Beginning strength training was an important part of my recovery, but the other side of the coin was that, in order to really be improving the overall function of my body, I also needed to be doing a thorough stretching routine.
Now, let me back up. I used to be a long-distance runner. If anyone understood, the importance of stretching, it was me. My high-school coaches had drilled it into my head.
But once my SI joints became unstable, it really became impossible to stretch.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the mechanics of the SI joint— particularly an SI joint with compromised ligaments– are very difficult to understand. Despite all the reading I’ve done, I still don’t completely understand them.
But I do know all of the things that used to make my SI joints lock up— including many of the motions and physical positions that were necessary for all of the stretches I knew.
I knew I needed to pick and choose my battles. Since having my SIJ’s lock up put an immediate end to my ability to do the majority of other things I needed to do, it seemed like the most important thing to do was to keep my SIJ’s in place. Even if it meant that I skipped the stretches I couldn’t do otherwise (which was most of them).
However, as time went on, my muscles got tighter and tighter.
It turned out my high school coaches were right when they warned us: if you exercise all the time without stretching, your muscles will get tighter, and you will suffer for it.
Every muscle in the body has an ideal resting length that it wants to be at. When you constantly ask a muscle to work, and you don’t stretch it, over time you cause that muscle to become shorter.
Muscles do not work as well when they aren’t working at their ideal length. They become tired more quickly, and have trouble generating as much force. Simply put, they are weaker, and you end up with less range of motion.
An overworked muscle is also an irritated muscle. This irritation, in turn, causes the muscle to produce chemicals which then signal to neighboring muscles that they should be irritated, too. That’s when you end up with pain.
For me, it really started with my quads (the muscle in the front of the thigh). They got tighter and tighter until they developed a permanent ache, which in turn started to impact my workouts. I started icing them before I began my pool workouts, which did help a little bit, but it just wasn’t the same.
Finally, two main things happened.
1) My physical therapist Paula helped me develop a stretching routine that worked for me.
My previous PT’s, who I know now weren’t really familiar with the SI joint, gave me a bunch of stretches to do which often made me worse. When I said I couldn’t or didn’t want to do them, we sort of hit a roadblock. “Okay,” they’d tell me. “Just do the stretches that don’t hurt for now.”
Of course, this wasn’t really helpful to me, because it meant there were certain muscle groups I wasn’t stretching at all. Knowing what I know now, especially after all the classes I’ve taken, I see how not stretching certain key muscles for so long definitely prolonged my recovery.
Paula, on the other hand, was able to think past the limitations I had and modify my stretches. I realized the previous PT’s had been thinking more about one particular way to stretch a muscle, instead of thinking about the fact that there were actually multiple ways for me to stretch any one muscle.
Paula helped me to develop a routine that allowed me to stretch all of the muscles I needed to, in positions that worked for me. (Unfortunately, this is what the previous PT’s should have been doing, and weren’t).
You can read more about this in my post on Stretching and Sacroiliac Joint Dysfunction.
2) My stretching table
I happened to be searching on Amazon one day to see if there was anything that could help me with my problem, when I discovered this portable stretching table (which you can see in the picture above).
It’s basically like a massage table, but the surface is a bit firmer (which allows you to have more control over precise movements of your body). It’s intended for people like me, who need to be able to lie down in order to do stretches/exercises, but can’t get all the way down to the floor.
I’ve had it for over two years now and it’s really been a lifesaver. I count it as a big part of my recovery.
Once I purchased this table, I was able to resume a full stretching routine. Within about a week of stretching thoroughly every day, I felt a big reduction in the tightness of my muscles, and felt as though some of my range of motion was starting to come back.
Once these two factors were in place, I was able to stay much more limber:
With my muscles able to function normally, instead of being constantly tightened up all the time, I was able to move a lot more normally. I was able to push myself more in my workouts, and I found that my SI joints were a lot less prone to locking up (this was especially true once I started doing the one knee to chest stretch, for the muscles in the back of the hip).
I also became much less dependent on chiropractic and massage appointments, because I now had an easy and effective way to help relax my muscles myself.