not enough to irritate the knot. The sensation should be clear and strong and satisfying, what we call “good pain.” If you are wincing or gritting your teeth, you need to be more gentle. You need to be able to relax.
Once you have adjusted yourself to achieve the right pressure, relax as much as possible and wait for the sensation to fade to about eighty percent of the original intensity. This is the “release” — a change in the physiological state of the tissues, or a “melting” of the knot. This can take anywhere from ten seconds to several minutes.”
Since I had several knots running up and down my calf, I wouldn’t describe my experience as “releasing” or “melting” and maybe I was too aggressive with my self-massage, either way I got the job done. It takes a little bit of work with your fingers or the tennis ball but when you find the knot, you’ll know!
It’d be nice if 30 seconds of gentle pressure got the job done but in my case it was more like masochistic kneading of the knots with my knuckles for about an hour. Eventually the knots went away and all I was left with was sore, slightly bruised muscles.
Also, make sure to consider a supplement such as magnesium to help to relax your muscles. Magnesium is known for its relaxing effect, it can go a long way towards lessening muscle cramps and spasms. You can read my article on the best workout supplements here.
According to renowned triggerpoint therapist William Huhn, here are the steps you should take once you’ve rooted out that knot.
1. Stop, or greatly reduce your physical activity for the rest of the day.
2. Drink lots of water.
3. Keep the muscle warm.
4. Take an Epsom salt bath as soon as possible after triggerpoint therapy.
5. Gradually reintroduce physical activity and stretching allowing the muscle continue to heal over the next few days.
I also found that some Icy Hot and ibuprofen reduced the pain and allowed me to get a good night’s sleep.
Be conservative with the ibuprofen though, my chiropractor says every dose is like taking a shot of whiskey to your liver.