What I Learned On the Track at the Olympic Training Center.
In 2015 I had the pleasure of returning to the Olympic Training Center, where I had previously done some work and also had trained as an athlete in the past, to help Jeremy Fischer, the head coach of Track and Field, with the preparation for the U.S. Championships (in Eugene, Oregon that year) and leading into the World Championships in Beijing. It was a great opportunity to get to be on the track with the athletes and coaches and watch and observe. I thought I would write a short post about some of the things that I learned and then try to extrapolate a couple of those points into take away lessons that others reading this may benefit from.
One of the most memorable things out of this season came from dealing with a very good javelin athlete who had a very serious shoulder condition called a SLAP tear. This athlete basically had pretty constant shoulder pain, poor mobility in certain directions, poor internal rotation especially, and severe damage to the rotator cuff. He couldn’t throw in training really at all because he was almost always in pain. Any time he would do a throwing session his shoulder would be jacked for three to five days. His fitness was really good otherwise and he was able to do work in the gym and do speedwork and all the other things a thrower needs to do, but the actual throwing, which is obviously a big crux in the specific part of the training, wasn’t happening.
Finally we found success with a combo of Active Release Technique and a little bit of fascial scraping with Mark Scappaticci ‘s FAT-tool (the mini-pro, click here to see where to find it.) Specifically I would do treatment (with ART) of the rotator cuff and of the scapulothoracic joint; we would then mobilize the pectorals a bit and make sure he had enough range of motion there. And then I would use the FAT-tool to basically wake up and engage all the fascia around the posterior part of the shoulder, so that when he came through in the throwing motion the tissue seemed to be able to support the shoulder better as it decelerated the arm. It was a big breakthrough for this young man because he was actually able to train and throw, the whole process only took about 5-10 minutes. Then he would come back to me right after the throwing session and we would do a little bit more cleanup work.
On a related note, but speaking more generally than in one injury case, I learned was that there can really be a decrease in ongoing or new injury rates if you can treat before you train hard, in real time on the track. There were so many times when athletes would come to me right before they were about to start a hard session, or to sprint hard, or to jump, and even in 3 to 5 to 8 minutes of work we could really, greatly reduce symptoms that they were feeling that day. Then they could get through the training session at a much higher level, but even more importantly than getting through the training session was that there would be a reduction in symptoms that would hold long term throughout the week and following. So for me, it was very valuable to be able to spend 5 or 8 minutes doing some ART passes on someone, or doing some stretches on a certain area in his/her body that was restricting normal mechanics, and then allowing these athletes, who are very kinesthetically gifted, to go out and perform with things working more normally. Because their bodies are so finely tuned and the nervous system is so good in this level of athlete, usually a minimal amount of work before training hard created an incredible turnaround for their overall physical state that would definitely last past the session. So you’re essentially allowing the nervous system and the body to normalize, and then encouraging that pattern to stay because they’re training on it right afterward.
So what’s the takeaway here from all of this? The takeaway for me was that a little bit of therapy before you train, and trying to normalize or optimize just a bit, can really turn around the course of the training session. Even if that simply means for you, okay, I need to stretch my hip into internal rotation and then stretch my hip into extension before I go out the door for a run. Or, maybe I need to do a little bit of work to voodoo floss and mobilize that pesky ankle that has been weak ever since I sprained it, before I play basketball, or whatever. But the key point is that 5-10 minutes of work before you do something, especially something at a higher effort level, you may get far more value than from hours and hours and hours of work after. So, optimize and pre-hab!
The next takeaway that I had was the huge importance of mechanics for the jumping events in track and field. Particularly I think about long jump and triple jump with this, but high jump fits into this as well, and of course pole vault. One thing that was really interesting to me was thinking about the massive amounts of force that come through the ground up into these athletes’ legs as they go down the runway and then go through the phases of the jump. In the triple jump, up to 15 times the athlete’s body weight is the amount of force exerted back into the body. Every time before these athletes perform an attempt, they’re very focused and they have to ready themselves and be as technically proficient as they can be. Part of the reason they do this is for improving performance, and it’s certainly important to have good technique to optimize your performance or your ability to jump far or run fast. But more than that, it is also that every approach that they make down the triple or long jump runway, is actually dangerous, and so if we do not appreciate the very real danger of poor mechanics, then we probably aren’t being responsible. See here for a serious example of how this could go wrong (warning: gruesome photo).
What can we learn from this? Just as these athletes in the technical events in track and field focus on mechanics, partly for the performance gain but also because of the very real injury hazard every time, I think athletes of other levels and events need to process this, and to understand the risk of operating with poor mechanics. Even though we may not be creating 15 times our body weight in force, if we’re taking thousands and thousands of steps with poor loading patterns or poor mechanics, we’re still causing damage to joints and soft tissues that could be avoided or minimized if the mechanics were improved. So even if you’re not at risk for a compound tibial fracture by just running down the street with bad mechanics, you should still think about the cumulative cost to your body.
The next thing that I learned is that elite sport is not healthy! Working at this high, high level it really becomes obvious, and unfortunately, a lot of these athletes currently had pretty serious injuries, and many of them had injury histories that were quite extensive. Often multiple surgeries and other major rehabilitative type processes had gone on. So I think the crux of this one is that though sport at an elite level isn’t healthy, we as practitioners and anyone involved in the sports medicine or sports therapy field can and must do things to mitigate that. It is our job to do so; we need to work to diminish injury risk and help prevent injuries as well as of course treat them to return as quickly as possible to full health. Also, if you are an elite athlete, you should be aware of injury risk and try in every way to mitigate that. I believe that injury risk is one of the biggest limiters in performance for a pro athlete and it’s usually what ends people’s careers, even if not directly, often an injury leads to a diminished performance which then forces the end of the career.
For those of us that aren’t professional athletes, if you’re a collegiate or a recreational athlete, I think it’s important to remember that you aren’t professional. Just because you want to do it the way a professional does, you should take certain precautions, since you’re not necessarily getting paid to tax your body and possibly injure yourself. So again, that comes back to figuring out the strategies that you need to stay healthy and what you need to do to optimize your health even while pursuing excellence in your sport.
And then the last major thing that I learned was that education is power. I found that in this population of athletes, because of the incredible medical team at the Olympic Training Center, and because of their own background, (unfortunately also their injury histories!) they all seemed to know so much about their bodies. I find this to be true with many of the elite athletes that I work with, but the environment of the Training Center was even better at this than most, where the athletes really understood at a deep level what was going on with their bodies and what their injuries were and how they had occurred. This often prompted a lot of really good discussions where they would ask my opinion on something and they would be able to relay very accurately and technically what they had done and what they had tried, and then if I offered an additional suggestion they were then very quickly able to understand it and make a change. I think this ability of athletes to understand very deeply what’s going on with their bodies is essential. The more that we can empower our athletes, our patients, our clients to know why they have certain things going on, what they can do about it, what they should and shouldn’t do, that education is the most powerful tool that we can give and we need to take it seriously.
Overall, working in a clinical environment is absolutely important, but I definitely found the trackside performance therapy aspect of working on site to be very, very powerful. It’s probably something that I’ll probably never get away from doing because of the impact that I can have even in a shorter time. It actually feels like you’re getting free time back because of how effective you can be in heading off injury and then helping reduce injury response times.
Thanks for reading!