Try Harder? No. Relax.

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“If you want to get a little zen about it, you could say that the non-doing is just as important as the doing.”

-Todd Hargrove

I appreciate and enjoy professional instruction. Coach Mary-Katherine Flemming has been a huge help to me as a runner. She’s helped me bring up my weaknesses and train smarter. I also try and take at least one ski lesson every year. Mountain biking is much safer and a lot more fun since I’ve gone through several skills clinics with Lee Likes Bikes.

I recently started working with my fellow personal trainer and boxing coach Zane Beck. He’s teaching me how to throw punches the right way. I’ve met with him twice and I’ve had a amazingly challenging workouts in just 30 minutes. We’ve broken down the mechanics of punching and it’s been fascinating.

During our last session, I could feel myself tensing up on some punches, particularly the right hook and right upper cut. Those are awkward punches so I tried harder to throw them. Trying harder was a mistake. I was too tense. Zane could see it and feel it. So I slowed down and stopped rushing. I worked to throw good punches one at a time and I worked to relax. The effort to relax led to a brief conversation similar to conversations I’ve had with my clients.

“I worked to relax…” That’s an odd concept, no? Relaxing should be easy, right? If my arms are overhead then I relax them and they drop to my side. Simple. By sitting down my legs relax. Also simple. Seems like relaxation shouldn’t even require any thought. Sometimes though, relaxation is remarkably hard to come by though, especially in athletic endeavors.

I often see clients try hard and harder to perform certain exercises, especially new exercises. For example, kettlebell swings and cleans are often performed with overly tense hands, straining arms, tight necks, and an overall rigid body. Clients try to muscle the kettlebell into the air rather than using the stretch reflex of the muscles to do most of the work. Similarly, I have a client who often defaults to rigid high tension on medicine ball throws. He braces his whole body like it’s about to be hit by a truck. The result in all these cases is poor performance, poor exercise technique, and excessive fatigue. The same teeth-gritting, wasteful strategy might be employed by someone swinging a golf club, swimming laps, or sprinting.

Thus, I work with my clients to bring awareness to their unproductive tension and help them turn it down. Relaxation can take a surprising amount of work. Bearing down harder is the exact wrong way to get better. While many if not most exercises should be performed explosively, one shouldn’t rush too much.Impatience is rarely a virtue in any circumstance. Athletic movements require the right amount of tension, not necessarily more tension.

Steve Magness is a big-time running coach, writer, lecturer, and running expert. (His recent book, Peak Performance is superb. If you want to perform better in life, not just in athletics, then you should definitely get a copy.) He captures the importance of relaxation in this recent Facebook post:

Another excellent discussion of relaxation comes from movement expert and author Todd Hargrove. He wrote The Skill of Relaxation in 2008. It includes these important points:

“Most people trying to improve their movement ability for sports will therefore spend time lifting weights to train their ability to quickly and forcefully contract their muscles.

“That is a fine idea, but it sometimes ignores the equally important flip side of the coordination coin. If coordination means all the right muscles firing at the right time, this also means that any muscles not involved in the movement must relax in the right places at the right speed at the right time. Therefore, any act of coordination requires the skill of relaxing the muscles that aren’t essential to the movement. If the non-essential muscles aren’t relaxed, they will cause extraneous movement or tension that interferes in the desired movement and wastes energy.”

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