• Annabel Francis

Part 2: Talking Running & Stretching with The Sports Physio

Welcome to Part 2 of my recent chat with Adam Meakins aka The Sports Physio.  Part 1 of our chat focused more on the Yoga world but here we turned our conversation to running and the possible benefits of yoga for sports..

Annabel: As a runner I have taught several yoga workshops for runners over the years. I was quite fixed on moving runners into more lateral movements, to kind of counter the linear aspect of running. What are your thoughts? 

Adam: I think supplementing what we do most of the time with something novel and different is beneficial. I do think working in a different plane, in a different direction, with different loads, at different speeds to what you’re normally used to is beneficial.

Annabel: I got quite hooked up on the idea that all the linear motion was causing tight hips in runners (and cyclists) and made a big point of focusing on the stretching. To think hip flexors are getting tighter and tighter from moving in one direction, therefore we must stretch them, it’s not the case is it?

Adam: That’s not what I would say is the reason for doing something different, because adaptation to the task you’re doing is actually beneficial, so for a runner to get better at running they need to run, they need to develop those patterns and they do need to develop some muscles to become tighter and springier than other muscles to be able to run better. So I don’t think we need to say those types of definitions as to why you need to do something to help protect those issues that may be happening, because they’re actually not issues, they’re beneficial adaptations that your body is doing because you’re running. So I think the reason why we’re asking somebody to do something different is to supplement their body to have a different stimulus. I do give runners a few stretches but if I have a runner with a chronic overload type problem I give them really heavy, really slow exercises because it is completely different for their body. They’re used to doing long duration, high intensity, quick fast movements and I take it into the exact opposite. I say ‘here’s a great big heavy load and I want you to move it as slow as you possibly can and just to 5 repetitions of that’. And normally it’s in a direction that they do feel stiff and restricted into. I call it “strength-stretching’. You’re getting the best of both.  You’re getting a load to strengthen that’s done under long duration so that’s that time under tension which is a key stimulus for the adaptation that we need with a heavy load, and you’re also taking it into a direction that you feel restricted into, so there is going to be that mechanical stretching effect through it as well, eccentric loading. So you kill two birds with one stone; you’re stretching and strengthening as well.

Annabel: I saw a yoga for sports course advertised recently, which said it would explain ‘what is appropriate flexibility at the joints’ and I thought, I don’t know how you can define or answer that?

Adam: It comes to what is good movement. Again there're many people who’ve tried to model what is good human movement and it’s like any model. The models are only people trying to make sense of the randomness and chaos by trying to come up with a theory of what is good and what is bad. They’re never perfect. Back in the 80s one of the models I’ve come across that I think is really good for human movement is the Newell's Constraints Theory Model which says all movement is dependent on; the individual, the task they’re doing and the environment that they’re doing it in. So to ask someone what is the optimum knee movement I need, you have to say; who is the individual, what's the task that you want the knee to do, and what’s the environment that you need to do it in. If you’re talking about a runner they only need about 20 or 30 degrees of knee movement, if you’re talking about someone squatting they’re going to need about 140 degrees of movement. To say it that simplistically I don’t think it’s possible. You have to think about the other factors around the movement; the individual, the task, the environment.

Annabel: The course also offered to show a way of testing flexibility and I thought, unless it was a very controlled group, you really can’t test that in a workshop group of yogis can you? Yoga is an interesting one as it can attract extremely flexible people who can demonstrate a huge range of motion, and at the other end, people who feel extremely inflexible, and whose goal is to touch their toes.

Adam: There’s so much difference and variation in the human population and there are so many factors that will influence somebody’s flexibility; their genetics, their bony structure, their previous activity levels, other health factors, their age, their gender, even their hormonal cycles. These all affect somebody’s ability to either be flexible or not flexible, in that particular moment, at that particular time.

Annabel: Absolutely, that can vary so much and this moves us on to the pain science side of things as well; being in the moment.  At the beginning of most yoga classes you have the chance to check-in and notice what’s going on in your body, to encourage your breathing to slow down, telling our nervous system that things are ok, reconnecting mind and body a bit more. Do you think perhaps that a yoga class where people have got that self-awareness switched on is possibly going to keep them safer, not because the movement is dangerous, but just a bit more aware of sensations and what might be going on in their body in that particular moment?

Adam: So very broadly, I find there are two types of people when it comes to pain. There are those who are hyper-vigilant, and hyper-focused on it, and there’s those who’ve got absolutely no bloody idea when it comes to why it happens or what causes it. For those who’ve got no idea, they’re a bit blasé about it, so sometimes being a bit more focused on what they’re doing and feeling is actually beneficial for them. But for the others, the hyper-focused, it worries the f***ing hell out of them. When they start to focus where their pain is, what niggle it is and everything, it just magnifies everything. So again, it’s like anything, there’s no one rule for everybody. I think sometimes focusing on body parts, internally checking in on stuff, absolutely great for some, but for others, it just stresses them and they feel everything. I hate classifying people but very broadly when it comes to pain, I just find these two generic types of approaches. Either you’re pain avoiding or you’re pain enduring. Either you endure it you’re just like ‘oh f**k it’ or you’re a pain avoider and are like ‘oh no I can’t’.

Annabel: I think I fit across both; day to day I’m quite blasé but when it comes to my calf muscle (an injury I incurred a couple of years ago whilst running) I’m paranoid.  If I feel any twinges, well, I haven’t run for a couple of weeks, because the last time I ran I felt it, and when it went before I couldn’t run for months, so I haven’t dared run. With anything else pain-related, I’m more ‘whatever’.

Adam: But that’s a key point, because it’s very specific. Some people are normally that type of attitude but I think the longer the problem has been around and the more times they’ve experienced it, the more they tend to be hyper-focused on it. Other stuff comes and goes, it’s not been around that long, people are ‘yeah, whatever’, but the more chronic, the more repetitive a problem, the harder it is to ignore it.  It’s just human nature. You know, when you’ve had something around for years and years, you do start to become more vigilant.

Annabel: And it brings in other elements too, like the fact if I can’t run I can feel a bit low sometimes. There are other factors involved, not just the feeling of the pain, or the fear of the pain itself.

Adam: And you are one of those people, if you were one of my patients, I’d just say ‘f*ck it Annabel, just go for a run, just f*ck that. Go!’

Annabel: Yep, that’s what I would normally do. I rested a few weeks but then I felt this tiny little niggle and thought ‘oooh, careful’.

Adam: The alarm system is going off too soon.  It’s over-protecting you.  You have to show it who’s boss and say ‘I’m not listening to you, I’ll prove you wrong’.

Annabel: I need to turn that pain dial down a bit then!

With me told (I went for a run the next day) and the clock ticking we went on to chat about the pros and cons of teaching online (Adam has moved his Shoulder Complex course to a webinar format and my classes are currently a mix of online and studio), mellowing with age and finding a better balance in life (he's definitely mellowed).

What I took away from our conversation was Adam’s positivity around movement and his no-nonsense approach to keeping people moving. In the yoga and running worlds where so much emphasis has been placed on the importance of stretching; in yoga where extreme amounts of flexibility is often seen to make someone ‘better’ at yoga, and where runners are encouraged to warm up and cool down with lots of stretching, it’s important to appreciate that flexibility is not a measure of fitness and that variety in movement is good. 

Thank you for reading.  Please feel free to contact me with any questions related to this post or yoga.

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