The Quest for Flexibility

25 03 2013

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Here are two linear equations.

Flexibility + Range of Motion = Running Economy

Running Economy + Cardiovascular & Muscular Fitness = Faster Times

Some people can effortlessly slide into splits, then twist and contort their bodies into all kinds of bizarre looking positions. Others find it hard to even touch their toes. And yet we are all made of the same stuff: muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, fluids.

My question is not why, but how: how can we maximise the full potential of our bodies to achieve greater flexibility and range of motion, with which comes higher running economy and consequently, faster times?

MY SCENARIO

I am a runner, clocking 80-100K per week.

My flexibility leaves much to be desired. I often wake up with very tight hips. My shoulders have a poor range of motion due to stiffness: they often swing side-to-side when I run, a complete waste of energy because I want to be propelling myself forward, not sideways.

I have been building yoga into my training program, practicing it at least twice a week, but have felt no significant improvements in my flexibility or mobility. The return on investment (return = greater running economy; investment = time) has been low.

There has to be a better way.

MY APPROACH

I don’t believe in the single Magic Bullet. Our bodies are complex organisms with an infinite number of variables. To get our bodies to respond, we need to talk to it in its language: the multi-pronged language of diversity.

My approach is therefore a diverse and varied one, and my flexibility program includes all of the following:

  • Old school stretching
  • Yoga
  • Active Isolated Stretching (AIS)
  • Foam roller
  • Ballistic stretching…Martial Arts included!
  • Massage
  • Cross training
  • Posture
  • and the almighty REST and RECOVERY

OLD SCHOOL STRETCHING

Old school static stretching

Old school static stretching

The oh-so-prevalent static stretches. We’ve probably all seen one of these diagrams at some point in our athletic lives. Easy, quick and simple to perform – but not the most efficient way to build flexibility, particularly if used in isolation.

YOGA

warrior1-2-3

Warriors One, Two and Three – great for leg strength.

Yoga definitely helps to develop flexibility – no doubt about it. It hasn’t, however, achieved for me enough improvement in flexibility to significantly boost my running efficiency. The problem, I think, is that a lot of yoga postures are static. This poses two problems. One, you can easily overexert and overstretch yourself. Two, some postures are too hard to perform and you end up getting stiffer by forcing hard to get into the posture.

half-moon-pose

Half Moon Pose. Good for balance, and you really need to work your ankle. After my ankle sprain, I found this pose to be a great rehabilitative exercise.

On the upside, yoga does give quite a well-rounded approach in itself. I personally love the Half-Moon Pose – it’s great for balance and leg strength, particularly around the ankle. The Warrior Poses really work the legs. The Frog Pose is great for stiff hips (primarily the adductors), and although it may look a little awkward, I actually sometimes sit in the pose with a good book and just let the stretch sink in…

Oh, and the Sun Salutation combines strength, cardio and flexibility all into one.

Sun Salutation Pose Sequence

But still, yoga alone has not been enough for me.

ACTIVE ISOLATED STRETCHING (AIS)

I love Active Isolated Stretching. In a nutshell: ever done a whole load of stretching, only to feel tighter the next day? I have. Want to know why? Because a lot of our muscles work in antagonistic pairs – while one contracts, the other relaxes. So you could be stretching one muscle, but at the same time, contracting – and hence, tightening – another. With AIS, each stretch lasts no longer than two seconds, and taps into reciprocal antagonistic muscle contraction to activate and isolate muscles, so that the opposing tension that inevitably comes with static stretching is altogether avoided.

Here’s a good introductory video to AIS.

And here are some links to various AIS exercises that you can try.

Shoulder elevation stretch

Rotator cuff stretch & strengthening

Hip adductor and groin stretch

Hip flexor stretch

Opening the hamstrings

Back relief

FOAM ROLLER

tri42_a

Over at Runner’s World, the humble foam roller is deemed “(almost) Magical” – and I would agree. Think of the foam roller as a DIY sports massage, without the hefty price tag. They can stretch out muscles and tendons, but more importantly, help to get rid of pesky muscle knots that can accrue from extensive use. Foam rolling also increases blood flow and circulation, speeding up recovery. Read more about it here.

BALLISTIC STRETCHING

What does a ball do? Bounce.

So what is ballistic stretching? Well, you bounce a little to get a limb into an extended range of motion, over and above what it would ordinarily have been able to achieve statically. Think bouncing up and down to touch your toes.

I used to do a bit of kungfu, and that included a lot of ballistic stretching. Front kicks. Side kicks. Sweeps. My range of motion improved, but often I would feel stiff afterwards because I had overstretched.

Here I am, a couple of years back, practicing a few kicks. Notice all the ballistic movements involved.

There are dangers, of course, most prominently the risk of jerking too sharply and straining – or worse, tearing – something.

MASSAGE

After a hard workout or a race, my teammates like to massage each other. One of us would lie down, while the other, taking on the role as a masseur, carefully steps onto our hamstrings, glutes and back. The masseur may use their ankles to press down and add pressure, or shake their legs to give a vibrating motion, and really flushing out the stiff soreness out of our muscles. It feels really, really good.

Of course, this is a pretty delicate procedure. Experience and care is required. But with a bit of practice, buddying up and getting a massage from a teammate is not a bad idea at all.

CROSS TRAINING

Body_planes-1We runners run forwards. We are pretty uni-directional. We stay on one plane.

But, as you can see from the diagram on the left, we are anatomically designed to move in three planes: the sagittal, coronal and transverse.

What we want to do is make sure that no plane is neglected. If underused, muscles largely responsible for the neglected plane of movement will become weak and unconditioned, piling on a disproportional amount of stress on a limited number of muscles and increasing the likelihood of injury. Yikes.

This page lays out the case for multi-planar training quite nicely.

Doing a range of different sports that encourage multi-directional movement will probably go a long way to make our bodies more resilient, agile, injury-free and happy.

My cross-training sports of choice: badminton, golf, tennis, parkour, football and basketball.

POSTURE

Sitting-Kills-preview

Are you sitting in a chair right this moment? Get up! That chair is your enemy! Sitting is killing you!

That might be exaggerating it a bit, but the hard facts damning:

  • As soon as you sit, the activity of enzymes that break fat down plunge by 90%
  • As soon as you sit, electrical activity in your leg muscles completely shut off. As a runner, you don’t want your legs shut off, do you?
  • After 2 hours of sitting, good cholesterol drops 20%

And, if you think about it, did we homo sapiens really evolve to spend long hours sitting in a chair? Probably not.

Anatomically, sitting does not seem to me to be the most natural position for our bodies to take. And if we consistently force our body into such an unnatural posture for much of the day, can we really expect to be able to maximise our body’s physical potentials on the running track? Probably not.

REST AND RECOVERY

Train hard. Rest hard. That just about sums it up.

SO…

For me, I’ll be building all of the above into my weekly flexibility program. The human body gives infinitely many signals and, I think, responds to infinitely many stimuli. And to converse with your body, you’ve got to speak its lingo: diversity and variety.





Aiming for…Pain?

27 10 2012

Does exertion need to hurt? How much does success have to hurt? 

by AndrewLeonard

In Philadelphia, the elite New Zealander Kim Smith was running hard, breathing heavily and testing her limits as she  pushed through the last few kilometers of the Philadelphia Half Marathon. She had saliva all over her face. It was not a pretty sight.

In Hong Kong, Lau Chek-lun crossed the finish line at the Standard Chartered Half Marathon, and collapsed 40 meters later. He was declared dead soon after.

On the training track, my teammates sprinted interval after interval, their faces contorted and grimacing in agony as they worked their bodies to the maximum. At the finish line, they plopped down on all fours, heaving and wheezing as they tried to catch their breath before the next sprint.

And now, as I strive to become a strong, faster and better runner, I can’t help but wonder: how much pain is enough pain? Where is the line between pushing too hard and under-performing? At what point does exertional pain become a liability, rather than an accepted reality?

“The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful,” said Roger Bannister, the first man in history to run a mile in under four minutes, “is the man who will win.”

For years, the four minute mile seemed an elusive and impossible goal. The Australian runner John Landy himself declared that it was an impenetrable “brick wall”, and after running the mile in under 4’03 on six separate occasions, vowed, “I shall not attempt it again”.

Then came Roger Bannister.

As a medical student at Oxford University at the time, Mr. Bannister could only afford 45 minutes of training a day. His weekly mileage, by modern standards, was surprisingly low. And yet, despite minimal training, Mr. Bannister made history in 1954 by breaking the four-minute barrier. How did he do it?

Many believe that Mr. Bannister’s legendary feat was achieved not so much by his physicality as by his psychology. Gunder Haegg, a Swedish runner who came within 1.3 seconds of breaking the four-minute barrier in 1945, “always thought that the four-minute mile was more of a psychological problem than a test of physical endurance”. In a way, he was right.

Just six weeks after Mr. Bannister ran the mile in 3’59″04, Mr. Landy, who had all but declared the feat impossible, lowered the barrier even further by running the mile in 3’58″00 —  1.4 seconds faster than Mr. Bannister, and close to 3 seconds faster than any time he had run before.

It appears that the barrier was indeed a purely psychological one.

One theory has it that pain and fatigue are but tricks of the mind.Called the Central Governor Model, it proposes the following: Your heart requires oxygen to function. During vigorous physical exertion such as intensive running, the heart runs short on oxygen as more of it is diverted to the muscles. Sensing this, the heart sends signals to the brain, which then proceeds to restrict oxygen flow to the muscles. Hence, the pain and fatigue in your legs and the annoying voice in your head that says: “Why don’t you give up? Stop running.”

But — and here’s the catch — if you could override this subconscious impulse with a conscious effort, you will push past the pain and fatigue that prevents you from realizing your full potential.

Mr. Bannister may have done just that. He was able to convince his central governor (his brain) that the four-minute mile was achievable. He overrode the subconscious, and forced more out of himself than his brain would have allowed. Mr. Landy’s governor, by contrast, could not be convinced until it had evidence that someone else had achieved the impossible.

Is pain, then, all in the mind?

“Mental tenacity — and the ability to manage and even thrive on and push through pain — is a key segregator between the mortals and immortals in running,” said Mary Wittenberg, president and chief executive of the New York Road Runners, in an interview with the New York Times.

Of course, all runners hoping to run competitively must first attain a certain level of physical fitness. But at a certain point, the subtleties of the mind may start to play a bigger role than the brute force of the body.

Paavo Nurmi, a Finnish runner who dominated distance running in the 20th century, credited his physical feats with his psychological strength: “Mind is everything; muscle, pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.” He didn’t think his way to his nine Olympic golds, of course, but to him, mind rules over muscle.

In June 2012, I competed for Hong Kong in the Asian Junior Athletics Championships. Rounding the final bend in the 3000m steeplechase, I was neck and neck with a Vietnamese opponent. We emerged into the final stretch, and I braced for a final push to the finish. Suddenly, though, she accelerated. My legs felt like rubbery jelly, but I knew that there was still some fuel left in the tank.

Treacherously, my central governor kicked in at that precise moment:  “Don’t push. Just settle for your spot.” I watched my opponent pull further and further away.

She finished four seconds ahead of me — a massive and unacceptable gain over a mere 100 meters.

I had succumbed to the voice in my head, and though I broke my personal record, the race was an agonizing defeat for me. Never again, I decided, do I ever want to be defeated by my mind.

Chrissie Wellington, a British triathlete and a four-time world champion in the Ironman, has a timeless piece of advise. Put off by the idea of painful exertion? Don’t worry. “Expect it will be painful and have faith in yourself that you will overcome those dark times.”





Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting…

13 03 2012

As part of Project Week, a yearly week-long excursion that forms part of our United World Colleges education, I led a trip up to the city of Dengfeng – home to the mighty Mt. Song and the world famous birthplace of kung fu, the Shaolin Temple – where we experienced a week of intensive kung fu training. Here are some photos to tell the tale of our kung fu endeavours…

Here you see kids at the Shaolin E-Po Wushu School. These students would be running around everywhere during recess, practicing their kicks and punches and just generally developing very good stamina and agility without realising it! It was amazing to see how disciplined they all were – at one point we saw a line of about 10 boys, all squatting down on and moving slowly across the school yard, carefully picking up dirt from between the floor tiles.

Our daily training schedule was quite similar to theirs, although the intensity of our sessions would probably pale in comparison. Here’s a taste of a day’s training:

At 5:30am every morning we would quickly warm up, then go out into the cold and run along the empty streets of Dengfeng. All along the way we would see other students running in perfect formation, chanting ‘1, 1, 1-2-1’ in immaculate unison while we fumbled along, each running at our own speeds. Then we would return to the training center for some stretching, kicks and agility exercise, finishing up at around 6:45am.

Our second training session would begin at 9:00am until 11:30am. Again we would warm up, jog around the mat, stretch, kick, do lots of jumps and spins, and move on to practicing our routine. Stretching is a big part of each session…as is the pain that comes along with it!

After a quick lunch and perhaps a stroll around town we begin our last training session of the day at 2:00pm till 4:30pm. This would be very similar to the 9:00am session and afterwards we would all stay behind, playing around with various jumps, flips and kicks. By 9pm most of us will be fast asleep in bed, ready to start at 5:30am the next morning all over again!

We arrived on Sunday and as there is no training, we visited the Shaolin Temple.For some of us it was the first time to see snow…

The excitement as some of us touch snow for the first time!

Up we go to visit the Dharma Cave, climbing up large concrete steps. The Mt. Song mountain range stretched before us, the Shaolin Temple slowly diminished in size below us, and the landscape became progressively more snowy. Hmm…very Zen like.

A nice warm up for the coming week of intensive training!

Bodhidharma supposedly meditated in this cave for nine years, facing a wall and not speaking for the entire time. Talk about being patient and profound!

Here you have Leila practicing a kung fu stance (pu bu) on a tree.

On the second last day of the trip, we visited the Song Yang Academy and also did a short hike up to the entrance of the Songshan National Park. Halfway up the hike there was a little house, where some villagers were burning offerings for their ancestors, while others huddled around cooking noodles for lunch. This lady gave me the glare as I tried to peep in through the doorway…She seems to be telling me, ‘Tourist, you shall not pass!’.

At the Songyang Academy, we all walked around a small pond three times. Folklore has it that doing so will get you top grades. Naturally, we all dropped our bags down and proceeded to circle the pond three times.

This is our instructor Coach Jia’s two year old son. We asked him whether he would have his son practice kung fu, and he told us that it would really be up to his son to decide whether he liked kung fu or not. It’s interesting to see a  liberal parenting mindset as this coming from our coach, who has been practicing kung fu for 20 years. A helpful reminder that not all Chinese parents are Tiger Mums or Eagle Dads!





Running: Interval Training #4

19 08 2011

Last night’s interval training was so fulfilling that it deserves a post here, despite the fact that it may be  dry reading for some readers!

Warm-up:

  • 1000m jog
  • stretch

Technique Work

  • A series of running drills on a stretch of flat ground around 60-70m long. Run out with technique, run back with normal strides but pay special emphasis on the particular technique. Drills include:
  • Back kicks/butt kicks
  • High knees
  • Kick outs
  • Single legged hops
  • Lunges
  • Low walking
  • …and the list goes on.

Main set:

  • 400m run with emphasis on the technique just practiced
  • 30 leg tucks, 30 dive bomber push-ups  , 30 supermans , 30 tricep dips.
  • 5x400m with strong focus on the back kick. Each 400m is broken down into two sections. First, a 100m sprint, followed by a quick 20 second recovery. Second, a 300m run (not sprint, but still working hard), again with strong focus on back kick.
  • 30 leg tucks, 30 dive bomber push-ups  , 30 supermans , 30 tricep dips.
  • 3x800m. Each 800 is broken down into two sections. First, a 300m sprint. Second, a 500m run (not sprint, but still working hard).
  • 30 seated leg tucks, 30 dive bomber push-ups  , 30 supermans , 30 tricep dips.
  • 800m recovery jog
  • 2400m run. Smooth and relaxed back kicks and front kicks while still working very hard!

Cool down:

  • 400m walk, barefoot
  •  stretch




Summer Beach Training

16 07 2011

It’s drizzling with rain. The sky is dim, grey and gloomy. Hardly a fresh summer day. What do you do?

Why, you go for a great training session at the beach of course!

As part of my training in preparation for the 2XTRI triathlon, I decided to do a run/swim session at the beach today with my friend Nathan. The workout consisted of:

  • running to the beach
  • swimming out to the platforms, across the water, back towards the beach, then running on sand back to the starting point – and repeating this circuit four times
  • running to the next beach, then running back to the sports center

Now that has just made my day a whole lot sunnier!





Running: Interval Training #2

28 06 2011

Here’s another good interval training program that I do at the track.

Warm-up:

  • 1200m jog
  • stretch

Technique Work

  • A series of running drills on a stretch of flat ground around 60-70m long. Run out with technique, run back with normal strides but pay special emphasis on the particular technique. Drills include:
  • Back kicks/butt kicks
  • High knees
  • Kick outs
  • Single legged hops
  • Lunges
  • Low walking
  • …and the list goes on.

Main set:

Cool-down:

  • 400m walk, barefoot
  •  stretch

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Running: Interval & Fartlek training

23 06 2011

Round the bend!

Not too intense of a work out today, but a good combination of speed and endurance.

Warm-up:

  • 1200m jog
  • stretch

Technique Work

  • A series of running drills on a stretch of flat ground around 60-70m long. Run out with technique, run back with normal strides but pay special emphasis on the particular technique. Drills include:
  • Back kicks/butt kicks
  • High knees
  • Kick outs
  • Single legged hops
  • Lunges
  • Low walking
  • …and the list goes on.

Main set:

1st lap: 400m moderate pace

2nd lap: 100m sprint, 100m moderate, 100m sprint, 100m moderate

3rd lap: 200m sprint, 200 moderate

4th lap: 300m sprint , 100 moderate

5th lap: 400m sprint

  • 30 crunches, 30 dive bomber push-ups  , 50 back raises,  20 tricep dips
  • 10 x 50m sprints, with a 50m jog recovery in between each
  • 20 minute fartlek (speed play). Mine consisted of fast paced 400m laps, interspersed with stairs and slower paced runs. You can adjust your routine depending on the available terrain and your fitness level.

Cool-down:

  • 400m walk, barefoot
  •  stretch

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You can also follow me on Twitter to receive regular updates.