At some point in a triathlete’s career they are very likely to experience either pain, injury or performance limiters related to tight bands within the muscles and fascial tissue. Because triathlon training involves regular repetition of linear movement patterns there is a tendency for some muscles to get over worked and others to get weaker. Typically overworked muscles develop tight bands within them called trigger points.
Classic trigger points are described as tight, palpable bands within a muscle that are tender to touch and may refer pain to areas away from their site of origin. Research has also proven that blood flow typically is poor around a trigger point such that the muscle fibres are deprived of oxygen, nutrition and metabolic waste removal. Nerve messages to the muscle fibres also appear to be stuck in a spinal cord feedback loop that keeps the muscle contracted even when not being used.
Treatment of trigger points generally involves massage, stretching and strengthening. In stubborn cases, dry needling of the point with acupuncture needles can be very effective in breaking down adhesions within the muscle, improving circulation and restoring normal neural input to the muscle fibres.
A very effective self treatment is using localized pressure point therapy. When a trigger point is isolated, maintaining pressure over the point for 30-60 seconds will ellicit a relaxation response of the muscle. Movement back and forth over the point will also help mechanically loose the adhesions and restore better flexibility. There is usually a sore and tender feeling over the trigger point when pressure is maintained, but this should quickly fade. After treatment the area may feel faintly bruised, again this should be temporary. If the point is too painful to put pressure on or feels very sore afterwards it may actually be inflamed and rest may be a better treatment approach for the short term.
The Foam Roller and Other Tools
A whole retail industry has developed in the search for the best self trigger point release tool. The Foam Roller, Travel Roller TM, TP Therapy TM, and The Stick TM are several examples of specialized tools for self use. A simple lacrosse ball can also be use to create adequate pressure for effective release. Areas that commonly develop trigger points and are easy to self treat are found in the upper back, shoulder blade, buttock and legs.
A knowledgeable coach or healthcare practitioner like a massage therapist, physiotherapist or chiropractor can help you locate trigger points and will show you the most effective tool for each area. Once you know where these points are, a regular (several times per week) trigger point release routine can help treat current problems and prevent future ones.
Don’t Forget to Strengthen
Keep in mind that trigger points usually develop for a reason so learn the root cause and deal with that too. Usually a muscle imbalance is the primary source of the muscle dysfunction and is often the result of a faulty movement pattern or poor posture. Speak to your coach about bike set up, swim stroke technique and running form. Also pay attention to sitting habits at work. Weak gluteals, abdominals and scapular muscles as well as tight hips and shoulders are often a result of bad sitting posture.
(Originally published on the No Limits Blog, 2013)