A Work of A.R.T.

The new kid on the block is Active Release Techniques, a series of soft-tissue treatments that manually break up the adhesions or scar tissue in muscles, tendons and ligaments. Each ART session has two parts: diagnosis and treatment. The practitioner—a certified medical professional, usually a chiropractor or physical therapist—uses specific hands-on protocols to locate, then break up, adhesions and scar tissue that cause pain and limit motion. While the practitioner is going through his motions, he instructs the patient to do certain movements. Picture targeted massage therapy on a moving patient (though ART practitioners are quick to note that ART is not a form of massage therapy).

Michael Leahy, D.C., C.S.S.P., a chiropractor and aeronautical engineer, developed ART in the late 1980s. At the Air Force Academy, Leahy worked on feedback control systems that guided rockets and recognized the connection between the biomechanics of running and rocket science. “There are mechanisms that feed information to the nervous system about position and speed and motion, and that affects the way the muscles work,” says Leahy, of Colorado Springs, CO.

When overuse—like the overuse inherent in marathon training—causes the muscles, ligaments and tendons to tighten up, break down, and hurt, ART helps get them back on track. Stuart Yoss, D.C., C.S.S.P., of Bannockburn Chiropractic and Sports Injury Center in Bannockburn, IL, explains why runners get stuck in a cycle of chronic injury. “In overuse, the muscle becomes tight and weak, which causes an increased amount of friction, pressure and tension within that muscle, which causes a state of hypoxia (lack of oxygen), which causes adhesions to form, which causes the muscle to become tight and weak. It just goes around and around.” Yoss, an ART instructor as well as a practitioner, says, “That’s the essence of ART: It breaks the cumulative injury cycle.”

One elite runner who broke her cycle of chronic injury through ART is Marla Runyan, who holds a 5,000m best of 14:59.20 and a marathon PR of 2:27:10. Runyan sought ART treatment from Leahy for severe plantar fasciitis. “I had the condition in my left foot for almost a solid year, and received many of the traditional treatments with no success,” she says. “The scar tissue in my arch was so thick, I could not even stand up on my toes. Jogging was impossible.”

She was referred to Leahy, and set out for Colorado. “Dr. Leahy took my foot and got to work. For the first time, I could feel the scar tissue and adhesions in my arch literally break apart under his fingers. It was as if he was manually changing the tissues inside my foot—something that no other treatment had been able to do.”

Leahy says that, indeed, he was changing the tissues in Runyan’s foot; he was breaking apart the scar tissue. “It’s not just treating the symptom. ART actually breaks up scar tissue,” he says. “We have seen before and after ultrasound images that show this.”

ART is not only a treatment for injuries, but also a tool to enhance performance. Distance runners are doing the same motion over and over. If there is the slightest biomechanical flaw—and there are very few runners, elite or otherwise, who have perfect biomechanics—the repetitive motion is going to create muscle imbalance. That imbalance is the start of the injury cycle. Removing the adhesions when they are small allows runners to optimize their stride, increasing their strength and speed. “ART allows the training volume and intensity to go way up,” says Leahy.

Runyan turns to ART for injury treatment and prevention, as well as performance enhancement. “Since I began running the longer distance events, I have noticed many muscle imbalances [e.g., weak hamstrings and low back], and this has caused a chronic right hip problem. ART allows me to run, prevents the condition from becoming a full-blown injury, and corrects my running mechanics and efficiency.”

by Catherine Kedjidjian for Running Times Magazine

This article first appeared in the May 2005 issue of Running Times magazine