Sweet talking the pain way

Sure, we’ve all heard about the importance of the mind-body connection for improving our running performance, but how many of us actually give credence to the idea? Many of us have experienced the strong influence of our mental state on our physical performance, though we may not always be aware of its impact. You’re probably familiar with one of these scenarios … a bad day at work is topped off with an equally miserable run, or a celebratory run after hearing some good news sends you soaring into that runner’s high. Well, just the other day, my run highlighted exactly how powerful our mental landscape can be at assuaging or preventing injuries.

hamstring-origin-tendinopatFor the past five months (or more accurately, 17 years if you consider the repeated flare-ups since I began running) I’ve been battling chronic, relentless hamstring / glute / hip tightness and pain. Call it what you will … the various docs I’ve seen have attributed it to anything and everything, from sciatica to piriformis syndrome to hamstring tendinopathy to good old-fashioned overuse and weakness. Regardless of these meaningless diagnoses, I’ve found no relief, despite my desperate treatment attempts with massage, foam-rolling, ART and acupuncture. And despite this failed therapy, I’ve continued to run through the pain, as any typically irrational running addict would do.

A twitter discussion, following a particularly traumatic (to the hamstring) 12-miler, got me thinking. @skorarunning pointed out “I’ve even read that rolling could cause tightness, as it’s a stress to the muscles & they could tighten as a safety mechanism”. @rickmerriam corroborated “Muscles tighten up to prevent joints from going into positions of vulnerability. #BuiltInProtectiveMechanism”.

As I started my run the next day and my hammie/glute/hip immediately tightened up (per usual), I thought back to these comments. Why was it cramping? What was it trying to protect itself against? For whatever reason, it was vulnerable, and – sensing the need to shield itself against some mysterious stressor – locked up in defense. The vision of an anxious child came to mind: unnecessarily frightened of a harmless, imaginary threat. ‘If only I could just convince my hamstring that the threat is not real … there’s no reason to ‘fear’ the run,’ I wished. And so I did. I had a chat with my leg and encouraged it to clam the heck down. To stop overreacting. There was no real danger. It was safe and strong and protected. At the slightest hint of tension, I sweet-talked the muscle into soft, loose submission. And to my complete astonishment, the muscle listened, sending me sailing comfortably and strongly through 8 pain-free miles.

Was it merely a coincidence? Would my hamstring have behaved had I not whispered soothing lullabies into into its, um, hammie-ears? This was but another experiment of one, and I will never know. But I do know our muscles activate in a beautifully orchestrated neuromuscular symphony, which is intimately connected with our central nervous system. It would not surprise me if the the cognitive superstar of the human nervous system – the brain – is charismatic enough to use its mental coercion to sway its fellow motor neurons into passive compliance.

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