Respect Recovery

Most serious athletes and fitness fanatics are either training too much or not enough. I'm pretty sure it's one of those. "Optimal" improvement lies on a razor thin line somewhere between training and rest. Athletes can't know for sure if they are walking that line, but it's easy to tell if they stray far in either direction.

While it will always be easy to make excuses that result in laying around with a bag of chips and unreality TV, there are growing numbers of driven and devoted athletes who would benefit from nothing more than a day or three of rest.

On one hand, a certain amount of consistent training is needed to stimulate the body to adapt and reach new heights of performance. On the other hand, too much training and competition tears the body down before it has had time to recover, much less improve. Outside of technique, nobody gains or improves during training. The magic happens in all the other hours of the day; when the athlete is sitting in class, playing video games at home, and especially while sleeping.

Athletes, parents, trainers, and coaches would do well to remember that actual results are determined not simply by how much training is performed, but by how much training an athlete can recover from. Sorry coach, but an athletes recovery ability is determined by far more than what you can program. Age, gender, genetics, diet, stress, and the amount of sleep all play a large role.

So before you schedule those 5 a.m. workouts before class, please consider the 6 to 8 hours of classwork, hour of social time, minutes of family time, and hours of homework that will be wearing on the athlete until well past 11 p.m. If you want a thin 18-year old to gain 15 lbs of muscle before the spring season, don't have him or her running bleachers for 40 minutes 3 days per week on top of practice and weight training. Athletes who can tolerate, much less improve from, such a schedule are truly outliers.

I understand the value of extreme pre-season conditioning practices that build character and team unity and act as a self selection process for the final roster. There are certainly times for those lessons. There is certainly a time when an athlete must decide if he wants to work to get better or just have fun. But whoever signed up for getting worse while not having fun? The "more is better" approach, where athletes are chronically pushed on 5-, 6-, and even 7-day per week programs is worse than useless. Mental toughness may be worth the price of physical stagnation, up to the point where somebody gets injured.

All the glory and applause given to training, willpower, dedication, and hard-nosed coaching leaves little opportunity for us to hear the stories of drop-outs and injuries that are largely due to a lack of intelligent planning. They are stories of ibuprofin and arthroscopic debridement. They are stories of well-intentioned but unwell PEOPLE dragging themselves around day to day, beating their head against a wall, wondering why they're seeing such little return for all their efforts toward something they use to love.

Those stories do exist.

I see them most days in the clinic.

And I was one of them.

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It's Gotta Be The Shoes

I've had much to say about the limitations and (sometimes) foolishness of common fitness products these days. It's for good reason, because of all the claims for simple, easy, and comfortable substitutions for the "problem" of disciplined, patient, and thought-out effort. While I'm no big fan of programs, supplements, braces, supports, and splints that promise the world to aspiring athletes, I really don't want to be known as the Fitness Nazi.

No Reps For You!
So here's one on the other side of all the marketing hype and junk fitness products, based on legitimate biomechanical principles.A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at the effect of certain footwear on vertical leap.

Following the lead of a few other investigations, researchers measured the vertical jump while subjects wore (a repeated measures design) standard shoes and "experimental" shoes that place the foot into slight dorsiflexion. If you were standing in the experimental shoes, your heel would be about a half inch lower than the ball of your foot.

The vertical jump of the the group of "generally fit but not elite" women being tested was almost two inches higher when wearing the shoes. This is a pretty drastic improvement. What's more, the researchers also gathered data while the subjects ran. The jumping shoes had no adverse effects on running economy, pain, or perceived exertion. So there were no drawbacks in this population of people, at least for the time being tested.

It's ironic that most high falutin' high tops rest the foot in the opposite direction (about 4 degrees of plantar flexion), which has been suspected of contributing to the acquired ankle inflexibility and knee pain seen in basketball players. Isn't it cool to think that a little tweak of the ankle may produce an immediate increase in vertical jump without the body "paying" for it elsewhere?

As compared to typical hoops shoes, flat old school may be better for the health of your knees and vertical jump.

"Little" being the key word here. A little scientific evidence from a little tweak, without major complications, will get hundreds of thousands of people suddenly up and jumping  more, which tends to create an increase in vertical jump. At the same time, if the shoes catch on and are bought up in those numbers, there will be problems.

I mean, can you imagine these things being picked up by Reebok and a multi million dollar ad campaign? The average Joe looking white kid is suddenly throwing down in traffic.

The body almost always pays for any extreme additions or subtractions, and even a subtle tweak risks the chance of pushing underlying movement dysfunction (like say, those who are already restricted in dorsiflexion) over the threshold to injury and pain. Poorly conditioned (okay, fat) boys and girls will wonder why their heels are sore and they're not hitting their heads on the (basketball) rim. Some men and women who were just hungry for a little performance edge will get a big serving of tendinopathy from the increased load to the achilles.

And still, the concept is cool. The shoes hold promise as the first product of its kind, well beyond shoes, that may legitimately help you get more air.

Promise, with reservation.


Discomfort: Priceless

There's really nothing comfortable about our basement. This man cave is not equipped with a high-def TV or EZ chair, X-box or pool table. Walk upstairs and help yourself, because there's no bar or mini fridge.

The Green Room out back.
But there is a barbell. And a bench, a few adjustable dumbbells, several hundred pounds of weight plates, a 90's-era CD player, and gravity. The workouts often can't be contained, blowing out through the back door. The Green Room offers graded surfaces, rocks, obstacles (including kids) to accommodate plenty of running, jumping, hitting, and throwing. The "natural" climate control is just perfect, especially when the days are not sunny with a high of 75.

Attempting to make physical exercise soft and cushy misses the point. The body adapts to both comfort and discomfort. While discomfort deepens us, smoothie bars and cardio theaters and fancy chrome exercise gadgets are blood letting for the anemia of modern times. Discomfort grants us the opportunity to develop will and grit that's readily transferable to everyday life.

Time is a gift. So if you sit indoors for the majority of your work day, please don't drive (sitting) to a climate controlled gym to sit or recline back on some resistance exercise gadget, crunching your pelvis even further toward your rib cage. I don't care how well it isolates the lower obliques. Unless you're older than 70 or with a serious disability, swear that you'll never be seen reading a magazine while riding a recumbent bike, especially People Magazine.

[Sure, it was a cool down.]

If you're going to work out, for heavens sake, WORK out. Learning the joy of misery suddenly gives you time for a fitness program. Fitness doesn't even mandate an electrical outlet, much less your own TV and PlayStation (like the ridiculously equipped for a roster of 14 Dallas Mavericks training facility). If you have gravity and some ledges, rocks, or steps, you have plenty of gear for a solid level of fitness.

In general, the less fancy gear you need to exercise, the better. Therefore, yoga mats are probably a good return on investment. As is lifting barbells and other heavy things. And while I'm no fan of distance running, I have to hand it those who willingly engage prolonged periods of the most fundamental push against gravity. That's why they call the natural, exercise-induced rush of endorphins a "runner's high," and not a "Thighmaster's high" or even a "Cable Cross Overer's high."

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Mike has embraced this particular odd form of discovery and made the journey his own. I think it shows.

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How dare any fitness or infommercial person try to sale us on "quick and easy," stealing away what's priceless? Comfortable exercise never delivers the full dose. While we can't derive a mathematical relationship between discomfort and "benefit," such a formula is certainly worth considering in the context of an individuals abilities and goals.

Of course this can be taken too far. I don't recommend Fight Clubs because the side effects are pretty awful. And not everyone should prepare for a solo climb of K2, or even deadlift 400 pounds, intentionally bloodying their shins with the knurling of a barbell (as I once witnessed at the now defunct Slippery Rock University Barbell Club).

But I am asking for a some middle ground here.

Speaking of bloody shins...

This is not the counterfeit discomfort of masochist ascetics. A recent accidental drop of a heavy dumbbell on my toes caused me to doubt that the purposeful infliction of pain holds much positive psychological value. Though the extreme saints, mystics, and barbell nut cases may disagree, I would argue that "gift" discomfort always comes riding on a productive act where pain is not the primary intent.

                THIS video: 300 framers per second, Kyle Wagner probes the limits of discomfort.

Embrace and deliberately manipulate discomfort as a controlled variable. Most of us should progress slowly and focus on the journey. As an alternative, you can ramp discomfort from practically 0 to 60 in mere seconds, like this:

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I'm all for the basement. It's ridiculous how much happens down there. I, personally, have never felt a place as comfortable as my basement floor.

Ahhhh...the floor!

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Thanks to those who got down(stairs) with discomfort:

Mike M, Mike S, Mike H, Dave T, Andrew C, Eric B, GG M, Amy G, Marie V, Ben C, Cort, Rose, Ryan H, Tim B.

The blogger, finding discomfort.

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