CFT: In Need of Repair? Look at Your Mechanics

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- If you are on a mission to take your game to the next level, whether it be strength, endurance, speed or all of the above, one of the biggest obstacles you face is the dreaded "setback."

More often than not, when we dig a little deeper, we tend to focus on effort, intensity, regularity, discipline ... all things that we think we can control in our regimens. While the road to success is paved with paying close attention to these factors, injuries represent the potholes we need to avoid along the way.

Unless we put some emphasis on HOW we execute the movements - how we load the muscles, joints, and connective tissues - sooner or later we find out the hard way that "working smarter" would have been a better plan than "working harder."

In nearly all of our exercise routines, we use "motion" as the mechanism to induce a favorable adaptation in our tissues. We lift a weight, pull on a cable, pedal a crank and run. All of these activities involve what real engineers would recognize as "disturbing a body at rest" and reversing the direction of a "body in motion."

The forces we impart on the equipment, or our own body, naturally follow our old friend "F=Ma," reminding us that we can't escape physics while we try to change something in our bodies. Often, we will think very carefully about the F and the M ... we'll lay out how many reps to accomplish, how many sets to execute or how many laps to endure.

But those aren't the factors that will come back to bite us. It's that innocent little "a" out there, and we rarely pay any attention to it. Focus on the "a" (that's "acceleration" for all the EEs out there!) and you'll recognize that the "how" is even more important than the "how hard" and "how much" to take on in your routine. Some very simple guidelines and some real coaching will get you on track.

The first step is common to many of our attempts to change behavior: admit you have a problem! Have you ever really sought out training on the proper techniques, or are you a classic "monkey see, monkey do" gym rat?

I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb when I say that almost nobody I see at the gym has received tailored training in what they are about to attempt. If you were to hire a personal trainer, I can almost guarantee they would change almost everything you are doing. The mechanics of proper weight training are just not intuitive, and yet we think we can teach ourselves, or at least, just watch someone else and mimic their motions.

When we get hurt, we blame it on "overdoing it" rather than looking into the methods we used to get us there. It's obvious at the gym and on the plus side, the injuries there are more self-critiquing. If you pull a muscle or strain a ligament, you can usually pinpoint what you were doing and stop doing it. But what about repetitive motion injuries? These are much harder to troubleshoot and take much longer to manifest into real issues.

Usually, the main signal that something's wrong, (i.e. PAIN) comes long after the real damage is done. The more repetitive the motion, the higher the risk of inducing long term damage.

What's the worst offender? Running.

Most of us have injured ourselves running, and the more you run, the more often you run into trouble. What's surprising is that it just doesn't occur to us that we can trace our injuries back to poor mechanics, and instead, we blame pace, shoes, surface, or my personal favorite "bad knees."

But the science behind the mechanics of running is rock solid ... and unfortunately, almost entirely unknown. For many, running is thought of as a "natural" skill, so we conclude that we have some innate ability to do it correctly. We seek out advice on weight training, largely because we think that is not a natural activity.

But the truth is, running is not a natural activity for adults. Why? Because we put very unnatural devices on our feet: shoes! And for nearly all of our lives, we masked the built-in feedback mechanisms that would have told us all along that we were taking our limbs and feet to places they were never intended to go. We just find out too late.

I'm not advocating that we all ditch our shoes and start over. While there is a growing advocacy for "barefoot running" and minimalist shoes, these are not answers for the masses. In fact, even a hardcore aficionado like yours truly still clings to his trusty artificial soles. Just too many things to step on out there for my comfort level.

But I learned the hard way that going longer, faster, and with less pain is all about the mechanics, and lucky for me, I ran into a coach who took me through a real transformation. You can, and must, do the same, if you want to avoid the injuries that are absolutely attributable to how we have learned to run with big cushy pillows strapped to our feet.

I do not condone a self-taught mechanism for un-doing years of what is now an ingrained pattern. When you take on the mission of correcting your mechanics, the first thing you would learn is that landing on your heels is the biggest of many bad attributes we have adopted as a shoe-wearing population.

But you can't just pull off your shoes or think differently about your stride and fix this. You have to get real coaching, and just like the process for learning any new skill (believe me, running is a skill!), you need to learn some drills, practice and apply some real discipline. This is why we hired the pros when we conducted our clinic last year, and why we trained our very own Sports and Fitness Director (the incomparable Ron Stephens) to take you through the process.

But before you get started, there are a few things you can do that will make the transition much easier.

Getting off your heels means the loads have to go somewhere else, and that somewhere else is your Achilles tendons and your calves. So before you even think about trying a new running style, take the time to get your lower legs ready.

Again, you need Ron's help, but expect to execute a focused regimen of calf raises and stability moves as your initial prep phase, and accept that this phase will take about a month, and you'll do more "leg work" in that month than ever before. Money in the bank!

Then, find and refine some alternative aerobic activities: stationary bikes, ellipticals, spinning, swimming, anything that you can use to build or maintain your aerobic fitness while you stop running. That's right, stop running. While you learn the technique, you have to stop running.

This makes timing important for the military members; the month before your PT test is the WRONG time to do this. In fact, the week after your PT test is probably the best time. But if you have three months to go, no problem. Just know you will be very slow the first month.

And finally, you have to COMMIT. This isn't something you can just half-heartedly try. Plan on this taking around three months to get back to the speed and distance you were achieving before. Push this, and you'll just hurt yourself in a different way and abandon a proven - albeit not yet widely accepted - method to end the tyranny of pain and injury that will sooner or later take running out of your portfolio.

Need a little convincing? Fire up your favorite Internet search gadget and find a little footage of a competitive running event, preferably on the order of a mile or longer.

Now that you know what to look for, you'll immediately recognize that none of the pros land on their heels. Instead, they execute a high cadence, short, flat stride that eliminates the decelerations of the heel strike.

Eliminating that negative "a" got them where they are. You can do the same, but I can't stress this enough, DO NOT try to teach this to yourself. It's just too "unnatural" in the beginning, and the success rates are very low.

Dedicate yourself to ending years of bad mechanics, find and use a coach trained in how to take you through this, and you will gain a lifetime of benefit. Just be patient ... this will pay you back big time. Stick with your old habits, and you will "pay" some other way.

You just can't escape F=Ma! So go see Ron, and get started!