My flat feet, best described as planks, were inherited from both sides of my family. They kept one uncle out of the Second World War and me from running until I discovered orthotics in my late 20s. Running has made my feet stronger, but my severely pronating left arch becomes inflamed at the end of marathon training and recently began hurting me even on short runs. I figured it was a bone thing, something I could never "fix."
Then a running pal, Phyllis Berck, 62, suggested I try Muscle Activation Therapy (MAT), a relatively obscure muscle therapy that has fewer than 60 practitioners in Canada. She did a few weeks of MAT to treat severely strained glutes and recovered to become even faster, yes, after 62!
MAT was developed in the 1990s by exercise scientist Greg Roskopf to correct muscle imbalances that result from repetitive activities, injury, aging and faulty biomechanics – i.e., my flat feet.
Roskopf found that stronger muscles can become chronically injured as they overcompensate to stabilize joints, while underused (and usually pain-free) muscles may not even respond to neural signals to contract.
The goal of MAT is to pinpoint dysfunctional muscles, get them firing and then individually strengthen them. MAT is particularly effective at re-educating muscles to move in a more functional pattern, says Toronto sports physiotherapist Janique Farand-Taylor. "We believe time will heal, but it won't if we don't change the behaviour."
World champion figure skater Patrick Chan credits MAT with keeping his stride open and him injury-free. Canada's lone gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics, trampoline competitor Rosie MacLennan, used it to strengthen her feet.
For those taking up running, a MAT specialist can correct muscle imbalances so you start training with a healthier stride pattern, which can prevent injury down the road. In my case, Toronto MAT specialist Brad Thorpe identified muscle weakness not just in my foot, but my entire left side.
Thorpe applies fingertip pressure where dysfunctional muscles attach to the bone, restoring communication between muscle and nervous system and getting dysfunctional muscles firing again.
Activating some muscles prompted vivid flashbacks of long-forgotten traumas – a fall on the ice a few years ago, a topple off my horse as a kid. To strengthen my left arch and muscles all along my left side, Thorpe adds a twist to MAT: He has me doing daily isometric exercises that work my newly engaged muscles and establish correct movement patterns in every joint from foot to head. The routine takes about 35 minutes and is both relaxing and energizing.
After three treatments (about $100 each), inflammation in my left foot was gone, and I ran pain-free for the first time in months.
For me, that's miracle enough. But Thorpe is already lopping time off my marathon. "At age 51, you ran a 3:38 on that foot. Imagine what you can do if we get it stronger."
Margaret Webb's book of reflections on running, Older, Faster, Stronger, will be published in 2014 by Rodale Books.