an open letter to the coach

Dear Coach,

Your commitment to the team is great. You genuinely want to help each athlete mature and develop to their highest potential. It's for good reason that you hope they are likewise committed to the sport and to you.

You don't want to see your investment depreciate during the off season, wasting five months finding trouble, losing interest, or sitting around becoming Call Of Duty champions. You want them to continue developing their skill, physical conditioning, and competitive drive. This is where I take issue.

There are patterns that I notice. I love sports and athletics, but not having a horse in the race gives me an advantage in perspective. I'll cut to the chase here. Why all the structured distance running in the off season? 

Running is better than nothing. It may even be the best thing for a few athletes. But when you actually evaluate the demands of the sport, and match that against the strengths and weaknesses of an individual, you will often find that running is far from the best use of their time.

I recently had a client ask what I thought of this typical soccer, basketball, lacrosse, field hockey, etc off-season training "strength and conditioning" workout.

- - - - -
10-15min Warm-up
10 minutes run at 60-70% MAS or around 75-85% HRmax
1 circuit of BW exercises - 15 reps each of air squats, split jumps, skater hops, and calf raises
10 minutes run
1 circuit of BW exercises
10 minutes run
1 circuit of BW exercises
 - - - - - -

This is someone's idea of a strength training? My response, for this athlete, was "Why?" I never said it was easy. Even if the sport in question is cross country or other endurance events, this is a fairly useless thing to trudge through during the off season.

Granted, most sports require running. Sports (and positions) vary greatly in the amount of endurance, power, and top speed that they demand. But even soccer players (ugh, especially soccer players) would do well to invest a three- or six month chunk of time toward developing peak speed and strength.

Focus on refining your weak points and movement patterns, pushing your body to new limits in jumping higher, sprinting faster, and actually moving some weight, not simply more more more distance running.

Do you imagine that a wiry teenager is going to become clunky and slow by devoting 6 months to building total body power and a little size?

This does not mean being lazy. This does not mean taking up hardcore Crossfit or Powerlifting as a competitive level. It does mean shifting the focus and priority for just a few months. It means giving the mind and body a chance to adapt to different yet complementary stimuli. What you get is a physically and mentally refreshed beast of an athlete in the new season.

No athlete can (or should) need to maintain peak endurance and stamina year 'round. Where strength, power, and size take months and years to develop, an active and motivated young adult can easily recover high level endurance abilities in two to three weeks.

What sport-specific test would convince you of this? The timed mile? A soccer player who trains appropriately with a power and speed emphasis can easily break the 6 minute mark with just a few weeks of endurance work.

Again, we're talking about a well designed strength and conditioning program involving plyometrics and total body resistance and conditioning with free weights, not group Boot Camp or sitting on various resistance machines mindlessly churning out 3 sets of 10.

See what happens when you give motivated, devoted athletes some structured training with a break from intense endurance work. You'll get a bigger, faster, more powerful version of the person you knew, with some newfound confidence to tear it up.


my training philosophy

I watched a personal trainer on TV the other day. His workout DVD series has sold, what, a hundred thousand million copies?

He had such emotional energy. I can't imagine the demands of maintaining that level of unbridled swank. I swear he had to be the fittest man ever on the entire planet. I wondered what he's like in his personal life.

"Pick up some milk on the way home from work? 
Oh yeah - Turkey Hill! Gonna bring that milk baby. WHOOO!" 

I was amazed at the sheer number of words he could pack between two repetitions of a monotonous total body movement. Is there anyone who really prefers his absurd rate of motivational cliche per minute? How many truly believe his enthusiasm for 30 seconds of lunges. Maybe sincerity doesn't matter?

With expressive hands dancing, shoulders ever square to the camera, he never mumbled or stuttered, sneezed or scratched. His moves were smooth and bold, especially during the unnecessary invasion of others personal space.

And then there was the outfit. You know the fitness look. The posture. No cotton within a square mile. The well controlled haircut and perfect shave. The tan. But he wasn't even being showy. He actually had a shirt on. That covered his biceps. About half way.

If that's what it takes to be a successful trainer/fitness/gym guy, count me out. Counting reps, reminding people to breath, that's not me. I'll lock myself in the basement (a basement that happens to have more than enough gear to keep a handful of clients, friends and I healthy and fit) where everyone is perfectly capable of counting their own reps.

This is why I train in old T-shirts, worn out sweats, and junky skateboarding shoes. This is why I hesitate at turning a passion and hobby into a job. I just may be a horrible trainer. I'm no real chief. No quarterback. I have a hard enough time feeling comfortable leading my own children. I'm just not up for giving people the "healthy choices during the holidays" lecture, okay?

"How many carbs should you be eating? Well lets tidy up that squat pattern and see how many strict chin-ups you can do."  

But I know the obvious truth here. Physical therapists are trainers too. We move others and ourselves all day, never in need of a warm-up. I need to own what the trainer guy is doing. Our style may vary, but we basically claim the same calling. On any given day you can easily catch me saying "don't do it this way, do it that way." Most days I do deliver air jabs, shouts of encouragement, and loud music.

"Give most of your attention to tailoring the boring basics to your interests and inclinations. Fight to remain an athlete. Perform multi-joint lifts with good form. Sleep enough. Eat vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins. Have some ice cream now and again."

When it comes down to it, I'm all about promoting fun in the process of physical size and strength and speed and stamina, including the discipline and tactful showboating. I'm an advocate for the freedom that training enables. I'm a minister of movement as medicine that changes our physical and mental state.  

Maybe there will be a place for this style yet. Maybe not. Just don't ask me for tips on how to get enough fluids, 60 (or was it 80?) ounces per day. Go drink some damn water.


Why should runners do strength training?

Kelly Leighton writes for PennLive.com, the on-line home of The Patriot News. You should follow her column for all things related to running in central PA.

Today she interviewed me about the benefits of strength training for runners:



Custom orthotics hurt your feet - troubleshooting

You tried off-the-shelf inserts, injections, and a host of other treatments to manage your lingering foot pain. None of these resolved the issue and you sought further advice. After a thorough (or not-so-thorough) examination, your orthopedist, podiatrist, physical therapist, or chiropractor recommended custom orthotics.

You said, "Sure, anything to get back to normal," to the tune of approximately $285.00 (or much, much higher so I hear).

You eagerly received the custom devices prescribed by a specialized medical professional and precisely molded to capture every contour of your very own feet. A few hours or days later you cursed while shaking your fist to the sky, asking why the blasted things hurt so much.

This NEVER happens in our practice, where every client prescribed custom inserts happily skips away on the wings of magical inserts carved of unicorn horns for maximum durability and control, lined with a plush top-cover of genuine baby alpaca feathers beneath New Zealand rainbows.

"Yeah that's marginally cute. But my foot hurts."

Before you trash your custom inserts or use them as a door jam or ice scraper, here are a few common reasons why they may be hurting your feet:

1. Inadequate break-in period. 

Many people who are accustom to squishy insoles in cushiony shoes do not take it seriously when we advise them to wear the inserts for just two additional hours per day. Others don't believe us when we instruct them to get use to the inserts in simple everyday activities before trying to exercise or work for prolonged periods in them. While some people need more or less time, this is a realistic and appropriate tapering period.

The fix is to wear the inserts an additional two hours per day, building to a full day of light activity prior to exercising or working hard in them.

2. Inadequate footwear. 

If your shoes are too tight and you jam a custom insert under a sensitive foot, it will usually make the pain worse. If your shoes are old and worn down, the custom device will be sitting on an uneven surface and the contours captured in your foot mold will not apply well. Even new shoes that are chincy (you bought on sale at Kohls) or intentionally flimsy (think minimalist shoes) will work against what the orthotic is supposed to achieve, again causing it to sit on an uneven surface.

The fix is to get into a quality shoe with a firm sole that is also adequate in length and width. Don't try to ride a Cadillac engine on a junk frame.

3. Poor "loading" of the insert.

The most perfect insert in the world may not function as intended if, for example, you have tight hips that force your legs and feet into a toe-out "duck foot" position. If you have weakness or tightness in the ankles, calves, or toes this will likely play into some type of compressive, shear, or tensile strain on tissues in the foot and a compensation in your gait pattern. If you sound like a herd of elephants coming through the house, it is not the "fault" of your shoes, inserts, or even your feet. You may have some old habits to break or strength and flexibility to improve.

The fix is to do all that you can to get your body to move better. Address impairments in balance, flexibility, and strength, and work to approach a more normal gait pattern.

4. Pain and inflammation too severe. 

Almost anything that's a change from the norm will cause a highly sensitive foot to feel even worse. The fix is to lessen severe and intense symptoms medically or with physical measures like exercises, ice, ultrasound, and massage. In some instances 2 to 4 weeks in a night splint or walking boot is warranted to give the foot a fresh start.

5. Orthotics need to be adjusted.

What should be is not always what is. If your feet still hurt after allowing an adequate transition period, placing the insert in an appropriate fitting quality shoe, working on your movement patterns, and taking time to rest and "calm down" highly irritated tissues, it's certainly possible the the inserts are plain wrong for you.

In that case, your foot specialist should be eager to help you and capable of making adjustments and modifications. Sometimes that means adding or taking away supportive material on the device. Other times that may mean adding a heel lift to one side, an extra layer of padding here or there, or redoing the insert all together.

The fix is to ask your foot and ankle specialist, on the front end, if the cost of the inserts includes time to follow-up and make adjustments as needed.

**The physical therapists and pedorthists at Cardin & Miller PT do allow for this as part of the process.While we make no guarantees, we are quite experienced in dealing with people who have failed other treatments and are going on their second or third set of inserts.

Trouble shoot with these fixes before you use your inserts as a candy dish or book mark. Because anything can be a book mark ; ). 


On resistance training routines

How are you going to make it happen, getting bigger or stronger, faster or leaner, over the next 3 or 6 months? Putting some thought into planning is definitely a worthwhile endeavor. Trust me that unless you are a pure beginner or genetically creepy, it is not going to happen by accident.

There was a point when I thought through such things far more than what was required or even healthy. With the dawning of each new semester or change in work or life status, I agonized over various minutia. A while ago I wrote approximately 500 words of what I learned from that [ found here.] Basically, you need not train more than 4 days per week. Even then, you would probably achieve the same or more in 3 or even 2 days of resistance training per week.

Someone recently wrote to ask what I thought of his training plan. His primary goals are to get stronger and leaner. How does it sound to you?

Monday: (Resistance training) Chest and back
Tuesday: Legs
Wednesday: Arms, shoulders.
Thursday: Rest / rec sports
Friday: Plyometrics and sprints (lower body power and conditioning.)
Saturday: Total body lift (press, squat, row, chin-up)
Sunday: Rest / rec sports

This is a decent program. It fits the four day per week requirement. But it's getting a little flaky in a few ways. I always think it's better to label training days by movement (push, pull, squat, etc) rather than body parts, but we'll keep that off the table for now.

The response depends on how many days you really want to go to the gym and the primary (goal) emphasis. Is your need to work out more about mental health (or illness)? If so that's fine if you label it as such and don't assume it's the best for you physically. As far as goals, are you interested primarily in upping the weights on your major lifts, or maybe running faster, or more on leaning out a bit?

While any of these are fine and reasonable goals, for the far majority of serious athletes, making strength their primary goal for a while will help them achieve almost every other goal in a more timely and efficient manner. Upping the weights slowly in the "big" lifts will demand more lean muscle, neurological efficiency, as well as joint mobility and stability, all of which keep you primed and healthy no matter what other goals you move on to...(hopefully after at least 6 months of focused resistance training ; ))

WARNING: I will be sarcastically talking about shoulders for the remainder of this writing!
As far as detail goes, the arms/shoulders day is a throw-away. What do shoulders need after pressing and pulling heavy on Monday and possibly dead lifting on Tuesday? Is it likely that horizontal and vertical pulling movements on Monday will interfere with your ability to rip hundreds of pounds off the ground on Tuesday? You betcha.

Muscles take far more than a day to recover from intense effort, much less supercompensate. So why not keep it simple?  There are so many ways to keep it simple yet work hard on 2, 3, or 4 days per week. Here's a suggested alternative that maintains some resemblance to the training program in question. It may be closer to ideal if there were no other considerations for work, school, or sports schedules.

The Look Ma, No Shoulders split

Tuesday: Dead lifts, split squats, accessory leg and core work.
Wednesday: Upper body pressing, upper back, arms.
Thursday: rest/rec sports
Friday: plyos/sprints conditioning
Saturday: Total body (Squats, upper body push and pull, core accessory)
Sunday and Monday: off/rec sports

If you can press a little more weight overhead each Saturday, add some weight to the chin-up belt, and dead lift twice your body weight for reps and STILL manage to have small or weak arms or shoulders, I will personally do forward, lateral, and reverse delt raises, both cable and dumbbell versions, with you three days per week for one year.

That's like 6 (exercises per shoulder workout) X 3 (workouts per week) X 52 weeks per year) =  936 sets devoted to approximately 1/10th of the body's muscle mass in 2014. Our shoulders will be given the attention of the Princes of Maine, and treated like Kings of New England.

But first you have to earn it with at least a few months of my wimpy shoulder program.