I’m a little embarrassed to admit that over the last couple of years, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of mental energy thinking (ahem, obsessing) about my running form and movement patterns in almost everything I do. Occasionally I’ve even run into objects because I was thinking so hard about how I was moving rather than where I was moving. Crazy, I know, and mentally exhausting, too. The problem was, I just felt so wonky and jagged whenever I was walking or running. Any feeling of moving naturally and effortlessly was gone. I specifically remember a time as a teenager walking through the Portland airport feeling so strong and smooth as I walked, walking tall with my head high. Any sense of strong, smooth, effortless motion was long gone. Add to that, at the end of many nights, I would feel like my stomach was falling out, and there was nothing I could mentally do to make my body pull it back in. I felt so disconnected from my core.
One day a couple of months ago, I saw a new massage therapist. While briefly sharing my history with her, I explained that my left side (shoulder, side, hip, calf) is tight, and my right side is weak despite lots of glute exercises, stretching, and rolling. She asked if I have kids and was about to check me for diastasis recti (a separation between the rectus abdominis muscles) and I was like, “Oh yeah, I know, my rectus muscles are separated” (about three to four finger widths wide in the middle). I’ve had three children, two of whom were quite large, 9 lbs. 6 oz. and 10 lbs. 2 oz. (I blame my handsome husband, a 6’5″ man who started as a 10 lb. baby himself.)
I tried to close my diastasis after my youngest was born through splinting and incorporating the Tupler Technique exercises outlined in the Lose Your Mummy Tummy book. Unfortunately, after I removed the splint (a wrap to help bring the rectus abdominis muscles closer together and allow the connective tissue to heal), I felt like my stomach went back to just what it was before. I had little hope of actually closing my diastasis recti, but I did all I could to safely strengthen my core on my own, mostly through lots of planks and side-planks (no sit-ups or crunches as they can make the separation worse). The massage therapist recommended I see a PT, Kelly Dean, who specializes in core rehab and closing diastasis recti without surgery. I figured it was worth a try, especially since she practices about three minutes from my home.
Kelly’s practice revolves around teaching her patients to strengthen and engage their transverse abdominis. The transverse is the deepest muscle in the abdominal wall and wraps around our midsection, spanning from the pubic bone up to the base of the ribs. As the transverse engages, it stabilizes our movements and brings the rectus abdominis closer together, allowing the connective tissue to heal. Kelly likes to call the transverse our “God-given girdle”.
Before seeing Kelly, I thought I knew how to engage my transverse. Tighten the pelvic floor and bring in the lower abdomen, right? However, I was totally disconnected from my core right around my middle, especially around the area of my belly button. That was the area that sometimes at night would hang out and I couldn’t pull it in no matter what I did.
Through my visits with Kelly, I learned how to engage my transverse and develop a neural-muscular connection I had lost. I learned how to sit right on my seat bones, lining up the rib cage and pelvis so the transverse would naturally engage. I learned the importance of finding neutral pelvis. For about a week after learning about neutral pelvis, every time I found it, whether standing, sitting, or lying down, my transverse would automatically tightly engage – wonderful! I learned about stretches I should perform regularly to release tight muscles that would pull my pelvis out of neutral alignment. I learned fitness integration, how to engage my transverse throughout my weight-lifting and strength exercises, ensuring I was doing them properly. Kelly encouraged me to perform exercises just to the point where my strong, tight muscles would try to overcompensate and then back off just a touch so the proper, weaker muscles would learn to engage and fire. I learned that in several exercises I did regularly, I was lifting too much weight and needed to back off to avoid overcompensation. Kelly’s mantra is “More isn’t better. Better is better.” I learned that my transverse should stabilize me in everything I do.
Since my visits with Kelly, my stomach looks different. I can keep my tummy tight and in, and if I feel it starting to sag out, I have the tools to engage my core properly. My rectus separation is narrower and shallower and has completely closed up high. More importantly, I feel connected with my core. I feel much smoother in walking and running because my body is better aligned and my transverse is learning to stabilize me. Learning about neutral pelvis has helped me identify other tight and weak areas in my chain I need to address, such as a tight quad and a tight and weak calf. I’m finding I require less rolling and stretching on my tight left side because my right side is learning to work better, smarter.
I’m learning when I run to find neutral pelvis to help my transverse engage, my glutes fire, and smooth out my running form. I’m finding in speed workouts, it’s best not to blast the workout to avoid my strong areas overcompensating. Rather, it’s better to back off about 10% so my weak areas can engage and become stronger.
I still have progress to make, and I’ll keep working. I feel better than I have in years.