Exercise, Stress, Work, Injury, Life… & Crossfit

Standard

A couple of recent articles have me thinking…

Unfortunately for many of us, exercise and injury (or just pain) live very close to each other. I’ve heard a lot of people say things like “I can’t run anymore because of my knees,” or, “The bench press hurts my shoulders.”

Something that’s supposed to be healthy hurts us? That doesn’t sound right.

Exercise and the big picture

When “Healthy” Habits Aren’t comes from Whole 9. It’s written by Kate Galliett of Fit for Real Life. She gives discusses a big-picture view of our exercise habits within the context of our often stressful, unbalanced lives.

She says:

“Exercise is not meant to break you. Exercise habits are not meant to suck other important aspects of your health dry. Exercising is not meant to be a numbing agent to things your body is telling you.”

Seems obvious, right? Who would argue that we exercise in order to feel bad and get hurt? Yet the reality is that multitudes of gym goers, runners, and all sorts of recreational athletes inhabit a world in which their chosen activity puts them in pain every day. This picture is out of whack. Pain is a way of telling us that something needs to change. (Remember though, pain doesn’t always equal injury, but pain is not to be ignored.)

I like this:

“Chronic stress is not helpful for fat loss, muscle gain, or performance improvement. It’s also not helpful for any of the health factors that keep you alive & kicking well into your later years. And many habits society deems ‘healthy’ are much less so when looked at in context to modern, busy, stressed lives.”

And to the previous point, this is extremely important to remember:

“Stress is stress. It’s the same to your body whether you define where it comes from as ‘good’ or ‘bad.'”

Living organisms need a certain level of stress to flourish. With the right amount of stress applied in a progressive way plus rest, plus food, that organism gets stronger. Too much stress of any type plus inadequate rest and/or inadequate food and that organism breaks down. We don’t want that but that’s where a lot of us are.

Why exercise?

A lot of us identify in part by our physical activity. “I’m a runner,” I’m a cyclist,” “I’m a powerlifter,” or “I’m a Crossfitter.” Self-image matters a lot, whether or not you want to admit it. This paradigm can get a little out of control.

Sometimes it seems we get to where we’re working out just to work out. And sometimes we push harder thinking we’ll get stronger yet in reality we’ve dug ourselves a hole and we’re digging harder to get out.

“Take a break? Back off? Are you insane? That’s for losers! I HAVE TO WORK OUT! THAT’S WHAT I DO!”

Well… Okay… But are you realizing a benefit?

Not if your workout hurts you. And if you’re piling stress on top of stress on top of stress, and you’re working harder despite the fact that you’re not sleeping enough, your job is killing you and your family is driving you crazy—all during allergy season—then don’t be surprised if you feel like a wreck. It might be time to try something different.

To me, the takeaway message of the article is that the actions and habits we practice in the pursuit of health and fitness don’t exist in isolation. These practices exist alongside a wide range of other influences in our lives. There are times when we need to take a step back, look at the big picture and at times modulate our beloved running, swimming, weight training or what-have-you. Read the full article for the whole discussion.

The Wellness Continuum

To expand a bit, this article reminded me of something I learned about in grad school, something called the Wellness Continuum.

The Wellness Continuum

The Wellness Continuum

I’ve talked with a lot of people who view health exclusively through the diet and exercise lens. In this view, diet and exercise are separate and distinct from all other aspects of health. To me, this view is like looking through a microscope.

With the Wellness Continuum, we can examine our lives with a telescope. We can see an amazing range of interrelated factors that contribute to or take away from our overall health. Most of us, myself included, probably do very well in some of these categories while other categories deserve extra attention.

To reiterate, none of these factors exist in isolation. These conditions all blend together to determine our well being. If we ignore one aspect of health then the whole operation is diminished.

Crossfit & Injuries

High-intensity workout injuries spawn cottage industry comes from the Washington Post. The article discusses not only injuries that may be generated from Crossfit workouts but also the businesses that have sprung up to treat said injuries.

One observation of the article is this:

“Many people who do the high-intensity workouts aren’t adequately conditioned for such rigorous workouts, or have back and spine conditions that could worsen, said Dr. Marc Umlas, chief of orthopedic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, who said his office has seen an increase in injuries from workouts at CrossFit and similar programs.

“’They plunge headfirst into a high intensity workout and they get injured,’ Umlas said.”

The article describes various business that offer treatment strategies for such injuries. A trainer, Lauren Roxburgh said something related to the theme of the previous article on healthy habits:

“’In our lifestyle it’s been very much about the doing. … It’s all about pushing through, doing, doing, doing, and it hasn’t been enough about the yin, which is the being, being in the moment, being present in our bodies,’ she said.”

That sounds like yoga-speak for respecting the need for rest and recovery. More more more harder harder harder exercise isn’t always better better better. There’s a time for hard work and a time for backing away from hard work.

“It depends…”

“What do you think of Crossfit?”

I’m often asked that. As with most questions, the most accurate answer is “It depends….” on a lot of things.

(To be clear, I’m not a Crossfit coach. I’ve never worked out in a Crossfit gym.  I’ve met lots of Crossfitters and I’m aware of a lot of what I’ll call the Crossfit culture and its components.)

I love that Crossfit has re-popularized free-weights, the Olympic lifts and body weight training. I love that in many Crossfit facilities there is a supportive community that bonds through tough workouts. I’ve met good Crossfit coaches who recognize the need for proper technique and proper progression in doing these workouts.

I’ve also seen some horrendous exercise technique displayed by Crossfitters. I’m aware of a mentality in many (maybe not most) Crossfitters that the harder and faster the workout the better. Some in the Crossfit culture view this mentality with pride. I think it’s a questionable approach.

My answer is it depends on the condition of the individual participant. Is this a raw beginner or an experienced lifter? How well does the person move? Who’s coaching him or her? Does the culture at a particular Crossfit facility emphasize good technique and proper rest and recovery strategies? Or is it all “Go! Go! Go! Ignore the pain!”

Adaptation to imposed demands

Human beings can adapt to all sorts of stresses and conditions. As it relates to exercise; if we work in a progressive manner; gradually applying stress to our bones, muscles and connective tissue; consuming appropriate calories and nutrients; and resting appropriately then our structures will adapt to those imposed demands. (Read up on Davis’s law and Wolff’s law for more on how this process works.)

If, on the other hand, we go hell-bent-for-leather into a new workout routine (particularly if we don’t spend time on learning good exercise technique) then we may outrace our body’s ability to adapt.

To compound issues, if we undertake some sort of intense Crossfit-type workout, and our personal Wellness Continuum is out of balance then it’s highly likely that aches and pains will soon follow.

Discipline

With exercise, most people equate discipline with getting up early, working out hard every day and “pushing your limits.” I would offer that “discipline” really means doing what you need to do, not just what you want to do.

For we who love exercise, working out isn’t the problem! We love being in the gym, on the road, on the trail or in the pool. Sweating and lifting heavy things isn’t the hard part. It’s taking a break that’s near impossible! Taking easy days, letting injuries heal, doing our rehab exercises, tapering for a race, taking off-days or god-forbid, taking an off-season?! …That’s discipline.

So… There’s that.

Got Dorsiflexion?

Standard

The toes, feet and ankles get no respect. I’m not sure a lot of people walk into the gym and say, “Okay, today is foot and ankle day! Gonna work those parts hard and make ’em strong!”  We throw shoes on them and ignore them. Think about this though: It’s only every single step that we need those obscure parts to work correctly.

If we look at the body as a kinetic chain then we start to see that the feet and ankles don’t live in isolation. Movement or lack there of at the feet and ankles may create problems all the way up through the legs, hips, spine and shoulders. If an athlete doesn’t have sufficient motion at the ankles then he or she may not perform at his or her best.

Similarly, limited foot and ankle motion may be a contributor to pain. I’m not just talking about foot pain either. Again, if we consider the interconnectedness of all the joints and limbs of the body then it may not surprise us that faulty foot/ankle movement could contribute to back knee pain, hip pain, back pain — even shoulder or neck pain!

image003

Dorsiflexion: There’s no substitution for it!

In my observing both my clients and myself, I see a lot of us don’t quite have optimal  dorsiflexion. It’s easy to overlook but as I’ve argued, it’s very important. I know in my case, my various plantar fasciitis/Achilles tendon issues have improved as I’ve worked on my dorsiflexion. (Strictly speaking, I don’t know if limited dorsiflexion was a cause or effect of my foot and Achilles pain. That said, working on improving dorsiflexion
has coincided with those problems fading out.)

Dorsiflexion is more than just forward and back motion. There is always a 3D aspect to movement and we want to consider that. Also, We have a couple of different muscles (well… more than a couple but we’re considering mainly just two) that cross at the ankle. The following drills emphasize both the gastrocnemius muscle (the straight-leg drills) and the soleus muscle (the bent knee drills.)

Thoughts on 3D MAPS Part II: What is “Functional” Training?

Standard

If you’re a fitness or injury rehab professional then you probably recognize the name Gary Gray. His name is often associated with the concept of “functional” training.

In short, Gray realized early in his career that the body works in a very different way from the way he was taught. He saw that the body was far less a collection of individual pieces and is actually tremendously interconnected. What happens at one joint and one area of the body has an effect throughout the rest of the body.  He recognized that muscles typically move eccentrically (lengthen) before they move concentrically (shorten). He saw that all of our movement is affected by gravity, mass and momentum. He realized that most of the time we need to be strong and mobile while standing up as opposed to sitting on something like a weight-stack machine. He also noticed that we do a lot of work on one foot as we walk, step, and run.

(I learned a traditional model of anatomy and movement and I agree very much with Gray that real-life movement and muscle function happen very differently from what’s taught in lots of text books.)

The concept of functional training has spawned endless discussion. Ask 10 different trainers or coaches what functional training is and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. Some associate functional training with doing everything on a BOSU, stability ball or only on one leg. I think it’s a little more complicated. In the end, isn’t all training supposed to be functional? When would we seek out non-functional or dysfunctional training?

These are the characteristics of functional training as I see them:

These runners are primarily moving forward but rotation and side-to-side movement is clearly visible.

These runners are primarily moving forward but rotation and side-to-side movement is clearly visible.

3D/tri-plane mobility and stability

We move in three planes. We move in the saggital plane or front to back, the frontal plane or side-to-side, and the transverse plane or left/right rotation. Not only do we move in those planes but we must be able to stabilize our bodies as forces act on us in these three planes. Certain movements, sports or activities may demand more from us in one of these planes and less in another. For instance cycling is very saggital plane dominant. There’s very little transverse or frontal plane movement when we ride a bike. In contrast, tennis puts features a lot of work in all three planes. Functional training recognizes these needs and trains them accordingly.

Joints and limbs are integrated during movement. 

If we look at the body during typical real-life movement we see all the joints and limbs move together in an integrated fashion. Walking, stepping out of a car, picking up an object from the ground, throwing a ball, kicking a ball and standing up from a chair utilize all the joints limbs and muscles to accomplish the task. Gray calls these types of movements “authentic.” Functional training recognizes and favors this integrated movement process over isolated or “inauthentic” movement.

Joints and limbs are rarely if ever isolated.

Our bodies are integrated systems. In real life, we rarely move just one joint. We should train accordingly.

Our bodies are integrated systems. In real life, we rarely move just one joint. We should train accordingly.

In contrast to the integrated movement concept, we have exercises that isolate the limbs and joints. Many gym exercises (particularly machine-based exercises) are of an isolated nature. These exercises rarely have any similarity to typical human movement. In a leg extension for example, the user typically sits down with his or her feet off the ground and then flexes and extends the knee in isolation to perform the exercise.  No other muscles or joints are moved during this exercise. Now, I ask you, when was the last time you needed strong quads–but not glutes, hamstrings and other leg and trunk muscles–while seated and your feet not touching the floor? This just doesn’t happen outside of a gym.

Muscles work eccentrically before they work concentrically.

This means muscles lengthen before they shorten. For instance, if we prepare to jump into the air then must perform a partial squat before we leave the ground. When this happens we get a lengthening of the quads, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, calves; and if we swing the arms back then we lengthen the front deltoids, the biceps and various other muscles. These muscles then rapidly shorten in the opposite direction as we jump. Similarly in the overhead throw, the thrower draws back the ball and lengthens the abs, triceps, pecs, lats, hip flexors and others before launching the ball.

Iggy Pop is showing us  both eccentric muscle lengthening (the whole front of his body) AND amazing end-range control.  TOM COPI / MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES / GETTY

Iggy Pop is showing us both eccentric muscle lengthening (the whole front of his body) AND amazing end-range control.

This lengthen/contraction cycle (Gray often calls it “load to explode”) happens constantly throughout the day during nearly all activities. Most often it happens as our bodies manage gravitational forces as we interact with the ground. This eccentric-first model is functional in terms of typical human movement. It stands in contrast to a lot of anatomy and physiology teaching which emphasizes the concentric contraction only.

End-range control

The end-range of motion is somewhere near the furthest edge of where we can move. Once we get there we often reverse our movement and go back in the direction where we started. (Gary Gray calls this the “transformation zone.”)

This end-range is where a lot of injuries occur. We’re vulnerable at the end-range but clearly we go there sometimes even if we’re not athletes. If we have the flexibility to get there but we lack control and strength in that range then we may be in trouble. Functional training creates conditions where we go to the end range under control and learn to work there. For a lot more on end-range matters, check out Todd Hargrove’s article.

The lunge stance by the fencer on the right is a good example of an end-range of movement requirement. (Photo by Hannah Johnston/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 148073293

The lunge stance by the fencer on the right is a good example of an end-range of movement requirement. (Photo by Hannah Johnston/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 148073293

Most exercises are done standing.

Typically we need to be strong and/or powerful when we’re standing on one or two feet. It’s rare that we need to exert much muscular force when we’re sitting or lying down. For this reason, most functional training is done standing.

We typically need strength when we're standing, not when we're sitting or lying down.

We typically need strength when we’re standing, not when we’re sitting or lying down.

Perhaps more specifically, functional training is often conducted with the body in the position of the required task. Life and athletic competition may require us to get into any number of positions and postures.

Though most functional training is done while standing, I think there’s a lot of use in doing things on the ground in quadriped, on our side, and lying on our back or stomach. For that matter, just going from the ground to standing up may be very functional for a lot of people.

Externally directed vs. internally directed

I’ve discussed external cueing vs internal cueing as it pertains to coaching movement. External cueing directs the athlete to affect his or her environment. Internal cueing directs the focus internally into the body. An external cue might be “Step toward the target,” “Reach to the ceiling,” “Reach right/left,” “Reach down,” “Push,” and “Pull,” are examples of externally directed or task-oriented directions. Internal cues include “Squeeze the muscle,” “Contract the quads,” “Abduct the arm,” “Extend the leg,” “Tighten the abs,” are examples of internal cues. Functional training favors external cues (task-oriented) over internal cues, (Though I’ve found internal cues to be essential at times.) When using external cues we seem to get a full-body reaction and we can see as Gray terms it “authentic” movement. In other words we can observe how the person chooses to move and how their nervous system organizes the movement. With external cues we can see a client/patient react rather than perform for us.

(For more on internal/external cueing, this article from Bret Contreras may interest you.)

Energy-system specific

Thus far the functional training criteria I’ve listed has pertained only to movement. But if we really want to be comprehensive in our functional conditioning then we need to include a focus on the energy system(s) to be used during something like an athletic activity.

Let’s take distance running for example. It’s mainly a single-leg activity so we might want to perform one-leg squats of some sort and/or one-leg hops and jumps. So we have our exercises. With regard to the energy system, it’s the aerobic system that primarily drives distance running. With that in mind we probably want to perform the exercises while that system is up and running full-bore. That might mean doing very high reps (2 minutes or more) of our exercises. We could also run for a while, do one or more of our exercises, run more, do exercises and repeat for some duration. Or we could do several exercises in a row such that it takes several minutes to complete a circuit.

(I give further ideas for energy system conditioning for skiing here.)

Did I miss anything?

There are my thoughts and observations on what constitutes functional training. What do you think? Can you add anything else?

Moab Trail Marathon Part I: Preparation & Running My A%$ Off.

Standard

I’m running the Moab Trail Marathon on Saturday. This will be my first trail marathon and my second ever marathon. I will admit to being a bit nervous. It won’t be easy… or difficult. It’ll be tough as hell. I’ve put in the work though, I’ve had several very good runs lately and I figure I’m as well prepared as I can be. I’m estimating of about 4:48 to 5:14.

I’ve been using the Hansons Marathon Method and I adapted it a little for trail running. There are two Hanson plans and I used the beginner plan as this was my 2nd marathon. The Hansons plan features a whole lotta running. Mucho time on the feet. There are three main workouts as well as easy run days. Wednesday is the only day off though I took a few other days off as needed. Here are some thoughts and observations:

The week

Here’s the day-to-day rundown of a week on the Hansons beginner plan.

Monday: Easy Run, 4-7 miles
Tuesday: Speed/Intervals (@ 5K pace, Week 6-10, 3 miles total), Strength (@ 10K pace, Week 11-17, 6 miles total)
Wednesday: Off
Thursday: Tempo/Race Pace, 5-10 miles
Friday: Easy Run, 3-6 miles
Saturday: Easy Run, 5-10 miles
Sunday: Long Run, 8-16 miles, alternating weekly with Easy Run, mostly 10 miles
Total Miles Per Week: 40s-50s, mostly in the mid 50s for second half of the program

I ran trails twice per week. For the first several weeks my trail runs were Thursdays and Sundays. My thinking in replacing the Thursday tempo run with a trail run was that the highly variable pace of trail runs made the tempo run unnecessary (or maybe less necessary). One Thursday I couldn’t make it to the trail and I did a tempo run. I enjoyed it and I thought I noticed the following week’s runs felt better. So I switched to tempo runs on Thursdays and started back-to-back trail runs on Saturday and Sunday.

I don’t believe I could have run two long trail runs in a row at the start of the program. It seemed like a very daunting proposition! Many ultra-running plans feature this pattern though so I knew it was possible. I believe back-to-back trail runs are ideal in that part of the Hanson’s plan is to create “cumulative fatigue” in preparation for the week’s long run. Since I’m running a trail marathon, it makes sense to create a lot of this fatigue on the trail. I would love to find out from a trail running coach or coaches if this seems like a prudent strategy.

Tough Tuesdays

Tuesdays were often nasty. Tuesdays were track workouts for the first several weeks of the plan. They totaled three miles of work. Track workouts were interesting psychologically speaking. They were intimidating but exciting in their very Spartan way. They weren’t “fun” but I always felt like I accomplished something significant when I completed them.

Tuesday track workouts transitioned into “strength” workouts. These were six miles of work. I did the strength workouts on the road though because that much running on the track would’ve bored me stupid.

These workouts were tough by themselves both physically and mentally. That they came after five days of other runs made them titanic undertakings some days.

I felt rough by Tuesday. Tired, shot, worn-out and trashed. Some days I’d look at the Tuesday workout and think, “What sort of insane fool is going to do this?!  Oh… that would be me I guess…” And I’d give the Hansons book an obscene gesture. Oh well… Had to get that work done. Weekly mileage was 40-50 miles per week. This was by far the most I’ve run in my life.

The long run

The longest run in the Hansons’ plan is 16 miles and there are three of those in the beginner plan. That’s shorter than a lot of typical marathon plans which typically hit 20 miles. These long runs come every other week with shorter long runs (around 10 miles) on other weeks.

That “short” 16-miler comes after three days of running though including a somewhat long Saturday run.. So you go into the long run on some tired legs. The Hansons claim the plan trains you for the last 16 miles of the marathon. Sounds plausible to me.

All those long runs were trail runs and they were never easy. The roughest of the bunch was the Herman’s Gulch to Jones Pass trail. That started at about 10,000 ft. and topped out at over 13,000 ft. Took me 4.5 hrs. It was an overall brutal experience. The terrain was very challenging and it took me about a full week to recover from that excursion.

Did I mention being tired?

The result of all this is that at times I’ve been utterly wiped out. I had about one weight training workout per week. It’s all I could handle! I’ve learned that as I’m apparently a little older than I used to be (not sure how I allowed that to happen) I need rest and recovery more than I need more/harder work. I took a few Mondays completely off but not too many. I recognized that the plan is the plan for a purpose.

Early in the plan I sometimes substituted a mountain bike ride for the easy runs and/or for the Saturday run. Those mountain bike rides were often very challenging and I think they made the following day’s long run very difficult.

Many easy miles

Many of the miles on the Hanson plan are done at an easy pace. Some coaches insist that too many “junk miles” can be detrimental and that easy run days or recovery runs should largely be avoided.

In contrast, the Hanson Method suggests real and important benefits of easy run days. Here is part of their discussion on easy runs:

Easy Running: A lot of bang for your buck
Easy running is the foundation in which all other training can be built from. By itself, easy running will directly contribute to:

  • tendon development
  • specific muscle fiber adaptation
  • bone development
  • mitochondrial growth/distribution
  • glycogen storage/fat utilization
  • general endurance
  • improved running economy
  • improved VO2max
  • Capillary density

I would add to this that easy runs are a good time to work on running technique. It can be a time to think about foot placement, posture, cadence, addressing a possible crossover gait or other issues. The easy runs are low-stress and permit us to focus on needs such as these in a stress-free situation.

Final thoughts

It’s Tuesday and the race is on Saturday. I’m thrilled to report no real injuries. I’ve never run this much in my life so I’m very happy to have overcome the aches and pains that have plagued me for many years. I believe trail running may have some injury preventative qualities centered around movement variability. I also appreciate the psychological effects of running in nature. I’ve written about both those things here.

Bottom line is that I’ve loved the process. From the track workouts to the long runs in the mountains to the ho-hum punch-the-clock runs (of which there were many) I can say I have truly enjoyed the preparation for this race.

I’ll post more about the process later.

Two Big Reasons to Trail Run (or just hike.)

Standard

I’ve been trail running consistently for several weeks now. I see this as a marker of success in both the continuing rehab of my reconstructed ACL (surgery was May of 2014) and in overcoming stubborn Achilles tendon pain. If all this nice

progress continues, I plan on running the Aspen Golden Leaf half-marathon in October (Damnit!  It’s sold out. I need to move on that earlier next year.) and then the Moab Trail Marathon in November. So all this trail running has me thinking…

Nature & depression

Good for me.   Good for you.

Good for me. Good for you.

An article in the Atlantic titled How Walking in Nature Prevents Depression discusses a study that demonstrates the real psychological benefits to tromping around in the outdoors. Specifically, the researchers found this:

“Through a controlled experiment, we investigated whether nature experience would influence rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self), a known risk factor for mental illness. Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment. These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

When I’m on the trail, I’m very much “in the moment” as the saying goes. I am consumed with the ground and where I put my feet. I’m aware of the plants, the rocks, the temperature, and if I’m in the right spot, I might hear the rush of a stream. I Iam deeply engrossed in the experience. Rarely if ever do I think about the hassles and conflicts that await me in good ol’ “civilization.”

Searing physical exertion is often a part of my trail running experience as well. Despite the pain, I keep coming back. It would seem some part of my brain wants to be there.

Trail running & movement variability

I’ve mentioned the idea of movement variability (here and here). It (to me) is an exciting concept and a hot topic in sports skill training and injury pre-/rehab circles. The smart people at Cor-Kinetic discuss movement variability in this impeccable blog post. The writer states:

Viva movement variability!

“Movement variability is inherent within a biological system. Not only is it inherent it is also beneficial for reducing risk of overload and enabling the ability to adapt to events that occur within our ever-changing environment. Elite athletes cannot reproduce exact and invariant movement patterns repetitively even through hours of devoted practice. The best movers are those that can execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependant on the constraints and context of performance. It could be that part of being resilient and robust lies in variability. The ability to tolerate load may come in part in the way in which it is internally processed through our coordinative variability.”

If we think about trail running, then we see that it takes place in a highly variable, constantly changing environment. As we run (or walk) we can’t consciously think about how we place our foot every time we step. Rather we must react. This is a job for our subconscious and our reflexes. The movement variability researchers suggest that through this process we may protect ourselves from a lot of potential injuries. (Nothing in the world however can protect us from all injuries.)

On the trail, we have to stay upright, balanced and moving while our running parts deal with all sorts of odd angles and shapes. The great part about negotiating this rocky, rooty, up-and-down environment, is that our feet, ankles, knees, hips—and especially our nervous system—builds what I call a movement database. Our brain soaks up the subtle changes in movement that we experience so we increase our runnings kills. We have an opportunity to as the Cor-Kinetic post says, “execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependent on the constraints and context of performance.” Our tissues are stimulated in a remarkably well-rounded way so that we become more durable than if we run only on flat, monotonous surfaces.

I’m pleased that I’m not the only one thinking this way. (I’d love to come up with an original thought some day.) Similar observations on trail running are discussed in the Running-physio.com article titled Trail running – Natural rehab?

The writer describes his own experience in trail running:

“Despite running long distances over challenging terrain and including more hills than I’ve ever done before I have far less pain running on a trail than I do on the road.”

And he suggests the mechanism by which this process may work:

“I’m not the only one to find this, so how can trail running reduce pain and help injuries?

It’s all to do with repetitive load – running on a fairly uniform surface stresses the same areas of the body over and over again. Those areas become overloaded and you start to develop pain. Trail running involves a variety of different surfaces – I usually run over grass, mud, gravel and forest ground with treacherous tree roots. This variety means the load on the body is constantly changing rather than overloading certain areas. It may also act as its own rehab – your body adapts to the constant challenges to your control and stability. Running a trail becomes like an advanced balance work out.”

Wisely, he goes on to discuss when trail running may NOT be the right thing for you and how to gradually introduce trail running into your routine.

All of this is anecdotal evidence. I don’t know of any strong studies that show trail running will fix any given injury. That said, a trail run fits the bill very well for a variable movement experience and it’s my belief that many runners who aren’t trail running will benefit from adding some time on the trail into their schedule.

 

Play, the Brain & Neuroplasticity

Standard

I just found a fascinating video that speaks very much to some of the things I’ve been reading lately (and have read about in the past.) It’s an interview with a man named Stephen Jepson. In his former life he was a very accomplished ceramics maker and teacher (Is that what they’re called?  Or potter?) He founded the World Pottery Institute and he even has a piece in the Smithsonian. Now his focus is Never Leave the Playground.

A grown-up at play

Jepson is in his 70s now and he literally spends his waking hours at play. He runs around, hops, crawls, juggles, rides a skateboard (and a variation thereof), elliptical bikes, and generally moves about the earth in very novel, random, playful ways. He’s not only having fun and staying fit, he’s also stimulating his brain in powerfully healthy ways according to research. More on that in a moment. Here’s the video:

Jepson says that his play improves such brain skills as cognition and memory. He seems to be very spot-on according to several things I’ve been reading.

Todd Hargrove discusses play in chapter four of A Guide to Better Movement . He suggests:

“In the contest of movement, play can be thought of as a safeguard against habitually using the same movement pattern to solve a particular motor challenge and ignoring potentially better solutions.

Thus we can look at our motivation to play as a natural incentive to experiment with new solutions, even if they don’t appear superior at first glance. We could also look at play as a way to ‘return to the drawing board’ or start over from scratch on a movement problem without preconceived notions about the right or wrong way to move.”

What this says to me is that novel, unusual movement gives us the opportunity to build a broad movement database or maybe a movement Swiss Army knife. We add to our available movement repertoire when we move in as many ways as possible in as many environments as possible: rolling on the ground, climbing, crawling, standing on different surfaces, moving at all speeds, lunging in many directions. Perhaps as a result, when confronted with a movement scenario that’s a little out of the ordinary our brain may say, “Oh, I’ve been here before. I have multiple strategies for moving safely and effectively here.”

The science of play & the brain

In his book, Hargrove references a NY Times article titled Taking Play Seriously. It states:

“For all its variety, however, there is something common to play in all its protean forms: variety itself. The essence of play is that the sequence of actions is fluid and scattered. In the words of Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, play is at its core ‘’a behavioral kaleidoscope.’”

 ‘I think of play as training for the unexpected,’ Bekoff says. ‘Behavioral flexibility and variability is adaptive; in animals it’s really important to be able to change your behavior in a changing environment.’ Play, he says, ‘leads to mental suppleness and a broader behavioral vocabulary, which in turn helps the animal achieve success in the ways that matter: group dominance, mate selection, avoiding capture and finding food.”

This flexibility and growth potential of the brain is known as neuroplasticity. Though Stephen Jepson doesn’t use that word in his interview, he’s talking all about neurplasticity as he describes the benefits to his brain and both vigorous physical activity and play. His thoughts are supported by research:

  • Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition: “The results suggest that physical exercise may trigger processes facilitating neuroplasticity and, thereby, enhances an individual’s capacity to respond to new demands with behavioral adaptations. Indeed, some recent studies have suggested that combining physical and cognitive training might result in a mutual enhancement of both interventions.”
  • Archives of Medical Research, Physical activity, brain plasticity, and Alzheimer’s disease: “We conclude from this review that there is convincing evidence that physical activity has a consistent and robust association with brain regions implicated in age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. “
  • In Runner’s World Sweat Science column, Alex Hutchinson discusses research from the European Journal of Applied Physiology. He says, “Sure enough, the… test showed that the skill athletes had greater motor cortex plasticity than non-athlete controls, while the endurance athletes showed no change.”
  • The Importance of Play, Dr. David Whitebread, University of Cambridge: “For example, playful rats have been shown to have significantly elevated levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is recognised to have a central role in developing and maintaining neural plasticity (or, the ability to learn). They have also demonstrated that play supports novel neural connections and changes the architectural structure of significant brain regions. Play deprived rats became more aggressive to other rats, were less able to mate successfully, and showed heightened levels of fear and uncertainty in novel environments.” (To be clear, this is a rat study but similarities have been seen in observation of humans.)

Inside my brain

All of this is enormously fascinating and inspiring to me. It has me thinking a lot about my own fitness process as well as that of my clients. I’ve been doing a little indoor rock climbing lately and that’s a completely different type of workout. I’ve also done a little bit of cross-country skiing and I hope to take a lesson and increase my skill there. I look forward to trail running and mountain biking soon. I find both activities highly engaging, and both offer endless opportunities to negotiate with gravity in myriad different ways.

I’ve discussed my recent experience with the FASTER Global course this summer (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). As a result, my eyes (and brain) have been opened very wide to almost infinite opportunities for innovative, play-like movement strategies.

My hope is that my clients are having some degree of fun already but now I’m thinking much more about injecting an aspect of play into our sessions. Lots to think about…

Good Words from Steve Magness at Science of Running

Standard

“Which brings me to the point.  You can’t force things. In life or in running. You’ve got to let them come to you.”

– Steve Magness, Science of Running

I’m a big fan of Steve Magness’ work. He is both a researcher and an in-the-trenches running coach. His site the Science of Running is full of excellent information. His book (also titled The Science of Running) is a must-read for running coaches and any serious runner.

Under pressure

I greatly appreciate his latest blog post titled New Year’s Reflections and Anti-resolutions. He discusses resolutions and the high failure rate experienced by those undertaking them. He observes that a lot of us feel forced to make decisions and when that happens, we make bad decisions. When we feel cornered and pressured to accomplish or achieve something then we often don’t get the results we want. He says:

“Today, with social media, an ability to instantly compare ourselves to any of our peers, and a high premium placed on accomplishments and ‘success’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we have to do something. We have to accomplish some goal, take some job, marry some guy or gal, all on some set time line or else we’re perceived as a failure. Society and culture put us in a place of ‘forcing’ us to do something.”

I can definitely relate to this scenario. I sometimes feel pressure when I observe the accomplishments of others in my field, or when I look at the athletic feats of men my age. It’s easy to feel like I don’t measure up, that I’m not “enough.” Later in this post I’ll give some evidence that by letting my mind wander to others’ achievements, I’m probably undermining my contentment in life.

Here is more from Magness:

“Which brings me to the point.  You can’t force things. In life or in running. You’ve got to let them come to you.

In running, big breakthroughs occur when you let them happen. You’re more relaxed while still driven and focused during the race versus tense and pressing in which you are trying to force a new Personal Record.  Ask any sprint coach if people run faster relaxed versus tensed and you will find your answer to why forcing a race does not work.”

There is power in being mentally engaged in the here-and-now rather than longing for the end product. Most of us have probably experienced this when we try really hard at almost anything. From a golf swing to trying to impress a date or a boss, if we bear down too much and try to force it we rarely get the results we want.

Flow

In contrast to forcing things, we would ideally relax and perhaps just react to events. Psychology researcher Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this the “flow” state:

“These are moments in which your mind becomes entirely absorbed in the activity so that you ‘forget yourself’ and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now (athletes often describe this as ‘being in the zone’). You may be surprised to learn, however, that in recent years this experience has become the focus of much research by positive psychologists. Indeed, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has even given it a name for an objective condition — ‘flow.'”

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience flow on the ski slopes–though not nearly as often as I’d like! Everything works. I turn effortlessly. I’m in total control. I move but I’m not aware of how it’s happening. I often feel this way when I trail run, mountain bike, lift heavy weights or when reading a great book. Life is best when I feel this “flow.”

Process, oh how I love the!

I recall conversations about training I’ve had with a friend. Much of his life is devoted to triathlon specifically and intense physical activity generally. We both love physical exertion of a sometimes extreme degree, and we both agree that we dearly love the process. Lifting weights. A track workout. A long bike ride. Learning a new exercise. We love every step towards the end goal. We love the beginning when we feel good, the middle when we’re tired and questioning why we’re doing it, and the glorious end when we feel a sense of accomplishment. In loving the process the end goal comes to us.

Magness speaks to loving the process:

“The key though is not simply thinking ‘it will all work out’ but instead acknowledging the first portion which is if you work hard at things you enjoy, love the process, then eventually things will work out. Perhaps not always in the direction you want them to, but for the most part they will.”

(Additionally, it’s during intense training that we are wholly focused on the task at hand. More on that in a moment.)

Chasing a mirage

I like Magness’s analysis of being process-focused rather than outcome-focused:

“We get caught in the rat race of trying to chase success, satisfaction, happiness, and outcomes. The reality is that this is simply an evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us engaged. Researchers have found that it’s not the actual reward that gives us the most bang for our buck in terms of the wonderful feel good hormone of Dopamine. Instead, it’s the chase that gives us the huge bump in Dopamine.

We’re designed for the process, but we focus on the outcome. It’s this nice little trick of mother nature that makes us follow through and get things done. It’s why we suffer from this nice fallacy of ‘If only I had X, I’d be happy/satisfied/whatever…’ We then chase X, feeling pretty good about ourselves as we chase it, but then are torn down by the feeling of discontentment when we finally reached our goal and while the payoff was nice, it most certainly doesn’t meet pre-conceived expectations. So we are left with the inevitable ‘so what now…’ that predictably follows.”

He says, “If I only had X, I’d be happy…” I believe a lot of us go through life this way, basing our contentment on external things: a race outcome, a flat stomach, a girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse, money, a house in a certain neighborhood… In other words, we’re looking for the perfect circumstance when everything goes right–then we’ll be happy!

In this scenario, we’re looking outside ourselves for contentment, fulfillment and happiness. We’re looking for affirmation of ourselves via things that we may not control. Interestingly, when we achieve one of these things (say hitting a PR in the deadlift, taking 2 minutes off your marathon time or making X amount of money) have we actually found happiness? Maybe…. But often we’ve simply obtained one of these things and we’re not actually any happier, so we keep looking for the next magic thing that will fulfill us.

(In my experience, by chasing happiness that we believe lives outside us, we’re really chasing a mirage. The external thing that we covet so much rarely if ever lives up to expectations.)

Happiness through focus

A 2010 study called A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind seems relevant to some of these ideas. The research was done by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University. Here are some paragraphs that deserve consideration, starting with what I think is the big picture on wandering minds:

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

When are we happiest?

Killingsworth and Gilbert found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

(Hey! Wow! Exercise!)

Finally,

“Time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.”

What am I saying?

I believe that I’m advocating for finding activities that demand our full mental engagement. The phrase “live in the moment,” seems appropriate (even though it sounds cliche and a bit too cute for my taste–it happens to encapsulate a great concept!) There is a subtle, sublime state of mind that can’t be found by multi-tasking (possibly the ultimate non-focused happiness killer) or keeping up with the Joneses. Further, the focus on the process keeps us “in the moment.” If we can find a love for the process–rather than a fixation on the outcome–then I believe we can find a healthy dose of happiness.

What I’ve Learned: Principles of Movement & FASTER Global – Part III – Lunge and Reach

Standard

In the previous two posts, (here and here) I discussed what I’ve learned by going through the FASTER Global coursework. (If you’re a fitness professional who wants to truly become an expert at movement, then you need to do this course. This has been the most comprehensive movement education I’ve had in nearly 20 years of working in the fitness field.)

I believe I’ve made the case for why we should train with tri-plane movement. Further I believe that I’ve illustrated why traditional gym exercises like squats and deadlifts may not be the best way to develop all-around movement skills or strength.  (For the record, I’m not saying traditional squats and deadlifts are bad. I use them in my own workouts and with my clients. To be clear, I believe that there are infinite variations that can and should be used to condition people in the most comprehensive way.)

In the previous post I showed a bunch of lunge and squat variations. Here are some more lunge variations this time with arm reaches.

Lunging and reaching

While lunging, we can drive motion from the upper body by reaching up, down, across, overhead, etc. We can reach with one or both arms. The way in which the trainee steps drives motion from the upper body up through the rest of the body. As he or she reaches, motion is driven down through the body toward the ground. The reaching affects balance and creates a wide range of slightly different body positions which look a lot like any number of athletic activities, for example, look at the baseball pitcher and basketball players.

Lower body motion plus upper body motion.

Saggital plane anterior lunge with same-side posterior arm reach… Or something like that. Lots of stuff happening.

Kobe executes a type of lunge and reach down.

Kobe executes a type of lunge and reach down.

Resistance can be added to these in numerous ways: weight vest, dumbbell(s), sandbags, kettlebells, etc. Cables or tubing positioned at any number of angles can speed up or slow down the lunge.

Remember though, if someone can’t control these exercises then he or she should be regressed to something that is controllable, safe and manageable.

Here are a few examples of lunges combined with reaches in various directions. I’ve shown an anterior lunge and a lateral lunge but we could add any of these reaches to any type of lunge. The combinations are nearly infinite.

Next we can progress to jumps and hops, all done in any number of directions, all with feet and arms in any number of positions. I’ll show some of those in the next post.

What I’ve Learned: Principles of Movement & FASTER Global – Part II

Standard

From gym work to “real life.”

Athletic endeavors and typical daily movements are rarely symmetrical. We’re often stepping from one foot to the other in any of several directions, swiveling and/or bending our bodies, reaching, moving with a load on one side of our body–all potentially at the same time. If we think of the SAID Principle (discussed very thoroughly here by Todd Hargrove of Better Movement) then it stands to reason that some of our training ought to resemble our chosen athletic or leisure activity, both in movement pattern and energy system usage.

A squat by any other name…sss1

Skiing-in-France-HD-Wallpaper-1280x800-3A lot of conventional exercises–squats and
deadlifts for instance–keep the feet planted against the ground in a symmetrical stance. Fine, but how much should we expect those exercises to translate to something like skiing? Yes skiing uses two legs and it sort of looks like a squat but there’s a lot more going on during a ski turn than just moving the body down and up.

We could say something similar about basketball where there’s a lot of jumping,

how-to-deadliftlanding and movement into positions which look a good bit like a deadlift–but clearly doesn’t look like the standard deadlift.

513987

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a very interesting video on how to take a squat and add some flavor to it:

These are the types of movements that more closely resemble many sports and recreational activities. These can be used as part of a warm-up for a workout or they can be used as the workout itself.

Ground reaction forces

At some point we need to consider ground reaction forces. A foot or feet hitting the ground creates a whole different set of circumstances compared to planted feet. Enter the lunge.

A lunge creates a ground reaction force (GRF) as the foot hits the ground. A series of events should ideally take place in a certain sequence at the following joints: mid-tarsal joint, subtalar joint, talocrural joint, knee, hip and on up through the spine and even out to the shoulders and beyond!

(BTW, a lunge can be any distance or depth. If someone can’t lunge far and deep then it’s completely appropriate to simply take a step. I often ask my clients to go as far and/or deep as they can only so long as they can maintain control of the movement.)

There are a lot of variations on the lunge. We can step in any number of directions. Our world is a three-dimensional place so we can step forward or backwards, side to side, or in a circular or twisting type of motion.The purpose in doing this is to allow us to experience a wide range of joint angles and different ground impact scenarios. We can see if an athlete is able to move into his or her sport position. We might be able to expose a movement pattern that is unstable and which the athlete may want to improve for performance and safety.

Lunges for all occasions

Here are a collection of lunges done in an assortment of directions. Each type of lunge creates a different reaction throughout the limbs and joints.

Not pictured are lunges in which the trainee steps up or down off of a step. Any of these lunges can be done in this way. It’s a good way train for something like a hike (if for some reason a hike can’t be undertaken) or to simply add variety and new skills to the workout. Next you’ll see lunging in conjunction with reaching.

 

Tracking Weaknesses: An Efficient Way to Monitor Progress (or Lack Thereof)

Standard

I’ve been deeply immersed the FASTER Global curriculum over the past several months.  Efficiency (getting to your movement, physique and performance goals as fast as possible) is the key focus of FASTER.  To this point I was given a great idea by my FASTER instructor Mike Terborg. I became of what seems to be a very useful and efficient way to monitor whether or not you’re doing what you need to be doing to achieve your goals.

Self-monitoring

Most of us know that if we want to lose weight then we need to do things like eat differently, exercise more and sleep more. Research (here, here and here) has shown that self-monitoring of metrics such as body weight, physical activity and food consumption is a significant component of weight loss. By tracking these things we become mindful and more aware of our habits which is exactly what we must do if we want to change our behavior. If we don’t track some data then a) we won’t know if we’re making progress and b) we’re less likely to focus on the necessities.

Track only what’s needed.

A lot of us have experience tracking all of our food, every mile we run/bike, every weight lifted on every exercise etc. This can become tedious and I know that in my experience I end up with a bunch of information that I never use. I don’t meet many people who are in love with tracking their activity. (Some people do enjoy the meticulous tracking of data. I wish I did.)

With a mind toward efficiency, maybe we don’t need to track everything. Maybe we can track and focus on only the things we need to improve–our weaknesses. Here are some examples:

  • One client of mine likes to drink a few beers. She started using a Google calendar to track a) the days on which she drinks and b) what quantity she drank.  She shared that calendar with me so we can both be mindful of what’s going on. Fantastic!
  • If you eat well and work out consistently but you typically go to bed too late (1 a.m. let’s say) and don’t sleep enough then track every night of the week you get to bed by say midnight or 11 pm.
  • If you binge on sweets several nights a week then track every night that you don’t binge. You should be able to answer the question, “How many times did I eat sweets this week?”
  • If you exercise sporadically then think of tracking every day that you do something called “exercise.” If you’re a beginner then you will see fairly impressive benefits from simply starting to exercise regularly, no matter if it’s weights, cardio, (if you delineate exercise according to those terms) or whatever.
  • Maybe you’re an aggressive go-getter, and you’re not resting and recovering enough. You’re overtrained perhaps. Maybe you need a couple of dedicated rest days. Now you might actually track the days that you don’t work out. Or maybe you track every day that you take a nap.

It’s all about awareness.

I continue to believe that awareness is maybe the most powerful concept to anyone wanting to lose weight, get in shape and increase performance. The purpose of tracking (some of) what you’re doing is to contribute to your awareness. Monitoring some part of your activity is essential to see if you’re doing what you should be doing.

At the same time, it’s a good idea to be efficient and monitor only what’s needed. Too much information is… well… too much. It takes away from something else that’s important. Rather than monitor your strengths think of monitoring only your weaknesses.