Compensation often gets a bad rap. It is portrayed in a negative light as the demise of your orthopedic health and something that needs to be eviscerated by any means necessary. However, compensation is actually a brilliant way for your body to remain highly functioning from one moment to the next. Without compensation, we would likely have far more physical issues throughout our entire body. The caveat, though, is that we may not want to compensate in the same manner for an extended period of time. Not only can this put excess stress on certain muscles, it can also stress your joints.
Five years ago, I would experience hip, back, and shoulder tightness every time I would go for a run. Not only that, but this tightness would occur within 10 minutes of starting to run. This was completely bizarre to me because all throughout elementary school, high school, and college I would run symptom-free. I wasn’t ever a long distance runner, but for basketball, I would run all the time. I never had any issue with running. But, what I did have were a lot of sprained ankles.
From fifth grade onwards I would sprain at least one if not both of my ankles at least once each basketball season. I would tape my ankles. I would brace my ankles. I would do different stretching and strengthening exercises for my ankles. All of these attempts to prevent ankle sprains were seemingly ineffective as every year, without fail, I would sprain an ankle.
Now, these sprains were never bad enough that I had to stop playing for long periods of time. I think the most time I ever took off was three days after I had a horrible sprain right before the start of the season during my junior year of high school. But, there were many times when I would sprain my ankle during a game or practice and just tie my shoe tighter and get back to playing.
Fast forward to when I was 25. Now, all of a sudden, I started to experience symptoms with running. And not just symptoms like I was feeling a little achy at the beginning of a run but would loosen up after a while. Symptoms that were telling me there was a serious issue going on with my body and I should consider not running if I wanted the issue to resolve. These symptoms presented themselves in my knee, my hip, my low back, and my shoulder, predominantly on my right side. And regardless of what I tried to do to address these symptoms in these respective areas, they always came back and they only seemed to be getting worse.
What didn’t seem to be changing much were my feet. Symptomatically, I didn’t notice any pain or discomfort with them. But, what was very apparent was that my feet were stiff. It was like I had bricks for feet. And this was a huge issue.
If you don’t know, your feet are supposed to be able to move. They are supposed to be able to flatten and they are supposed to be able to create an arch. These motions happen at different times during gait (running, walking, etc.) in order for our body to efficiently and effectively absorb the force of our body hitting the ground with each step as well as to propel us forward. There is a relatively predictable series of motions that happen at the foot, ankle, knee, hip, and trunk as we walk, and if any one of these motions is disrupted at any of these joints, another joint will have to pick up some of the motion to make up for the joint that is lacking.
Because my feet were so stiff, they weren’t able to flatten well when my foot would hit the ground. This motion is often called pronation and is considered by some to be a bad thing. However, pronation is an absolutely necessary and vital part of gait, and without it, the rest of the joints can suffer. This is what was happening to me. Without my feet flattening, my knee, hip, and trunk had to pick up more motion with each step. These areas were compensating for a lack of motion in my feet. When I would walk it wasn’t super noticeable. But when I would run, it would become immediately apparent.
I would feel everything on my right side tighten up from my ankle to my shoulder. These muscles were having to work hard to control the excessive motion that was happening at my knee, hip, and trunk in order to protect these joints. My lats especially were having to work overtime as they would help to control my trunk and then cause excessive tightness around my shoulder blade and on the front of my shoulder.
Related: Do you have “golfer’s foot”?
What was fascinating to me was that these symptoms persisted until my feet started getting worked on regularly with MAT® and in particular the MATRx® process. See, not only were my feet super stiff, but they were really weak as well. All the years of spraining my ankles had weakened my foot muscles to the point where the joints of my feet could hardly move at all. With MAT®, however, the strength of my feet improved, which allowed the motion of my feet to increase. This decreased the requirement of motion throughout my body when I would run, which in turn decreased the tightness I would feel throughout my body.
Here’s the takeaway that I hope you get from this story: if your body is tightening up with activity, it is doing so for a reason. If you just address the tightness, you may experience temporary relief, but without addressing the underlying reason, the tightness will keep coming back. If you find yourself caught in this cycle of constantly trying to address recurring or chronic tightness, contact your local MAT® practitioner to see if muscle weakness is a contributing factor.