Monthly Archives: June 2010

Deep Thoughts: Do your muscles really have a memory?

You can run quarters on the track in 80 seconds. Maybe you can even do them in 60 seconds. Maybe you hit a PR for sustained power on the bike. You can drive your golf ball 250 yards down the fairway. Does this mean you are really performing at your potential?

Every time we practice a movement, we are reinforcing a particular movement in our brain. This is commonly referred to as “muscle memory”. Training technique is an often overlooked aspect in endurance world. Each joint in your body has an axis around which it moves, with muscles controlling the movement. These tissues are engineered to move a specific way. If we learn good muscle memory, we continually re-enforce good habits – and come competition day – we perform at our potential.

Competition to you might be a round of golf with friends on Sunday or qualifying for the 10,000 meter at the Olympics. At every level, focusing on your form can improve your performance.  Our body and mind strive to get the job done – at all costs. Often, this can mean we learn an incorrect strategy to get the job done. And even if your form is better than most, we all suffer form alterations when we fatigue. When these form changes occur, we have a decrease in efficiency. Since we are performing “different” than we normally do, we put more strain through our body’s tissues and are more likely to become injured. Understanding the stages of motor learning will shed some light on why we need to work on our form in the first place:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence – this means we have no idea that we are doing something with incorrect form. Most of us fall in this category. Look at the picture of the woman landing from a jump. The joints of the lower body are designed so that the knee tracks over the second toe when we land from a jump. The goal is to preserve proper alignment when we move. This athlete has no idea that her knees crashing to the inside are a problem. She doesn’t know that it significantly increases her risk for an ACL tear, patellofemoral syndrome, hip impingement, or a host of other issues. She doesn’t know that this landing technique will hurt her running, jumping, and cutting performance.
  2. Conscious Incompetence – We reviewed this athlete’s form issues with her. We showed her that the jump landing technique she uses can lead to injury and compromises her performance. She is now aware of it and understands the issue. This is the point where specific corrective exercises, cues, and drills are prescribed to her to correct this muscle memory. The more she practices these correctly, the more she re-enforces correct motion – however this stage requires a lot of conscious thought to perform the movement correctly . Because of the increased cognition or thought that this stage requires, the athlete may in fact be less efficient at their particular sport because they are “thinking” so much about the way in which they move. This is why drills often seem challenging.
  3. Conscious Competence – The athlete understands that there was an issue, knows correct technique, and now is able to perform correctly without thinking about it. She has removed the stresses from a flawed technique, and can perform correctly in sports-specific drills and in competition. The is the stage we want to be at! Think about some of the best performances you’ve ever done. What were you thinking about? Most successful athletes can’t even remember what they were focusing on. They were in “the zone” and just let their bodies perform using the skills they learned through a lot of practice.

In our quest to improve, we often focus on adding intensity or training volume thinking it to be the magic fix to take us to the next level. We’ve often heard the phrase “train smarter, not harder.” Adding time and focus to alter your technique pays off in spades. So let’s expand that saying to “move smarter, not harder”. The focus of the biomechanical analysis done in the SPEED Clinic @ the UVA Center for Endurance Sport is identify your unique compensations and make those muscles smarter!

Is stretching right for you?

Should I stretch? Should I stretch before or after? Will stretching make me a better athlete? Will stretching make me a more confident public speaker? We get these questions a lot. Don’t worry, we are happy to help and the confusion is not your fault. Seems every media outlet out there wants the BIG STORY. The headlines read  “best new stretch”, “best way to stretch”, or maybe even “stretching is killing you” –they really want you to by their magazine! So should you stretch or not? Is it OK to be tight? Is it a benefit? Is it possible to be too flexible?

Muscles, tendons, and ligaments shorten and lengthen as our joints move. Therefore, the amount of mobility you need in these tissues is pretty simple to define. You need enough for the tasks and sports you do, and nothing more. Is it really that simple? Yes – and let’s look at what happens when structures around our joints are too tight.

  1. Tightness in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments around a joint causes increased strain in the tissues. Think about a rubber band. You can stretch a rubber band back and forth from slack to fairly taught all day and it will be OK. Think about how much tension is in the rubber band as you shorten and lengthen it. Now imagine pulling he rubber band taught to 80% and then pulling it as far as you can. Do this for a while and look at the rubber band. If it hasn’t popped yet, you’ll notice that the rubber band actually begins to fray a bit – the increased tension inside the band causes damage. This increased tightness inside soft tissues limits our ability to withstand chronic strain inside our muscles – and leads to muscle strain and tears.
  2. The attachment points of your muscles, tendons, and ligaments form a bag of connective tissue around each and every joint called a capsule. Tightness in these structures can change the way the joint moves. Think about door pivoting open and closed on its hinge  – there is an axis on which the door moves. The door has no problem opening and shutting. Now imagine a force trying the twist the door as it opens and closes. This twisting force tries to move the door in a way that the hinges are not set up to pivot around. If you keep trying to open and shut the door, something will fail (the hinges will loosen, the door will warp)  – the point is that trying to move a joint in a manner that does not use its normal axis will cause pre-mature wear on structures. Tight soft tissues change the axis of mobility through the joint and cause excess wear on he surfaces of the joints  – the is the mechanism for the development of arthritis.

So now that we know the problems associated with tight tissues, all of us should stretch right?…. because the magazines say that stretching causes you to be more agile, stronger, recover faster, and warm up the tissues? Not a single one of these claims has ever been substantiated. You need “enough” mobility around a joint for the sports you perform. A runner and a gymnast have entirely different needs for mobility. Having more flexibility than needed for your sport has never been proven to be an advantage. In fact, we see just as many injuries to people that are hyper-mobile (have tissues that are too loose) as people who are tight.

Stretching a muscle is tearing tissue. Do I advocate stretching? Breaking down the structural integrity of our body is not something we should do unless its needed. Would you tear holes in your clothes for the fun of it? When an individual needs to stretch areas of their body that compromise their ability to perform, stretching is 100% part of their plan. But if there is no restriction on soft tissue mobility, there is no evidence that stretching will provide any benefit at all. In our next post, we’ll tackle the different types of stretching. For now, “enough” is enough.

Weight Lifting Benefits for Endurance Athletes

Can Hanz and Franz help you out? The seemingly endless debate of weight training for endurance athletes will carry on for decades. I do not plan to solve this in a single super-human blog posting today, but lets take a stab at this form an injury stand point, and hopefully give you some food for thought to modify your training program.

As an endurance athlete, your muscles receive a LOTS of high volume loads

  • Cross sectional area is important to disperse load. There’s the old question – “what puts more force per square area on the ground – an elephant or a woman in high heels?” – answer – the high-heeled woman. Don’t worry, I’m not calling her fat! The elephant weighs a ton….or tons, but has 4 very wide contact points to disperse his weight. The lady weighs a small fraction of the elephant’s total weight, yet the small stiletto heel and small forefoot disperse this weight through a very small area. What does this have to do with muscles and tendons?
    As you train, your body’s tissues are under a lot of stress. As you sweat along to your iPod, they generate tremendous amounts of force to move your body through space. Small muscle and tendon thickness means that there are greater peak stresses inside these tissues. A larger thickness (cross-sectional area) of these same tissues means that peak strain inside the tissue would be less.
  • Cross sectional area decreases with age. Along with bigger ears and longer noses, we lose muscle mass with age. Sorry – don’t shoot the messenger, it just happens.  This is not the end of the world though as studies have shown that even men in their 80’s can increase lean body mass (muscle mass) through strength training.
  • The way to increase cross sectional area is through strength training. “But wait- I am an endurance athlete – I am strong! – I train 25 hours a week on the roads, pools, and running paths!” No doubt you are ahead of the curve Mr./Ms Endurance Athlete, but there is a difference. Endurance training is primarily high volume low load training. This is not the specific stimulus to get increases in cross-sectional area within our muscles. The correct stimulus to increase the thickness of muscle and tendon tissue is to lift heavy. You are looking to lift a weight 5-7 times for 1-3 sets with a weight such that you can barely complete the number of reps in each set.  Endurance athletes are frequently told to focus on lifting for muscular endurance (high reps, low weight) – this type of lifting program does not target increasing tissue thickness (called muscular hypertrophy).

So what is our take home message from today? Is it that we should all begin lifting heavy starting today? Obviously not. The take home message is this. Increasing the thickness of your musculoskeletal system will help disperse the loads our body sees with chronic training volume. Younger athletes normally develop these characteristics. As we move into our 20’s and 30’s, some amount of true strength training is likely beneficial as part of your training throughout the season. As we move into our 40’s, soft tissue density decreases. This means we can’t deal as well with training stresses and may be more likely to develop strains and injury. That’s all for now – time to hit the gym.

Plantar Fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is one of the most common injuries in runners, recreational and competitive alike. Although it can be frustrating to experience, there is good news for plantar fasciitis sufferers: it gets better! This frustration is perhaps best illustrated by the bumper sticker available at the Ragged Mountain Running Shop that reads, “I survived plantar fasciitis!” Mark and Cynthia don’t dispense stickers proclaiming the survival of stress fractures or runner’s knee. Perhaps the mystery regarding the healing of these injuries are more widely understood. Implementing a comprehensive approach to plantar fasciitis will help ensure a more speedy recovery and return to full training.

The plantar fascia is a broad band of tissue that starts at the heel, then widens as it extends through the foot to attach near the toes. The fascia supports the arch and foot musculature. The fascia is most commonly injured near its insertion at the heel. There are good reasons for this: the fascia is stressed with impact loading at every heel strike, then is stretched as we go through the gait cycle. The area near the heel also has less blood supply than other regions, thus limiting its healing capacity. Pain occurs on the bottom of the foot near the heel and is particularly noticeable first thing in the morning as well as during and after running. As symptoms worsen, the runner may also have pain after sitting for a long period of time or sometimes with every step! The term fasciitis is perhaps a bit of a misnomer as it implies that inflammation is the cause. Inflammation is just part of the package. In addition to inflammation, scar tissue and even tearing can occur. This explains why anti-inflammatories alone rarely prove curative.

Treatment includes measures to control pain and inflammation, minimize overload forces, and to promote tissue healing. Proper shoe wear is essential. Anti-inflammatories are useful (as long as there is no reason not to take them ie allergies to anti-inflammatories or aspirin, pregnancy, or if you have a history of stomach ulcers, or kidney or liver disease). In chronic or especially painful cases, I may prescribe a short course of oral steroids first. Stretching of the calf muscles and plantar fascia is performed. Remember to perform the calf stretch with the knee bent as well as straight as these 2 positions emphasize different muscles. The fascia is stretched by extending the toes against a wall or the floor. Strengthening the foot and ankle muscles is important. Useful exercises include towel scrunches, picking up marbles, and “short foot” exercises, where the runner stands on one foot while maintaining the arch of the foot. Several devices are marketed to assist with plantar fasciitis. I have found good success recommending the counterforce arch brace designed by my sportsmedicine mentor, Robert Nirschl, MD, MS and available through running shops or direct from Medical Sports, Inc. Other useful devices include gel heel cushions and over the counter orthotics. If symptoms persist beyond 6 weeks of this level of treatment, formal physical therapy can be useful to apply modalities such as iontophoresis (delivering anti-inflammatory medication with an electric stimulator) or ultrasound, manual therapy to ensure proper joint motion, and expanding one’s exercise regimen. A night splint designed to apply a light stretch while sleeping can be useful. In select instances, custom orthotics may be indicated to control specific biomechanical contributors. In longterm or particularly painful cases, steroid injections can be applied to help facilitate the rehab process. Since steroid serves only to control inflammation, injections should not be viewed as treatment in and of themselves. Additionally, since steroids can potentially weaken the local tissues, I recommend refraining from running for 10-14 days after this type of injection.

In rare instances, surgery may be indicated, but is recommended only after the runner has failed to respond to the conservative treatment for several months. Alternative therapies also exist: shock wave therapy, magnets, and accupuncture. Although these may prove to be more useful, we simply have limited experience and research regarding these treatments. They can also be costly, and therefore are not as widely used.

There are other, less common causes of heel pain in runners including a bruised heel pad, stress fracture and nerve entrapments. Imaging studies such as xrays, bone scan, or MRI and nerve testing may be recommended if the runner is not responding to treatment or if initial presentation suggests a different cause.

Most runners may continue to train while plantar fasciitis is being treated, as long as the pain is considered mild and is not forcing a change in the gait. If pain is more than mild, back things down a level. Don’t run, however, if pain forces you to limp or change your gait. If you have to alter your training schedule, substitute cross training to maintain fitness. I recommend water running, the elliptical, or biking. Train at similar intensities and durations that you would for your land training.

Be patient, yet diligent with the rehabilitation program. And once resolved, you can proudly display that sticker!

Call Me Coach

I ran into the parents of one of my former patients today. She told me that her son said to tell me hi…. and thanks. You see we worked together, her son and I, following his injury last year. She said after we worked together and got him back to training for pole vaulting, he was able to finish out the season and got a full scholarship to college. She told me that he wanted to give me his state trophy – said I was the one who got him back to training to win it.

Now I don’t take credit one second for any of this. That kid had talent and an inner drive that would plow through a brick wall. Plus – more than anything else, he loved his sport. Hearing stuff like this – that’s what I live for. To even think that any part of what I did helped this kid get a scholarship and help in his dream – that why I get up every day to go to work.

Am I his coach? Well let’s look at this….. Webster’s defines coach as:

from the concept that the tutor conveys the student through his examinations] a : a private tutor b : one who instructs or trains a performer or a team of performers; specifically : one who instructs players in the fundamentals of a competitive sport and directs team strategy

These days, we think of what we do for a living as more mission statement than job. Our sole role being here is to aid you, as an athlete, in the pursuit of your goal. To reach your limits- and combine them with science to help you blow past them. Yes, we do have a really fancy lab and cutting edge this and that, but you have to look at the big picture. The big picture is not a number. This big picture is you. Your big picture. Your goals.

Open your mind to what we have to offer. We break you down. Individually. We figure out the limiting factor, and then we build you back again – stronger. You’ll leave here with a plan. A plan focused around your goals. You know those goals you are always thinking about? – that is why you are taking time to read this. You know you’re looking for an edge. We can teach you to use it.

Think of the SPEED clinic as your resource. Think of us as your coaches. Its what we love to do.

Keep pushing the limits-

Stress Fractures

Stress fractures were first described in 1855 by a Prussian military physician who observed foot pain and swelling in young military recruits. He called the condition “Fussgeschwulst”. I don’t know what the exact translation of this is, but it doesn’t sound good. As stress fractures can translate to missed training and even a missed season for the runner, I recognize that the words “stress fracture” herald disappointment in the clinic. Early diagnosis and proper management will hasten the return to full training.

A stress fracture is the end result of the failure of bone to respond adequately to mechanical loads (ground reaction forces and muscle activity) experienced during exercise. Bone responds to strain by increasing rate of remodeling. In this process, bone cells called osteoclasts resorb bone, which is later replaced by even denser bone by bone cells called osteoblasts. Since there is a lag between the onset of bone resorption and bone production, bone is weakened during this time. If sufficient recovery time is allowed, bone mass eventually increases. If loading continues, however, microdamage can occur, eventually leading to a stress fracture. Simply put, stress fractures occur when we train too hard without adequate recovery.

In most studies of collegiate athletes, track and field accounted for more stress fractures than any other sport. In runners in general, the most common site appears to be the tibia (lower leg), followed by the metatarsals, navicular, and fibula. In track and field athletes specifically, however, navicular stress fractures predominate.

Stress fractures occur most commonly when the runner has experienced a transition in training. Common examples include increasing mileage too quickly and changing a phase of training to more intense training. The use of spikes during training has been proposed as a potential risk factor, but this has not been definitively proven. I see a lot of stress fractures in first time marathoners. Although many good programs for training for a first marathon with relatively low mileage exist, the constant increase in training is a challenge, especially when the long run distance exceeds the amount of running done during the remainder of the week. The runner with a stress fracture may experience only minimal symptoms early on. For example, one may feel a mild ache in the shins or on the top of the foot only after one’s long weekend run. As time goes on, however, the pain becomes more noticeable and occurs sooner. Pain is usually worst during or soon after a run. Rarely does pain associated with a stress fracture improve with running. One can usually identify a particular point which is most tender to touch. Since many stress fractures do not appear on xrays, a more sensitive test such as a bone scan or MRI may be needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Stress fractures may be classified as either non-critical or critical. Non-critical stress fractures include the medial tibia, most metatarsals, and femoral shaft. Medial tibial stress fractures cause pain on the inside of the shin and are often difficult to distinguish from shin splints. Point tenderness and progressive worsening while running are clues that may help distinguish a stress fracture from shin splints. Metatarsal stress fractures usually cause pain on the top of the foot, just above the toes. Femoral shaft stress fractures cause pain in the thigh, and are often diagnosed as a quad strain. The lack of a specific injury, however, should raise the suspicion for a stress fracture. Most non-critical stress fractures will heal with 4-6 weeks of rest (no running). For the medial tibia and metatarsal stress fractures, I will often prescribe a walking boot for a few weeks as in general this makes walking more comfortable and my experience is that runners typically get back to full training sooner if we take this more conservative step early on. During this time the runner may remove the boot for sleeping, showering, driving, and cross-training. I prefer deep water running, but the elliptical and bike are good choices, too. Try to pattern your cross training workouts to replicate what you would normally do on land. The return to run program commences after 4-6 weeks and progresses gradually. I often start the runners on a walk/jog program where they walk a minute/jog a minute for a couple weeks before they begin regular running. During the transition back to full training, cross training supplements the progressive run training.

Critical stress fractures are those that require special attention as they either require an extended time to heal or require limitations on weightbearing. They also carry risk of incomplete healing which could require surgical intervention if not addressed early. Critical stress fractures include the femoral neck, anterior tibia, medial malleolus, navicular, and 5th metatarsal. Femoral neck stress fractures present most commonly as groin pain, very similar to a muscle strain. Stress fractures, however, occur after repetitive activity and there is rarely a history of one particular “strain”. Anterior tibia stress fractures cause pain on the front of the shin. Medial malleolus stress fractures cause pain on the bone on the inside of the ankle. Navicular stress fractures usually cause pain on the top of the foot just in front of the ankle, extending into the midfoot. 5th metatarsal stress fractures cause pain on the proximal aspect of the 5th metatarsal on the outside of the foot. These stress fractures require special measures beyond a simple period of rest (i.e. crutches, casting, or bracing) and therefore pain in these regions should be evaluated sooner than later. If we can identify these before a fracture line develops, healing is usually uneventful. If a true fracture line develops, healing can become more challenging.

Fortunately for runners, most stress fractures are non-critical and will heal without complications. A high level of suspicion should be maintained when experiencing pain in the areas described for the critical stress fractures, especially if one has been increasing the volume or intensity of one’s training. If a few days of rest, ice, and cross training don’t eliminate the symptoms or if one is having pain with walking and other daily activities, evaluation is indicated. If you do experience a stress fracture, be sure to discuss appropriate cross training guidelines with your physician, as in most cases cross training can preserve a critical level of fitness as you recover.

See you on the roads!

Running Hot

I just got back from a midday run and it was HOT! (especially for a guy most used to running at 5:30 am). The heat of summer is here, and we must take precautions to avoid the dangers of excessive exercise in the heat. Excessive temperatures can impair performance and lead to dehydration and heat illness. Proper preparation and early recognition of heat illness will help us better enjoy our summer training.

Muscle action during exercise in our body’s main means of heat production. Only 25 percent of the energy produced by exercise is used for work or movement. The remainder of the energy is dissipated as heat. Some heat loss occurs directly to the environment when the environmental temperature is less than our body temperature. In warmer conditions, sweating is our primary means of losing heat. As our temperature rises, blood is shunted to the skin so that the heat may be lost through sweating. If heat loss does not compensate for the heat produced by muscle activity, body temperature rises. This is especially true if we allow ourselves to become dehydrated or in humid conditions where sweat loss is limited.

Heat illness can be graded as mild, moderate, and severe. Mild heat illness is termed heat fatigue and is characterized by tiredness and weakness, sometimes associated with a headache. Heat fatigue is generally responds quickly to cessation of activity and drinking fluids. Heat cramps may occur and are treated with rest, icing, stretching, massage and rehydration.

Moderate heat illness is termed heat exhaustion. Weakness and fatigue are more prominent. Other symptoms include dizziness, nausea, and even mild confusion. Treatment mandates cessation of activity, getting out of the heat, rapid cooling, and rehydration.

Severe heat illness is termed heat stroke and is a medical emergency. The runner now has an impaired level of consciousness which differentiates this more serious form of heat illness from heat exhaustion. The athlete with severe heat illness may actually have hot dry skin rather that be sweating. Immediate cooling and formal medical assistance is needed to treat heat stroke.

Heat illness can often be prevented by following some basic guidelines:

Acclimatization: If you are not accustomed to running in hot weather, gradually introduce time in hotter, humid conditions to your training. Otherwise, try to avoid the hotter periods of the day. Train early in the morning or later in the evening. Consider taking it indoors to the treadmill if it is especially hot.

Wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing that allows moisture and heat to be lost from the body.

Proper hydration: In addition to fluids needed for daily maintenance, athletes need to replace fluids lost with exercise. Drink 2 cups of fluid 2 hours prior to exercise. Drink roughly one cup of fluid for every 20 minutes of exercise. If exercise is less than one hour, water is adequate. If exercise exceeds one hour, a sports drink will replace sugar and salt in addition to fluids. Not all of this needs to be done during exercise, but that not consumed during exercise should be replaced within a couple hours of training. Another method of monitoring fluid needs is to weigh yourself (unclothed) before and after exercise. Drink 2 cups of fluid for each pound lost during exercise. Now don’t overdo it either. Some folks adhere to the “more is better” theory. Drinking excessively, especially excessive amounts of water, can lead to hyponatremia (low salt) which can be potentially dangerous. So stick to the above guidelines and things should be fine. Also avoid alcohol and caffeine which can also promote dehydration.

Treat heat illness early. If you or a teammate experiences the signs of heat illness, stop running. Move indoors or to the shade. DRINK. Cool towels soaked in ice water can be draped over the athlete to more rapidly cool if necessary. Rapid cooling and medical attention are needed in all cases of severe heat illness.

And don’t forget about your skin. Sunblock to exposed skin to prevent sunburn!

Enjoy the summer!