Hey! Coach Shawn here. I’ve been meaning to have a serious talk with you. Lately you’ve been missing a lot of practices (I mean A LOT). That’s no good. I mean how do you expect to perform well without practicing? Seriously? I mean, yes, you’re talented and all, but you’re going to make a lot of mistakes if you keep this up…You’ve got a lot of work to catch up on.
What on earth am I talking about?
Practicing and developing good movement patterns, of course. It’s important stuff! Moving well is a skill, that when incorporated into your daily routine can make you feel better, increase athletic performance and help you to avoid a whole truck load of injuries. Unfortunately thinking about and bettering how you move often falls pretty low on the priority list, if it’s even there to begin with.
Lost in the Shuffle
For the vast majority of us, our day begins simply. The alarm goes off. Maybe you hit snooze. Maybe you don’t. Eventually you roll those good ol’ legs of yours to the edge of the bed, plant your feet on the ground and get on with waking up and getting ready for the day. From here, the routine varies from person to person but generally includes things like general hygiene, getting dressed, eating breakfast, taking care of the kids. Maybe you squeeze in a workout before heading out the door, maybe not. After than most of us are off to work, where, unfortunately, a good majority spend eight or more hours sitting down.
What I’m getting at is this: it’s easy to get caught up in the shuffle of life and all its lovely details. What gets lost in this hustle and bustle, though, is a legitimate awareness of the fact that our body is highly adaptable and will adjust to the movements and postures we adopt most.
Think about it. In all honesty how much do you really stop to consider your posture, how your muscles feel, and how you are moving throughout the day?
For many, the results of less daily movement and sitting so much are frightening: lack of ankle mobility (both dorsiflexion and plantar-flexion), weak hips, poor hip flexion and extension, knee problems, back problems, shoulder problems – you name it. A lot of problems can be tracked back to how we have allowed our muscles to adapt, oftentimes beginning all the way back to about first grade when we started sitting a whole lot more.
Muscle vs. Cartilaginous Tissue
Our bodies ability to create movement comes from some pretty cool machinery: bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments. And it’s all wired (i.e. nervous system) to a pretty hardcore computer (brain). Pretty cool, at least for a physio nerd like me. While bones are more or less more fixed in nature (outside of bone density), muscle and cartilaginous tissues adapt more quickly to environmental demands. Of the muscle and cartilaginous tissues, muscle is more vascular and adapts the quickest. It’s designed to. In it’s simplest nature, muscle is designed to change lengths constantly. It is truly remarkable tissue.
On the flip side of that, cartilaginous tissue, while adaptable, does so at a much slower rate and in all reality is much more static in nature when compared to muscular adaption. Ultimately what this means is that when a muscle shortens either as an adaptation to our most typical state (sitting, standing, walking, etc.) or to protect an injury or weakness, it will do so more quickly than the accompanying tendons and will in turn place more tension on the tendons and joints.
Shortened muscles can change not only our range of motion but also how our joints fundamentally function. Add in a repetitive motion like walking, running or cycling and you have a recipe for injury. This is why it is so important to check in on what your soft tissue is up to every once in awhile and ensure that it is operating optimally.
Movement: Voluntary and Involuntary
The beauty of skeletal (striated) muscle is that almost all of its contractions are voluntary, unlike smooth or cardiac muscle. Don’t smack me for being super obvious, but that means moving, whether it’s good or bad, falls under the category of “things we can control.” Our brains tell our muscles what to do. And our brains, thanks to neuroplasticity are pretty great at learning stuff and making it second nature with consistent practice, which is why I choose to refer to movement as a skill.
Skill (noun): 1.
Movement begs for more attention than many of us typically give it. How we choose to consistently move (or don’t move) is what our brain and nervous system will learn and apply. It really is a skill when it all boils down, and we need to practice.
Before you can begin bettering how you move, however, your muscles and joints need to be as free to move as they are intended to as possible. We have to go back to that bit I mentioned about checking in on your soft tissues.
Mobility, Stretching & Self-Myofascial Release
Mobility is all the rage amongst fitness professionals right now, and with good reason. Working to optimize your range of motion (i.e. mobility at the joint) allows your body to operate from the most biomechanically efficient positions and activate the muscle groups that are designed for movement and durability (as opposed to supporting muscles that end up in lead roles from poor mechanics). This in turn improves strength, performance and often increases your durability and longevity.
The term mobility, however, can be kind of unclear. Even as a coach I’ve had to experiment with the best way to phrase it for maximum understanding. In its essence, you are really working on three things when you are dealing with mobility:
1. Release techniques such as those discussed in my article on self-myofascial release (SMRT). This works to tune you into your body and help you remove any bound up tissue and return it as close to its intended function as possible. Right off the bat, you will find that this will change the tension at your joints and many folks will see improved range of motion.
2. Strength/Movement – Once your joints and muscles are free of kinks and closer to their proper ranges of motion, it’s time to “practice” good movement technique and strengthen any weak or imbalances muscles (hips, abductors/adductors are biggies for many folks). Beyond the scope of this article are the what and the how of this portion. Just remember that release techniques without practicing and strengthening proper movement patterns will not get you very far. Without them your brain will most likely default back into the same imbalances and poor movement patterns as before. You need to activate the muscles that you just freed up to do the job properly and train your nervous system to use them consistently. More on this in the near future.
3. Stretching – For the muscles and tendons/ligaments that need increased length, stretching is crucial. You can free your soft tissue up as much as you like, but it won’t necessarily change the length of the tissues. Stretching is best performed after any strength or endurance work you do as short-term hyper-mobility may result in less stable movements under load and potential for injury. If you must stretch before a workout, keep each stretch to 10-30 seconds. If you do it afterwards, experts believe anywhere between 30 seconds to 3 minutes will bring you the most benefit.
Get to Practice!
Admittedly this is just an intro to a much deeper subject that I plan to cover in more depth soon. For now, I’ll be a little short on solid takeaways. Nonetheless, you can get back to practice right away with just a few simple tweaks to your daily routine.
1. Add more movement to your daily life. This can take form in many different ways. An extreme example would be a treadmill desk. Not exactly doable by the vast majority of folks. A more practical option would be to set a simple timer to take breaks every 20-30 minutes so you can get up, move around, stretch and return to your work with a better overall focus. Try to include as much movement as possible into your day.
2. Pay attention to how you sit and stand. Again, for time-sake I’ll be a little more vague here, but try to be mindful of your posture as you sit, stand and move throughout the day. Try to engage your glutes and core, roll your shoulders back, and extend the neck inline with the rest of your now nice, neutral spine. It will most likely feel forced and a little awkward at first, but the more you do it, the easier and less noticeable the whole practice will become.
3. Include mobility work/SMRT and stretching in your regular routine. Start experimenting today with SMRT using my article as a guide. As you explore SMRT you will begin to better understand your body and see increased mobility at the joints.
For the Runners Out There
If you are a runner, I highly recommend picking up Ready to Run from Kelly Starrett, which discusses this very topic in detail with relation to runners and the woes that all too many of them deal with year to year. Very good stuff!
That’s all for now, folks. Here’s to looking, feeling and performing better! Until next time.