Linear People

One of the odd things about life, that we never seem to think of, is that as we age we become more linear. What I mean by that is that we tend to travel in straighter lines. The significance of this is that there are implications for our body that affects our health, well being and athletic performance in both the general and specific sense.

There is an old adage that applies here – use it or lose it. Whether it be knowledge, skills or physical abilities what gets used gets sharpened, that not used gets lost. That is how the musician or athlete develops a talent and the couch potato loses theirs.

The particular problem this causes for an adult, and for this discussion “adult” refers to anyone past the teen years, is becoming more linear leads to the atrophy of the medial and lateral stabilizer muscles of the body.

The 20-something (or 30-something) is not a child anymore, at least not physically, and subsequently does not engage in the activities of a child. Specifically I’m talking about the running, jumping and games of childhood. Of course there are exceptions who may continue to play sports like basketball or soccer well into middle age but I would counter that even those individuals would benefit from attention to development of their medial and lateral movement skills. Now it would make simple sense that medial and lateral development would be part of the competitive athlete’s training plan – but more often than not, it is not.

And for the competitive runner it becomes worse. The nature of sport dictates and prizes one’s ability to move quickly in a linear manner. Lateral movements represents time lost through dissipated force production and an increase in the time one’s foot is on the ground – the ground reaction time. Two critical concepts we’ll come back to.

What is lacking in many training regimes, no matter what the sport, is attention to the concept of multi-lateral development (MLD). MLD can be partially understood by discussing the concept of physical fitness. Physical fitness is classically defined as the ability to meet present and future physical challenges with success. If one considers that statement for a moment it becomes obvious that the application of the concept would vary greatly from athlete to elderly person. And it would also vary significantly from sport to sport.

MLD ideally should be a training component in the early part of one’s training calendar. If a training calendar is divided into four larger areas of training focus attention to MLD should have a strong emphasis in the early general development phase, early in the training cycle. Attention to MLD is decreased, but not abandoned throughout the training calendar and is the underpinning link between general and specific training.

So what should be addressed with MLD? If we take a second to define what is means to be an athlete that will give some greater direction. An athlete is a subtle combination of balance, poise and grace coupled with the physical speed and power necessary to successfully compete. Accepting this, how does one develop these skills?

Training can be done in a joint by joint approach (bodybuilding) or by training specific movements that address multiple joints at once, or at least in sequence. While there is validity in both approaches the vast majority of sports involve the broader physical concept of movements. But it is also critical to give attention to specific joint complexes, such as the hips, that may present as a “weak link” in a kinetic chain. This weak link can become a focal point of injury or a lack of development that translates into unrealized potential through dissipated force production or an increase in ground reaction times.

A second area for consideration when constructing a training plan is for one to design workouts that involve the whole body in an exercise. Use of Olympic lifts (snatch or clean and jerk), squatting and various other exercises using body weight or free weights can challenge several combinations of muscle groups at once. This is a good idea because if the exercises are chosen carefully one can structure the workout that would mimic the demands of the competitive activity.

Another movement-type area is attention to core stability. The core can be safely defined as the area from the shoulders to the groin, generally referred to as the trunk. Any balance work on the large physio-balls will help create core stability. How this works is that the small, intrinsic muscles of the spine, the oblique muscles of the lower torso and the stomach muscles must work in unison to stabilize the hips, pelvis and lumbar spine before any activity can begin. A stable core is truly the basis of any power and speed activity and should be an initial area of concern.

A third area for consideration are dynamic movements that again challenge the body in multiple planes of motion. Sideways running, cross-over steps, side lunges or more esoteric actions like t’ai chi, somatics or yoga all can challenge the dynamic stabilizers of the body reducing any lateral sway or counter productive movements that dissipate forces reducing biomechanical efficiency.

The last point, but certainly not the least is that functional development of the dynamic stabilizers will go a long way towards injury prevention. Maximal use is always abuse. It becomes important for long-term health and well being of the athlete that any training regime be designed to include work to lessen this damage, what some have called “pre-hab.” Attention to the development of the dynamic stabilizers is just that.

Balance must be struck between the general and specific nature of training. They both play a significant role for the recreational athlete and the performance based athlete. The awareness and realization of the subtle demands of sports performance often becomes one of the factors that differentiates one from achieving the benefits of an active lifestyle versus the frustration and limitations of nuisance pains and injury. So while the shortest distance between to points will remain a straight line the fact is that the most productive path will include a few zigzags.

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Russ Ebbets DC

Dr. Ebbets serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He has lectured nationally on sport and health related topics. He has authored several books and been a frequent contributor to PaceSetter Magazine since the 1980’s. He maintains a private practice in Union Springs, NY.