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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.