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Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: The importance of massaging muscles

Yutaka Nakamura is seen placing the injured part of his body on a foam roller and applying his own body weight as much as possible. (Photo courtesy of Yutaka Nakamura)

Yutaka Nakamura, 48, is a personal trainer to 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka. In the following article, Nakamura discusses the importance of massaging muscles, the first of the "three stimuli before exercise" that he continues to perform. He also answers a reader question about ways to relieve constipation.

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    I love exercising more than work, and refresh and recharge my body and mind with weights and running training at the gym. But, late last year, I mildly strained a calf muscle in my left leg. When I resumed my exercise by running, I would feel a strong pulling sensation at the split between the gastrocnemius muscle and Achilles' tendon, and more recently on the outside of the gastrocnemius. I worried that more running would make it worse.

    To face this situation, which has been going on for several months, I started to take care of myself more carefully and went back to the beginning. Thanks to this, I have been running well for the past few weeks.

    I would like to introduce the "three stimuli before physical exercise" that I continue to apply. The first is "massaging," the second is "stretching," and the third is "stabilizing."

    This time, I'll talk about massaging. The type of massage I'm referring to here "loosens up" the muscles. I consider loosening up to be absolutely essential before daily workouts, and I've been actively doing it.

    Place the injured part of your body on a foam roller, with the affected area in the center. A tennis ball also works as a substitute. Ideally, your entire body including the injured area, should be loosened up, but it is best to start with a comfortable range. Get into a position where you can put as much weight as possible on the part of your body in question, and slowly move it back and forth, side to side.

    This is an effective way to achieve "myofascial release" in the affected area. Fascia covers several muscle groups and is connected by wrapping around them. It can become twisted in places due to prolonged exercise, intense exercise load, unsustainable posture, or other factors. This causes a chain reaction leading to stiffness and pain.

    Even if you don't injure yourself while running, like I did, your body can get stiff from daily desk or computer work. Myofascial release has great potential for physical care and maintenance.

    Yutaka Nakamura uses a foam roller device to perform a "myofascial release" of the quadriceps muscle. (Photo courtesy of Yutaka Nakamura)

    Here are the specific steps to follow.

    (1) Place the affected area on the foam roller device and apply as much weight as possible.

    (2) Gently roll the area until the pain is accompanied by pleasant feelings, too.

    (3) Release the fascia, stretch the affected area, and alleviate discomfort caused by irregular blood circulation.

    (4) It's important to focus on carefully and thoroughly loosening the entire body. But by doing this every day, you will learn where your tension and stiffness is. Each individual has their own movement habits, and the key is to focus on those compressed areas. Five minutes is sufficient for a quick and short session, and 10 minutes is enough for an extended one.

    How long should you massage one area? About 30 to 60 seconds per spot is recommended. Overdoing it can damage the skin and muscles, so it's best to work steadily, day by day while consciously taking good care of the area.

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    Question: Apparently many people have become constipated during the coronavirus pandemic. I'm one of them, and I've heard that it's good to exercise my abdominal muscles. Also, how many thousands of steps should I walk in a day, including those covered through household chores? (Submission from a 77-year-old female reader)

    Answer: When either the sympathetic nervous system, which works when we are active, or the parasympathetic nervous system, which works when we are resting, becomes too dominant, the body sends out abnormal signals. So, I think it is a good idea to train your abdominal muscles to relieve constipation caused by a lack of exercise. As for the number of steps one should walk a day, it is generally said that 10,000 is good, but regardless of the number, walking itself improves blood flow and promotes gastrointestinal activity.

    (Interview by Hiromi Nagano, Tokyo City News Department; Nagano is a former professional tennis player who has competed in all four major tournaments.)

    Profile: Yutaka Nakamura is originally from Tokyo and is currently the strength and conditioning coach for Naomi Osaka, the 2020 U.S. Open and 2021 Australian Open champion. Nakamura has led training programs for many professionals including Maria Sharapova, Kei Nishikori, Tommy Haas, Mary Pierce, and Jennifer Capriati.

    (This is the second of two parts. Part 1, "Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: A pandemic-led change in approach," was published on May 13.)

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