Marginal or Massive gain? 1 – Movement

Summer is over (for me).

No more bronzing myself in true student fashion. Final year has started. Time is squeezed. A routine has been settled back into and I’ve finally started training again. Time to have a good think about what makes the biggest differences in training, and what gives me the best chance of staying healthy and injury free.

Training for and racing multiple ultras a year takes a huge toll on the body and if you’re not careful that progressing stress can creep up on you and completely wipe you out. We sadly see endurance athletes burn out far too often.

As time goes on and I learn more about myself and about training, I’ve learnt smart training isn’t about logging more and more miles; smart training is about prehab and health.

What am I talking about?

prehab –> stopping injuries before they happen; as opposed to recovering from injuries. Then developing more strength with better movement patterns. Movement ‘slings’ and accessory muscles are fashionable concepts in gyms these days with everyone starting to do weird and wonderful crossfit-esque exercises, but the simple truth is that if you want to do a complex movement like running, you cannot work muscles in isolation. The right muscles must be activating in the right order, with sufficient strength and endurance to work for hours on end, still working properly when pelting downhill putting huge amounts of force through them. 

The better the movement pattern, and the stronger the muscles, the less running form will degrade over time, letting you run further faster. Point made?

health –> if you stay healthy, mentally and physically, then consistency can follow. And we all know consistency is hugely important for progression. Healthy = happy. 

So how am I going about trying to get these two crucial components in order?

I’m going to split this into 4 parts so we can all come up for air in-between:

1- Movement

2- Health

3- Nutrition

4- The mental game

Lets deal with basic movement first:

My flexibility is rubbish, and was even worse a few years ago. I was far too stiff to be capable of getting any proper movement. I can’t swim and I can hardly cycle, but I have got just about enough flexibility now to get a good endurance-style running gait. I’ve had to work it a huge amount, but flexibility isn’t the main problem. It doesn’t matter than I can’t touch my toes, and look stupid in a yoga class.

The crux of the issue is being able to hold the right joints in the right places, allowing the right muscles to be recruited in the right order. Right?

Fire my glute max (bum) to act as a powerhouse, glute med and its friends to hold my hips, and work with bits of my quads to stop my knees collapsing and making them strong enough to take the huge shock-absorbing loading of running downhill.

Or to think of a different bit of the running gait: ‘toe-off’ at the end of the stride is hugely important, and if you can’t use your big toe properly, let alone the rest of your feet and calves, you’ll lose power and speed.

What about if you’re on a rocky unstable trail? What about all those accessory muscles in your legs to keep your strong and upright?

Just think, if you can’t balance on one leg happily in your comfy lounge, what hope have you got over difficult terrain with strong side winds?

After I hit a plateaux in training a few years ago around the South Downs Way 100 miler I went to see an excellent team of physios and S&C coaches to get some advice on where I was going wrong. After they’d stop laughing at my lack of any discernible ability to do anything vaguely athletic whilst trying to run monster marathons, they stopped me in my tracks, changed my ingrained rule-book of how training worked, and re-built me from the ground up to work as a body, as opposed to a sack of jumbled bones.

I’d (typically) dug myself into a pretty big pit of poor technique, lack of stability and strength, and had to put a lot of remedial work in to get any improvement.

Since then, I’ve tried to get 20-30mins of prehab-type work in every day to keep myself moving properly. Now I’m not angel at this, and of course I go through periods when I’m rubbish at keeping up with it, but my best running improvements come when I’m keeping it up.

The key with developing good movement patterns is perfect practice. We all know that “practice = perfect” is a load of rubbish, because if you repeatedly do something badly, you’ll learn to do it badly. So take that single leg squat, and learn to do it perfectly before you do it repeatedly, and before you stick weight on your back. 

There is this great concept in neuroscience called ‘synaptic plasticity’, whereby the more you use certain parts of the brain, certain neuronal pathways, the more sensitive those neurones become to being excited and firing, and the more ingrained a pathway becomes. Its essentially like a trail in your local woods: no-one uses it during the winter except hardcore trail runners, so its overgrown and hardly visible. Slowly more and more people use it during the summer (teenagers first searching for a place to drink underage, then everyone else setting up BBQs) and the vegetation gets trodden down, dies back and an obvious path is left. If the path sets off in the wrong direction (practice with poor form) you’ll get a well-trodden path that leads somewhere to a smelly swamp. If however those legendary trail runners have laid down a path to an awesome viewpoint (perfect practice), you’ll get a nice wide path to a great place (that perfect squat…that actually engages the muscles its meant to work…).

Ideally good movement patterns should be ingrained during the off-season / beginning of the season, so you can progress to develop raw strength early in the season, turning that strength to strength-endurance and power later in the season, giving you the speed to set the course on fire.

I’m not great at all this but I’m trying, and season by season I get a little faster, a little less injured and a little more capable. If you want to take your sport seriously, or have a pain-free and fun time of it, take the time now to invest in your future, engage the correct muscles and use them to your advantage.

Neglect prehab at your peril.

Physiotherapist: Gordon Bosworth (The Bosworth Clinic)

S&C coach: Paul Ledger (The Bosworth Clinic/Performance Solutions)

Next time: a few ideas about how to look after your health, especially when searching for an edge

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