Sometimes, keeping my body running fit feels a bit like painting the proverbial Forth Rail Bridge. As soon as I’ve finished attending to one area, another part needs some work to keep it shipshape, with the process seemingly never finished.
But although ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ has taken hold as a colloquial expression for a never-ending task, the 1.5 mile paint job was officially completed in 2012 – and it’s not expected to need retouching for another 25 years. I’ve recently discovered a technique that I’m hoping might just lead me to a similar end point. It is called Muscle Activation Technique (MAT) and its purpose is to build, or restore, a fully functioning musculoskeletal system that allows you to train to your maximum potential.
I’d long ago given up believing that my various asymmetries, imbalances and weaknesses could ever be fully fixed. No amount of physio, sports massage or glute exercises have ever succeeded in ironing me out thus far. So I’ve been doing the best with what I’ve got and, mostly, getting by OK. But when Michael Goulden, director of Integra, an exercise training studio in east London (www.integra-training.net), introduced me to MAT, it resonated.
Goulden had worked in the fitness industry as a personal trainer and sports therapist for a decade. ‘I’d get clients coming to see me with, say, a tight hip, or one shoulder higher than the other and would use sports massage techniques or the foam roller to try to release muscles,’ he says. ‘It worked, and they’d go away happy. But they’d be back for their next appointment with the same old tightnesses and imbalances. The results were never long-lasting, and that frustrated me. I wanted to know not only why the tightness came back, but what caused the tightness in the first place. I started to suspect the issue wasn’t with the muscle or joint itself but with what the central nervous system - essentially, the brain - was telling it. The central nervous system has access to so much more information than we do and perhaps that tension, that headache or that swelling is there for a reason...’
It was when he began to explore new ways of approaching muscle function that Goulden came across MAT. He is now one of a handful of MAT master practitioners in Europe and is also studying for a Masters degree in biomechanics.
‘Our bias when it comes to muscle function is to think that muscles move the body,’ he says. ‘They do, but their primary role is joint control. Your central nervous system is primed to protect joints much like it tries to protect you when you walk on ice. What happens when you step onto ice? You lose stability, and subsequently your range of movement and power output decreases.’
This notion of the brain, not the muscles, being in charge of movement struck a chord with me. While the traditional physio approach to a problem – stretch the tight structures and strengthen the weak ones – has always sounded perfectly logical and sensible, in my experience, it often doesn’t work. The theory behind MAT also aligns well with other recent research advances, such as central governor theory (the idea that fatigue is caused not by the body breaking down, but by the brain, like an over-zealous health and safety officer, shutting it down before that happens to protect it).
Let’s say you’ve got a joint which has seven muscles controlling it. For one reason or another - an old injury or misuse, perhaps - half of them aren’t working properly, so the others will have to work harder to compensate. ‘To protect the joint, the central nervous system’s response is to ‘guard’ the area as much as possible by increasing tension and limiting range of motion,’ explains Goulden. ‘You can stretch or massage these tight muscles as much as you like, but the brain has created this tension, tightness or pain for good reason, so it will simply restore it each time.’
A frustratingly familiar scenario. But how do you break the cycle? ‘The goal is to get the inhibited muscles working again, so that the joint is freed up to function properly,’ says Goulden. And that’s where MAT comes in.
At my first session, I was heartened to hear that the technique can work particularly well with longstanding or reoccurring injuries. ‘It addresses root causes, not symptoms,’ says Goulden. Starting with my feet he systematically assessed range of motion in each joint – looking at the extent of the range and also at differences between right and left. When he found discrepancies or limitations, he assessed the function of each of the muscles with a role in moving or stabilising that particular joint by placing the muscle in a shortened position and then applying a specific amount of force in a specific direction – the muscle is judged on its ability to react and respond to that force.
We didn’t get far: on examining my right foot, which has been the bane of my running life for the last four years. Goulden found that of the seven muscles involved in moving the sub-talar joint in my right foot, only two were functioning properly.
Such a limitation hasn’t stopped me running, or even running well, at times – a fact that doesn’t surprise Goulden at all. ‘The body is very clever and it will orchestrate a solution from whatever options are available,’ he says. ‘In the short term, these compensatory mechanisms are a great solution that will allow you to continue to function, but in the long-term, they have potentially damaging knock-on effects, particularly when it comes to a high-impact activity like running. If you have reduced range of motion at one of the joints, it affects the body’s ability to absorb force. You’ve got muscles compensating for other muscles, increasing the likelihood of them fatiguing or breaking down, and joints compensating for the restricted joint, which could increase their wear and tear.’
Having identified five recalcitrant muscles in my foot, Goulden set about with the actual muscle activation technique itself – a series of palpations and pressing actions applied to where the muscle attaches to the body – the tendon (unlike trigger point therapy which is generally applied to the belly of a muscle to stimulate relaxation). These actions create increased sensory input to the central nervous system. After restoring function and range of motion, the next stage is to strengthen the weak muscles using controlled, isolated actions. Why? ‘Compound, multi-joint exercises allow for compensation, so the weaker muscles can hide,’ explains Goulden. ‘Your brain is set up to conserve energy and protect your body, so it won’t utilise weaker muscles when it can just use stronger ones.’
It took two rounds of MAT to ‘wake up’ some of my foot and lower leg muscles, but by the time I left, all seven were back in full-time employment. The next morning I had none of the morning foot pain that had become ‘normal’ for me. The results endured for a couple of weeks (a pleasing outcome, according to Goulden, for such a longstanding problem) during which I broke my longstanding 5k PB from 9 years ago by 13 seconds. I went back for more and have since smashed my 10k PB by more than a minute too.
Now, I’m not suggesting that MAT will be the solution to everyone’s imbalances and injury problems. There is rarely, if ever, one single cause for any particular injury so why should there be one single solution? But my experience does highlight the importance of keeping searching for a solution to the niggles and restrictions that limit your training – rather than ploughing the same old furrow with limited success. If you’ve tried all the usual suspects and had no joy, it’s time to widen your search for a solution. It won’t guarantee you 25 maintenance-free years, but like the Forth Bridge paint job, it might just give you a better finish.