Maximising performance in the off season

In professional sport the ‘off season’ offers an athlete the opportunity to rest, recover and mentally prepare for the following season. In the off season an athlete will do strength training and fitness training so that they are in peak condition when the new season starts. In tennis the fitness and strengthening will carry them through the season, and allows them to focus more on match play and technique.

In the amateur we can see that the off season either never occurs, or that the athlete decides to increase the intensity of their training – and injuries occur. The off season needs to be structured to maximise the benefits for the following season.

The off season also offers an opportunity for injuries to be treated sensibly and for the body to be rested to allow natural healing processes to occur. The powers of rest cannot be underestimated. This will include having plenty of sleep; it will also include having ‘active recovery’ whereby the body continues to exercise, but in a much lower intensity so that injuries can respond to treatment and heal.

Structure your year to peak for your events and also to have an off season. Your physiotherapist and trainer can work closely together to design an off season which will help heal your injuries and also maximise your potential for the following season OR for achieving an extra goal.

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Give yourself realistic timeframes to train

Having a goal is great because it drives you when times get tough during training, and it keeps you focussed through the training period. The time it takes for you to achieve your goal will vary depending on what that goal is. Sometimes I have seen people set goals with time frames which are too short.

When I completed my Ironman in Switzerland, I gave myself 1 year to prepare for the race. I worked with several coaches. Having 12 months gave me to time to learn and to get it right. I needed the time – because I was working – to fit in skill sessions, such as learning how to swim correctly, and to find the equipment I needed to race. I did get injured in the early stages of my training because my body was adapting to 6 days a week training. Having 12 months to train for the race allowed time for my body to recover from its injuries and to get back to full fitness to train again.

When the time to train before a race is too short there is greater risk of failure. I have had a client wanted to race the ‘Marathon de Sables’ in 2 years’ time, and to do an Ironman in 1 year’s time – and she had no background in endurance training; she also had an existing ankle injury. Setting goals like these is unrealistic; if you talk to a coach he will put a true time frame in for each event you want to complete. Personally I think it is better to leave more rather than less time to complete endurance events.

Remember, talk to your physiotherapist, coach or personal trainer when you want to set a new goal – to make your time frames realistic and to avoid injury at the same time.

Personal Training series: Running shoes and running biomechanics

There are many shoes on the market at the moment for running. Running biomechanics have taken a big shift in the last 5 years.  Running brands such as Asics, Brooks and  Saucony have created shoes which are designed to prevent collapsing of the foot, or increased cushioning for those people with high arches. The general understanding of biomechanics and these types of shoes, is one which involves a heel strike pattern. In this pattern the heel will hit the ground first, the heel of the shoe absorbs the shock; the heel then controls the foot as it passes through mid stance and toe off.

Conventional shoes have worked over time for some people; however for others they have not made any difference, and some people who wear these shoes are still prone to knee, hip and lower back pain. When running with a heel strike pattern it is thought that as the heel strikes in front of the body there is a vertical force passed back up through the leg, the hip, the groin, the knee, and the lower back and that this results in injury.

Over the last 5 years there has been a wealth of research and contentious debate over the benefits of forefoot running. Forefoot running is where a person runs landing more towards the mid and front of their foot, instead of the heel being the first point of contact when the foot hits the ground during running. The foot also lands underneath the body and the stress imposed on joints are reduced.

Support for forefoot running comes from practical demonstrations on treadmills. When someone walks on a treadmill they have a characteristic heel strike pattern; however as the speed of the treadmill is increased they naturally start to run more towards the mid and forefoot. It has been theorised that the body is not designed to run with a heel strike pattern. When videoed at a faster speed on the treadmill the foot can be seen to strike more towards the mid foot and spring off. When seen at its best – like in Olympic marathon runners – the foot will actually hit the ground under the body; it is then kicked up behind their back using the hamstring muscles, before quickly returning to land again directly under the body.

The theory that running on the forefoot reduces joint pressure has been researched. With forefoot running the force of the body passes directly up through the body vertically –thereby relying upon the natural cushioning effect of the quads and the hip muscles. If the body is stiff enough – and the biomechanics are correct – the knee and hip joints can absorb the repetitive loading of running and hence reduce injury to the joints.

There are now shoes which have been adapted for forefoot running. Vivo barefoot is one of these companies and has created a range of shoes designed for walking right through to cross country running. Forefoot running shoes are designed to have minimalistic cushioning in the foot. These shoes are designed for the foot to feel the ground and reaction forces of the ground as the foot hits the floor. When the foot can feel the landing onto the floor, it can stimulate muscles to fire and get immediate push off onto the opposite leg. The soles of these shoes are very thin and Vivo Barefoot have described the sole to being as close to skin depth as possible.

Clients have reported they enjoy using these shoes. They feel completely different to thick soled shoes. They also give a refreshing feel to the foot at contact with the ground. The key is that this ‘feel’ will stimulate better muscular activity, shock absorption and reduction injuries. There are many successful runners in Olympics and World Championships who do not have a forefoot running pattern. It is not advised that everyone run on their forefoot – and a physiotherapist and trainer will be able to tell whether your body is capable of withstanding the pressure required to learn how to forefoot run.

Recently a trainer started forefoot running; it has taken 4 months for him to be able to run on his forefoot for 10km continuous running. To change to a forefoot running pattern requires significant adaptation and change within the body. The runner must allow time for this adaptation to occur because if they push themselves too hard and too fast in training injuries will occur.

I believe forefoot running biomechanics seems to make sense; however I have also seen that not everyone is prepared to take the time to learn how to forefoot run and people who run heel strike can still become world champions.

If you want to learn how to forefoot run it is important that you see a forefoot running coach – such as a physiotherapist who has experience, or an independent specialised coach.

Personal Training series: Foot and Ankle injuries

The foot is often overlooked by medical professionals and trainers. The foot can be a common cause of problems in other areas of the body. Biomechanics of the foot can be complex; however if assessed with video analysis, looking at joint play within the foot and how the muscles are coordinated to control the foot, then often the problem can be identified.

I have treated a runner who developed groin pain because he developed a stiff first toe (big toe). He was a 100m sprinter which involved rapid bursts out of the blocks and ten seconds of very intense running. Over time the big toe created abnormal ankle movement which led to knee, hip, pelvic and lower back pain. The weakest link among all these joints was his groin. The groin pain affected him so badly he could no longer compete for that season.

Another illustration is someone who has had a previous ankle injury and the ankle joint is stiff. When comparing the right and left sides they can see that one side of their body has less ankle movement when they squat. The restriction in the ankle will create abnormal knee and hip motion and have consequences on the pelvis and lumbar spine. The ankle joint can be a difficult joint to increase mobility. To keep the improved range of motion often requires regular home stretching. Sometimes a Physiotherapist is required to help return normal joint play to the smaller joints within the foot.

The foot and ankle are made up of an array of small and long bones; these bones all have to work in a coordinated fashion to enable the ankle joint to move correctly. It is the job of the physiotherapist and trainer to identify where these smaller restrictions may be – where they affect or present as generalised pain in other parts of the body.

Clinically, if the ankle has been fractured or sprained there can be restrictions due to a poor healing process.  If the restriction has come on with no trauma then maybe the ankle has been restricted over time due to myofascial restrictions throughout the foot and ankle. The latter can be corrected much more quickly. When a client has on-going assessment by their personal trainer and Physiotherapist myofascial restrictions like this can be easily identified, especially in the foot but also throughout the rest of the body.

The foot and ankle are the first parts of the body to connect with the ground when walking, standing, running. Before training, it is important that the foot and ankle have normal range of motion to prevent injury.

Personal Training series: Heavy weight training and injury prevention

Many people like to look their best and this requires a toned shaped body. Some people want to lose weight and this will also involve weight training. It has been found that a combination of cardiovascular exercise and weight training can get faster results because increased muscle mass will burn more calories and hence improve reduction in weight, as well as a shaped body.

If someone starts weight training from scratch injuries are often common because the correct movement patterns are unknown. Most people know that they can hire a one-on-one trainer to assist them in this process.

Weight training has many forms; if the weight training is kept at a light to moderate weight, and the movement patterns are correct, injuries can be prevented. Problems start to occur when weight training becomes very heavy. In order for muscles to grow they require a stimulus harder than the time before; training can start gradually and increasing in weight is a simple process. When a person starts to reach the maximum weight that they can push then challenges will occur.

The challenges of pushing weights higher than a person’s current maximum lifting weight will be controlling the weight when putting it into a starting position; lowering the weight in a controlled fashion; avoiding excessive joint position; and finally pushing the weight back to the start position. Sometimes lifting heavy weights will require standing, a lunge position or a position other than on a stable bench. When a person has to control a heavy weight, as well as the position of their entire body, the movement becomes very complex.

Commonly the injuries I see when someone lifts heavy weights are at the very start of the movement and in the middle of the movement. The weight is very heavy and at the start of the movement the person has to lift from a standing still position. To generate extra power a person will compensate by swinging their body to help; it is at this point that an injury may occur to the lower back, the sacroiliac joint, the knee or any other joint that is the weakest joint in the link. The time pain occurs is in the middle of the movement because the middle of the movement is the most awkward; controlling the body puts the body in its weakest position, and tissues get injured.

A client was training and wanted to be pushed more, and therefore was told to start Olympic deadlifts. She was 5 foot, of petite build, and when she explosively lifted this weight her sacroiliac joint popped. Treatment for this joint has taken several months and she now requires pilates and controlled movement training to keep her pain at a satisfactory level.

At some point in a person’s training lifting heavy weights may become necessary. If a physiotherapist can identify weak areas within the body – and the trainer is aware of these areas – then when lifting  a heavy weight in a complex movement pattern, the trainer can help a client control and prevent injury.

My advice is always to have your entire body assessed before you start lifting weights to give the trainer the information they need to prevent an injury from heavy weight training.