Five months into my rehab things are going into the right direction. In this blog I would like to share a few things that helped me get back on my feet again. The first three months were completely without training: one month in hospital followed by two months in a full leg cast. The good thing is that it allowed my body to start the healing process without me constantly interfering with it. Nevertheless when the leg cast finally came off I felt pretty handicapped and lost. Where to start? Muscle imbalance, shortened tendons, a wound not wanting to close and last but not least I was unable to bend my (right) leg. Luckily it didn’t take long to figure out that the answer to a speedy recovery was simply to dive into the world of non-impact training. So for the next two months I spent hours in the pool aqua jogging with the oldies, cross trainer in the gym, uphill walking and off course lots of swimming, stretching and foam rolling.
We’re now in February and my right leg strength has increased from 20% to a whopping 45% compared to my left leg. I was hoping it would be more but I guess it simply takes time for the body to rebuild strong tendon connections. But hey, no worries they say time heals all wounds so the goal is to have the strength imbalance sorted out by the time we reach September. Why? Because we have a slot for the 2018 ÖtillÖ Worldchampionships!!! so there is no time to waist (literally). For those who don’t know we have tried to finish the race twice but did not succeed. Let’s see if the swimrun Gods are merciful this year. We will do a couple of races beforehand to see where we stand.
The other thing that has improved albeit not fully is the fact that I am now able to bend my right leg 75% of what it used to do. I hope it will eventually go back to pre-injury range of motion. It’s not guaranteed is all I can say. Now, the latest obstacle I am facing is directly related to my neurological system. In other words I feel that my “running gait is off-sync: from initial foot strike to final toe off. I am not able to reach the same natural stride length and frequency compared to my left leg. This becomes more obvious when running at faster speeds. At some point I actually look like one of those running human robots….yes, indeed it looks ridiculous but fun to watch!
In my view, strength and flexibility are relatively easy to fix it requires discipline and consistency but you get immediate return on investment. Re-wiring a local nervous system is a bit more tricky… it requires endless running (technique) drills, increased running variety and mindfulness exercises. How does it work? In simple terms small electrical signals travel constantly between your brain and your muscles. Neurons are the key cells of the nervous system and together they form a pathway to get muscles to contract (which makes you move forward). The more you use your muscles in a certain way the more neuron connections are established in certain parts of the muscles, the faster the movement will become. Excluding genetic influence this is how your natural running gate is slowly established or should I say programmed over many kilometres of repetition. Hence the mantra: swimrun, eat, sleep, repeat….to get better! Then there is a substance called myelin which sits and wraps around the muscle tissue like a fatty layer. It is basically the insulation around the neuron connections and ensures that the signals from the brain to the muscle to stay strong and clear without losing information.
If this sounds too complex then here’s alternative train of thought: consider your house as your body and the electrical switch board as your brain (i.e. the place in the wall where you have all these colourful switches and wires coming together). Consider the two bed rooms as your legs and the number of lights inside each room reflect the amount of neuron connections. So, the more lights bulbs (neuron connections) you are able to turn on in your bedroom the brighter it will get (or the faster you will become). Also the brighter the light bulbs the stronger the neuron connection is. So, when somebody refers to you with the words: “The lights are on but there is nobody home” it means that you’re “a zombie with excellent running skills”….Get it? Anyway, back to the subject….
The good news is that everybody is able to re-program their muscle neuron connections! Read: improve run and swim technique by recruiting more neuron connections in the muscles that matter! EUREKA! Now here’s an opportunity for everybody to think about their technique and if you’re actually engaging the right muscles to run and swim efficiently (and injury free). As for me it’s an opportunity to re-build my running posture from scratch by training the right muscles. For me it means spending more time in the gym and more cross training. I am not exaggerating when I say that Jasmina is lifting 15% more free weights than me simply because she has a better developed core strength. I have good swim and run muscles but my supporting core muscles are only half as strong which eventually leads to a breakdown in my technique.
In order to recruit more neurons connections (i.e. electrical wire connections) don’t run only long, slow runs because it does not stimulate the nervous system. Try to include some speed sessions in your weekly workout regime. They should last for 15 seconds at 90-100% effort but should not last long enough to generate lactic acid.
The other way I train good running form is by performing running drills either on the treadmill or on a slightly upgoing slope. I tend to go for single-leg balance, high knees, A-skips, bum kicks, cariocas, backward running, forward lunges, backward lunges, etc. If you do it right you will actually get tired and that’s because you’re using muscles that you normally don’t use….but perhaps should. My reality check came when we were in South Africa and I saw Jasmina happily hopping around on the grass where I was huffing and puffing trying to get my feet off the ground in the same way.
One way to find out what you’re doing wrong is to practise mindfullness running. Ahh not again I hear you say….more spiritual bla bla….yes I am a bit of a spiritual guy but this kind of self reflection actually does help to improve your running posture by identifying if you’re using the right muscles. How does it work? It’s very simple… but not easy for everyone! Try to run (when you feel rested) and after about 15 minutes when your body is warm try to get your mind to be in the present moment without allowing your brain to wonder off to bounty island and all its tropical fruits…I know it’s tempting but when you really focus on breathing, rhythm, sounds, posture, leg movement and in particular in/out motion of engaging muscles it’s possible and equally rewarding! Basically concentrate on how the running feels and the location of the muscles that you activate through your running gate. Start with easy flat terrain and once you get comfortable with it move into more demanding terrain and this is where your weakest muscles will eventually have to admit that they are not up for the job and need to be strengthened….et voila!
Not surprisingly in swimrun the following opposing muscle groups are often weak or out of balance:
Remember that this process of mindfulness is very individual to each athlete depending on their genetic code, medical background and years of training. Also, there is no single way to strengthen these muscles. For instance I like to improve my leg strength by running in deep (knee high) snow. So whenever you see a pile of snow (even in the city….dive in there and try to get on top…) .needles to say this is what I do with Elvin on a regular basis when I pick him up from day care.
Sorry for the long blog. Anyway, I hope some of the things are useful for you as well in the process of getting ready for the upcoming swimrun season!
Hope to see you at the Ötillö worldseries swimrun in Hvar!
Me: Thomas Schreven
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