Compensation Patterns: Your Body is Telling You Something!
Every now and then, it’s a good idea to take a step back from your running and really focus on your body. How does it feel? What’s tight? Is there something that gets sore during or after every run? Are you doing the proper things to maintain your running health?
Many runners try to take care of their bodies so they can keep running. Warming up, stretching, icing, working on your core strength, and cross training are all good things, but if we are not addressing the specific needs of our body, then we are not capitalizing on the time we spend trying to help ourselves.
The body is a very good communicator, if we listen to it! The body is also very resilient and it will usually figure out a way to perform when we ask it to. We can still run even if our muscles and joints aren’t functioning like they should be. The body uses compensation patterns to perform motions when strength and mobility are not sufficient. Compensation patterns can form when a muscle or group of muscles is unable to properly move a joint through a range of motion. They can also form when there is a restriction within a joint that does not allow the joint to move freely, regardless of muscular strength.
Compensation patterns will only work for so long before something breaks down. The weakest link in your kinetic chain often ends up suffering the injury. Your body usually tries to tell you that it is compensating. If you can listen to it, try to figure out what is going on, and correct it, you can help prevent injury and run stronger.
One of the most common examples of the body compensating is hamstring or low back pain while running. The gluteus maximus is the strongest extensor of our hip. Hip extension occurs when the foot is behind the body with the knee straight. The glute muscle must be firing properly in order for our hip to extend forcefully as in the push off phase of running. Many people have problems firing their glutes properly, which places added stress on the hamstring and the lower back extensors. These muscles compensate to get the job done, often resulting in a hamstring strain, chronic hamstring tightness, or lower back pain.
If you think you might have some compensation going on, here are a few things that you can look out for:
1) Chronic muscle tightness no matter how much you stretch
- If the muscle has to work overtime during your run, it’s going to be tight. The example described above with the tight hamstring is one of the most common things that I see. Most people will spend a significant amount of time stretching their hamstrings and they never make any progress because they never strengthen the weak muscle that is causing the problem.
2) Unusual tenderness in the same muscles over and over again when you perform your routine massage (foam rolling, etc)
- If that nasty trigger point you’ve been working on keeps coming back no matter how hard or how long you massage it out, it’s because there is some biomechanical deficiency during your run that is causing it. If you take the stress away from the muscle, the trigger point will go away.
3) That one muscle that always seem to get sore during or after your run
- This is probably the muscle that is overworking to compensate for some other area of weakness. You have to find that weakness and correct it!
4) The same recurring injury
- If you always get tendonitis, shin splints, IT Band Friction Syndrome, or any other type of overuse injury on the same side and the same body part, there is some underlying cause that has not been addressed.
A Personal Experience with Compensation Patterns:
Even if you think you are doing everything correctly, you might be missing something! Take it from someone with personal experience with this….me! For the past few months I had been training for a November marathon. I felt like I was having my best training yet, partly because of how productive I felt my gym workouts were. Strong and flexible…..or so I thought! There were a few little things that would pop up on or after my runs. Mostly, my right achilles would be a little irritated, and when I rolled on my foam roller, my left leg was always really tight. I didn’t think too much of it. I went to get a massage and asked the therapist to work on my right achilles, which she did. Then, when she got to my left leg, she said, “Woah, are you sure you’re having problems on your right?” I thought to myself, “ I think my issues are on the right, but why does it hurt so much when she works on my left calf and IT Band??” My runs were still going well, so of course, I thought nothing of this and kept going! A few days before the marathon, I made the dumb mistake of recording myself running on the treadmill at the store. We got some new shoes in and I wanted to test them out. The staff and I decided to have some fun and record ourselves. Then it happened…..I saw it. I have a hip drop when I run! You can imagine the delight of the staff when they realized that the weak looking left hip they were seeing on the screen was mine!
So of course, I became obsessed with this left hip drop of mine. Five days before the marathon left me little time to actually do something about it, but the more I thought about it, the more things made sense. My left hip is weak, the muscles are tightening up because of it, hence the extreme tightness of the IT Band and calf. The poor right side (i.e. right achilles) has to take up the slack because lefty isn’t doing its job. That’s why my right achilles always acted up! Luckily, I survived the marathon injury free….and now I certainly have a focus of my winter gym workouts!
Even if you cross train and stretch, you might be missing something! If you have any of the four symptoms of compensation patterns present, it’s a good idea to talk to someone to try to figure out what the underlying problem is. This way, you can focus that time you spend stretching and strengthening on the correct muscles. Some muscles might need to be stretched, while others strengthened or massaged. Make sure you are doing the right things for the right parts! Stay tuned for future Sports Medicine Corner articles on common compensation patterns and how to correct them.