You Don’t Know How to Fix Yourself

Recently, a coach friend of mine for whom I have a lot of respect promoted an article about IT Band syndrome. This is an injury that I know is quite common amongst runners and I am pretty sure I have flirted with it myself in the past. At first I was excited to have another resource in my kit in order to provide quality training to anybody who I teach. However, instead of providing me with useful information I could pass along to clients or friends, this article nearly caused my head to explode with white-hot anger and frustration. The author is highly qualified and has a long list of capital letters behind his name, but he is providing information that is straight up harmful It is articles like this that ensure we remain forever injured and forever mediocre in our athletic pursuits.

First, I want to address what the article does well. Pages 1 & 2 give a great breakdown of the anatomy and function of the IT band. Even the most lay of laymen can understand and learn from these well-written sections. On Page 3 however, the article falls apart and falls apart fast. It is here that the author gives away the fact that they are part of the old wives club by committing an extremely pervasive and detrimental error: “the quadriceps muscles (those in front of the thigh that extend the knee) and the hamstring muscles located in the back of the thigh that flex the knee.”

 

If you think the quads are responsible for extension and the hamstrings are for flexion, you are an idiot.

 

NO. NO NO NO NO. This is the most common and most damaging misconception of the lower limbs. Everybody from the “bro-fessor” gym rat to the “highly-qualified” medical community seems to believe that the legs are simply a bigger version of your arms. Biceps flex the elbow and triceps extend it, therefore the leg muscles must do the same to the knee, right? NO. Seriously, NO. Why in all of mother natures green goodness would the muscles in the back of a human’s leg be so damn big if its only purpose was to flex the knee? Bringing my heel to my ass does not require all that junk in the trunk. For some reason, nobody seems to understand that the musculature on both sides – front and back – of the legs is active in extending the knee. Sure, the hamstrings and all those other posterior muscles do indeed flex the knee, but they MUST be active in extending the knee as well. You are actually contracting both the quadriceps and the hamstrings when going from the squat position to standing. Relegating the hamstrings and the rest of the backside system to only flexion leads to a long, sad, painful road to mediocrity and misunderstanding. I could turn this article solely into a discussion on the knee, but we’ll save that for a future post. For now, if you don’t believe me, go pick up Mark Rippetoe’s book Starting Strength (Vol. III).

NOTE: I do not know Mr Rippetoe personally nor do I have any stake in his book or other fitness activities. I talk about his book a lot simply because it is the best damn book on strength and musculature that has ever been written.

So yeah, Page 3 of 10 and my head is already about to unscrew from my body because I am so damn angry about the damage this article is doing to us all. Moving on, the author can’t even get the unhelpful RICE adage correct on page 4. We are all familiar with Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation approach to injury treatment, but the only really useful part of that is Compression and the author completely leaves it out. WTF. Better yet, he replaces it with pills. RIPE? Well, the author doesn’t bring up Elevation either, so RIP? Exceedingly appropriate since the author seems bound and determined to kill your muscles.

Pain pills are bad. Generally speaking, “anti-inflammatory” sounds like a good thing to most people as inflammation is a result of injury and reducing inflammation should then mean a reduction in injury intensity. I simply don’t get this logic. Inflammation is blood rushing to the site of an injury. Blood flow is critical to recovery. Why on earth would you want to cut down this blood flow? Anti-inflammatories work by constricting blood vessels thereby reducing blood flow thereby reducing inflammation WHICH ALSO reduces the flow of necessary fuel and nutrients to heal and reduces the out flow of waste products from the healing process. That second part doesn’t sound so great to me. Worse yet, pain pills can do some serious damage to other parts of your body, especially your digestive system – a critical piece of the nutrient delivery puzzle. How can you heal when you reduce your ability to take in nutrients AND deliver them to the site that needs them most? I’m wiling to bet this author (and probably you as well, dear reader) has never thought this through. I want to address the rest of the problems inherent to RICE another day, but for now I feel it is my duty as a human being to spread this wisdom as far and as quickly as possible: Pain pills are bad.

 

Over-medicated

 

On page 5, the author recommends cross training in a sport that doesn’t aggravate an injury as a way to stay active despite IT Band syndrome. This I support. Unfortunately, this advice is tainted by more crap about RICE and by blaming running as an “aggressive activity.” What the hell does “aggressive” mean? I picture a runner with a scowl that is trying to stamp to death a long line of ants really quickly. Running is a great way to maintain muscle and joint health when done correctly…maybe this author had better reevaluate their running form before accusing the sport of a misdemeanor offense.

 

KILL ‘EM ALL

 

Next up, the author recommends physical therapy as a way to overcome IT Band syndrome (after plugging pain pills again, of course). Again, on face I agree with this advice. However, if a physical therapist recommends the voodoo that this author advises, such as orthotics, stretches, and phonophoresis and iontophoresis (look these up, they sounds scary as hell) before finally recommending corticosteroid injections, punch that PT in the face and walk out of their office with your middle finger held high. Don’t even get me on surgically sticking an arthroscope into the leg or surgically altering the size of the IT Band. The surgical option in nearly any therapy is not indicative of the wonders of medical science, it is indicative of the laziness in pursuing effective physical therapy. Proper PT requires life style changes and long-term, or better yet permanent, dedication to authentic movement patterns. This is not easy and doesn’t fit with modern instant gratification techniques, but it is the only path that leads to actual improvements in quality of life and health.

 

Needles don’t belong there.

 

How is this clown show not over yet? Next, under the heading “Next Steps” and “Prevention,” the author states an admirable goal: “to return to the level of activity enjoyed prior to the injury.” Again, I would agree if it were not tainted with talk of “footwear options…orthotics…stretching.” More voodoo. I agree that an athlete needs to analyze the root cause of their injury, but slapping one of these modern bandages on the problem will only prevent the system from becoming even weaker and being ever more prone to future injury. Creating this special universe in which we need to exist in order to conduct physical activity is bullshit. Nature gave us what we need, we just need to stop living and exercising in a bubble. My goal is not to return to the level of activity before the injury. My goal is to reach a higher level of quality in activity that will lead to a higher level of health in the athlete’s future.

Everything in this article on IT Band syndrome amounts to what I would consider mainstream “knowledge.” I put knowledge in quotes because it is simply stuff that everybody knows, but it shouldn’t qualify as actual knowledge in the way that we have knowledge on factual information. We learn much of these old wives’ tales and voodoo techniques in grade school and carry them into adulthood. Our modern education system also teaches this same stuff, thereby ensuring the next generation is there to keep the inertia going. To make matters worse, there is a massive fitness industry that “publishes” these “facts” in magazines and the government also advocates this same information. Given this onslaught, it is easy to see how extreme inertia builds up behind these ideas and we somehow all “know” that the knee is a bigger elbow, pills and surgery fix problems, and orthotics and stretching prevent problems.

This was a demonstration of just a little bit of critical thinking against one article. Basically nothing written by this author passes the smell test despite his impressive list of qualifications (MD, FACEP, FAAEM). The whole purpose of movematt is to call out articles like this that actually damage us, but to also provide the tools necessary to think through ALL awful advice. I will keep it coming, but for now, think twice about what you “know” of the function of the knee. Think twice before you pop a pain pill or consider medical options for injuries. Think twice about what a PT recommends to you. And finally, think twice about your post-injury goals.

Pain, in 6 Easy Steps

Ok, so I already described the situation. To recap, I’m in Costa Rica near a beach and I’ve been wanting to get back in shape for a while, so I started a new exercise program.

Because moderation is an obvious sign of weakness and/or mental health depending on who you ask, I decided to go for 2 intense workouts a day (though that has turned into 3… we’ll get to that later).

Movematt wrote me a rambling workout plan suggestion that I go through the motions of saving a baby using a weight of some sort, but I’m in a new small town and I’d rather not be the crazy guy low crawling on the beach with the swaddled rock. Of course I’d swaddle it; I’m not an animal.

I decided instead to go a slightly more traditional route. In 3 months I plan to write about how this workout changed or improved. Critiques are welcome in the comments. So here it is – workout #1:

1)      Jog: I head to the beach and run in the sand to the end where it turns into a rocky cliff; this is about a mile or so out. So far so good.

2)      Sprint: I sprint on the sand the whole way back in intervals. About halfway back my legs feel like linguini and the sand feels like quicksand. Still, I keep it up and make it back to the starting point where I usually collapse for a few seconds which makes me feel ten times worse. Also this is a concern.

3)      Swim: Because I can’t tolerate gravity anymore, I take off my Vibrams, stash them by a log or a dead dog or something and wade into the ocean. Pretty good waves lately so I make my way through those to the deeper water. Once there, I tread for a bit, still trying to catch my breath, then I make my way out to the sailboat flotilla about 200 yards offshore. I use a combination of doggy paddle, breast stroke, and freestyle and I think about Shark Week the whole way. Once I get there I swim back. When I get out of the water, I realize that gravity still sucks.

That’s the end of workout #1. It starts around 7:45 or 8AM. I spend the next few hours recovering. Then around 3 or 4PM, I go out for workout #2.

1)      Pullups: There is a ledge near my door that belongs to the deck of an upstairs tenant. I jump up to it and do 3 or 4 sets of 5 pullups. Considering that I can do many more pullups on a bar, this annoys me. Also my hands hurt and this also annoys me. I also occasionally get caught by the upstairs neighbor who must think that I am secretly peeping on him very briefly 15 to 20 times a day.

2)      Pushup… things: I don’t know what these are called or if they are a thing, but I like them. Movematt just wrote about them actually and I’m convinced he stole the idea from me. What I do is fall forward from a standing position catching myself on my hands in pushup position, then from there I throw myself back up into a standing position without moving my feet. 3 sets of 10. I like pushups so this is my favorite exercise of the day. My hurt hands don’t make it easier though.

3)      Sprint: More sprinting! I found a small hill and I sprint up it 5 times, jogging back to the starting point each time. Some days are better than others, but the overall feeling is of wanting to die. This being closer to the hottest part of the tropical day, I don’t stop sweating until a bit past sundown.

Seemingly unrelated story: though an acquaintance, I met this guy at a bar about a week ago and we got started talking about martial arts. He trained Wing Chun and boxing, and I’ve trained Brazilian Jujitsu, Karate and some Aikido. He drunkenly exchanged numbers with me to train together, but then unexpectedly actually called and wants to train… like every day. So after my 2nd workout, I often get a summons to the beach.

At the beach he and I take turns drilling techniques then trying to punch each other in the face (with boxing gloves), then I show him some simple takedowns and BJJ techniques and we drill those. It last about an hour.

This has all been going on about a week now. I’m getting over my soreness, but am still pretty wiped out all the time. Looking forward to improving as the months go by and seeing how it works.

It’s my rest day, but I just got a text from martial arts guy… I guess I could stand to get punched in the face a few times on my day off.

Roving Packs of Dogs

On the ever growing list of threats to my health and safety, I now add roving packs of dogs. This is the first addition since dengue fever bearing mosquitoes, added about a week ago.

The backstory is this: inspired in part by Movematt, I decided that one of my goals during my time in Costa Rica is to become a physical specimen of a human being, able to jog up flights of stairs and rearrange living room furniture.

To that end I’ve started a twice a day workout schedule that includes a combination of running, swimming, sprinting (sand & hill), and pullup and pushup variants. 3 of those activities take place on the beach (running, sand sprinting, and swimming), which is conveniently located 2 blocks from my house. I drag myself out of bed every morning make my way down to the beach and begin my routine, and generally by the end, I feel pretty good in a terrible, gasping for air, utterly exhausted kind of way.

But today was different; today, towards the end of the jog segment of the run when I begin to transition to sprint intervals, I looked up to find that loping along besides and around me in a not-unthreatening manner were about 3 medium sized black dogs who looked like clones of each other, (a white 4th dog seemed to be a bit of an outcast and was also much less preoccupied with me). My 3 surprise running companions jogged easily alongside me darting in and out at my legs and dashing away when I turned to face them. You’ve probably seen this behavior in nature documentaries where large ungulates are being pursued by seemingly lazy wolves.

Now, the dogs were definitely in semi-play mode, but the thing about roving packs of dogs is that they play rough, and if you show any sign of weakness they will begin “playfully” biting your face off.

Thankfully, I’m not totally ignorant of dog psychology, so I realized that speeding up would probably be a bad idea. Contrary to what you see in movies and TV, outrunning dogs is one of those things that doesn’t happen in real life unless you have a very substantial head start and a safe end point. Instead I slowed down a bit, which helped to ease some of their obvious agitation at my quick movement, and began doing my best to exude alpha vibes. Alpha vibes is my term for a subtle shift in carriage that is meant to say 2 things: 1: “I am your superior,” and 2: “if you mess with me, it will go poorly for everyone involved.” I got a lot of practice with this growing up in New York.

The dogs were fairly incorrigible but, after a few minutes of my extra lazy jogging pace, they lost some interest in me and went back to dive tackling each other across the sand. My mind was still on my workout, and not wanting to lose my momentum at that critical moment I made the snap decision to begin my first sprint then.

70 heart pumping meters or so later, I looked up and angling in gleefully were the black dogs, slavering jaws wide, white teeth gleaming against the sand. One was right next to me and took a bounding nip at my left thigh…

Druid wolf pack chasing bull elk; Doug Smith; December 2007

Now, admittedly, this was my fault. Sprinting like that in plain view of these obviously aggressive dogs was just asking for trouble. Still, if I let roving packs of dogs dictate my workout, where does it stop? What if next time they want to borrow some money, or take my girlfriend to the movies? Where do I draw the line?

The leaping nip was an obvious test of my alpha-ness. If I let it slide the next step would be a full on bite and would likely be proceeded by my being dragged around the beach loudly lamenting my ongoing mauling.

Well, I don’t know about all that, but I definitely knew that I didn’t want strange dogs thinking it was cool to bite me. So I stopped cold and turned on the nippy dog and yelled “hey!” in my most forbidding voice, as if to say, “you just crossed the line, dog!” that got his attention and he backed off. I walked him down a few steps just to drive home my point and that seemed to get my point across. They almost instantly lost interest in me and sped off down the beach to harass some guy sitting in the surf.

At no point in time was I overly afraid of being attacked by these dogs. But I was worried that they would totally mess up my workout which would suck. If I had gone sprinting down the beach like a frightened deer, as wolf evolved predators, the dogs wouldn’t really have had a choice but to chase me and eventually try to take me down. It’s instinct (see video above). So I had to address the situation before it got out of hand.

All told, this should add an interesting element to future workouts, for better or for worse.

I also got chased by a French bulldog a bit further down the beach, but that was less worrisome.

French_Bulldog5

Sarutobi Parkour

What feels like a lifetime ago, I was a parkour instructor in Beijing, China. I was definitely the first foreigner to teach parkour there, but I may have been the first period. Back in 2009, when I started, there wasn’t anyone else teaching formal parkour classes, and there were only a few informal groups practicing around the city.

The classes were taught as martial arts classes with a strong focus on technique and real life practicality. That meant no flips, no showmanship – just how to get from one place to another as fast and efficiently as possible. The martial discipline made it easier to keep the kids in line in my younger classes, and the program (Sarutobi Parkour) fit well as the “flight” component for all the “fight” courses taught in the martial arts venues where I held classes.

I myself was never a freerunning daredevil, willing to scale tall buildings and risk life or limb jumping off of them in a single bound. Though those videos are often the most impressive and fun to watch on Youtube, I think parkour at its best is strictly utilitarian and minimalist; one of the benefits to this is that it is repeatable and teachable, like any martial art. Being a high level practitioner of parkour means you scale up the basic skills you’ve learned in practice to be effective in real life environments. It also means you can employ those skills effectively where it counts and when there are no second takes, not only for a highlight reel.

And on that note, here’s my highlight reel!

OK, so not technically a highlight reel. This video was meant more as a promotional piece to advertise for the class. It never made it out of pre-production (as you can see), but the friend of mine who produced it did a pretty awesome job of making it presentable in almost no time. Its main purpose was going to be to introduce students (and younger students’ parents) to what parkour was and to show some of the basic techniques taught in the classes.

After about 2 years of teaching parkour, several things happened that made me stop:

1)      I got bored of teaching.

2)      I hyperextended my toe doing a cat leap (it happened right before the first shot in the above video where I appear to be posing.. I’m really wondering how badly damaged my toe is and trying not to show how much agony I’m in.) It took about 2 years to fully heal.

3)      I decided I wanted to make some actual money.

Though I practice very little these days, I still love parkour. It embodies everything about fitness and working out that I am attracted to: functionality, fun, and total engagement. For people like me who find it almost impossible to sustain the long term motivation to go to the gym or run a few repetitive miles, parkour was a great way to keep active without feeling like I was working out.

It’s one of the best ways to get in shape that I know of and it’s also a great skill to have if you ever find yourself in a tight spot.

*For those of you who don’t know anything at all about Parkour, here’s an interview that explains a bit more about it.

Running In Pants, Pt 2

When was the last time you ran?  I’m willing to bet that whether or not the answer is last night or last year or even last leap year, the circumstances were similar:  You were wearing running clothes, running shoes, and were at a running venue of your choosing.  Continuing with my assumptions, you were there to “train” and there was a warm-up and probably some stretching.  But there was one critical element missing:  Need.

Need?  What does that even mean?  I “need” to lose weight/get in shape/improve my cardio/prep for a race/etc etc etc.  Therefore, I “need” to run.  Yeah…that’s not how I would define “need.”  Even a Kenyan, running at an event of some sort, chasing a first, second or third place purse just to put food on the table still doesn’t “need” to run.  This is a classic case of “you’re doing it wrong.”

Fine, define “need” then.  Ok, here we go:  people need to run when they have to evade something trying to hurt or kill them, such as a predator or villain.  Or maybe a person needs to hurt or kill prey or even another person.  People also need to run when an environment has become dangerous, i.e. a volcanic flow or an earthquake has made it necessary to escape the current locale.  And hell, let’s just admit it, maybe people have to run just to get away from the damn police.  We’ve all been there, right?  Right?  ….ok, maybe only some of us have been there…

Either way, there is one commonality amongst all of the activities in the “need” category: there is little, if any, room for choice.  Interestingly enough, all of those needs are also scenarios that every other creature in the animal kingdom are faced with frequently (except for maybe the police scenario…I don’t think tigers have a police force, do they??).  Seriously, could you imagine if an animal had to meet the same criteria to run that modern humans do?  Put on special shoes and do special warm ups in a special place designed especially for such things?  Hunters would starve or hunted wouldn’t stand a chance.

When a lion knows there is prey nearby, it up and chases it down.  When a gazelle knows that said lion is out to eat it, it up and runs away.  No warm ups, no lacing of fancy shoes, no stepping out to the track.  Can you do that?  Probably not.  In fact, I’m going to guess that the idea of jumping out of your seat right now and sprinting down the block is a bit scary.  It really shouldn’t be though.

Let’s step back for a second.  I hope that you never have to run.  Be it out of survival or combat, we’ve worked hard for our modern world and should reasonably expect a degree of safety that makes such a thing obsolete.  However, there are two problems with that kind of thinking:  1. Shit happens.  2.  Your body is meant to be prepared for when shit happens.  This does not mean preparing for some abstract potentiality in an effort to survive a one-in-a-million possibility, but rather taking full advantage of your evolved self (more on this in upcoming posts).

Actual insight and recommendations on running will come in future blog posts, but in the meantime, treat this as a mental exercise.  Running shoes are a product of the 1970s, running programs from the 1980s and sweat-wicking material the 1990s.  Human beings needed to run tens of thousands of years before any of these inventions, so why is your running contingent on them?

 

Running In Pants

The Seawall of Kota Kinabalu

It’s 35 degree Celsius and 95% humidity in Malaysian Borneo.  I’m hungover and have a belly full of nothing but coffee.  I’m wearing long pants.  It’s time to run.

….

I’ve been desperately searching for some inspiration to kick start my first FYMP post and I think I finally found it.  I’m just going to get right into it:  four former coworkers of mine died in a military plane crash in Afghanistan a couple days ago.  While I was not personally close to these men, many of my close friends were.  It has also dredged up feelings held over from a plane crash a year ago, on which I did have close friends.

When I found out about the wreck, I was in the middle of planning a trip to Malaysian Borneo.  The tickets had been purchased, I was just doing the research to figure out what I was going to do there.  Needless to say, this planning was taken off the rails and was never really completed.  Fast forward a couple of days and I found myself getting shit-faced in a bar outside my hostel a few hours after landing in Kota Kinabalu.  This led to sleeping in (like, to 12:30 pm) the next day which led to feelings of depression for wasting my time here.  Overall bad.

Additionally, in an effort to justify my laziness, I busted out the computer in order “to write.”  Really that just turned into me surfing the internet under the guise of “research” for my first post.  I finally had to admit to myself that I was suffering from project saturation and going impotent in the face of it.  Deadlines are drawing near on a bunch of schoolwork and I have so much that I want to write about for FYMP that I was all thrust and no vector and getting nothing done as a result.  Further depressing.

I finally made a step in the right direction by putting the computer away and deciding to go for a walk.  Walking down the coast of the Sulu Sea, I spotted a Starbucks.  Yeah, a drip coffee is somehow the equivalent of US$3, but screw it, I want coffee.  With my hot coffee making me even sweatier than I already was walking around in this humid oven, I kept trundling down the seawall.  I started screwing around by balancing on the edge, jumping back and forth over the ditch, hoping a few rocks.  Nothing significant, but the additional movement along with the walk was helping me to get my mind off of stuff.

That’s when I suddenly recalled a technically inconclusive yet operantly encouraging study I read while doing “research” earlier in the day about brain activity during a walk through a city vice a park.  Basically, and spoiler alert, walking in nature is better for you.  Shocker.  This in turn led me to my self reminder:  Move, Matt.  I had also made promises to myself and others that I would MovNat the hell out of Borneo.  Next thing you know, the only thing I could think about was killing my coffee and finding a trash can.

I succeeded in killing the coffee, but couldn’t find a trash.  Of course I’m not going to litter, so screw it, I’m wearing adventure pants, I’ll just shove the trash in a pocket even if it is a bit wet with coffee.  That’s when I started going.  First it started as a slow jog down the actual wall of the seawall.  Then it grew in intensity and I found myself making a few leaps across some crags.  I kept reminding myself to keep my legs under me and not in front of me, especially since my Minimus and my socks were already wet (more on that in a future post).  That’s when I saw a sign for the wetlands preserve and decided to run there.

Long story short, I kept running.  Persistence style.  I had no idea where I was going and I let my goldfish attention span take over.  Up hills, down hills, ohheylookanotherpath, time to play a few minutes of pick up soccer with some locals, ohheylookstairs, and so on.  I was wearing my aforementioned “adventure pants” (long, cargo style) and a long-sleeved, button-down shirt.  But screw it, you don’t always get to choose when to run.

Finally, I made it back into Kota Kinabalu.  My feelings for my former coworkers and for all of the brave men and women who continue to do that job no less diminished, but a renewed appreciation for life gained.  The lesson I learned here is that no matter the specific circumstances, a little bit of movement can go a long way.  I ended up scratched, bruised, exhausted and so sweaty that I needed to take a shower with my clothes on (no way could they go without a wash), but I was in such a better place emotionally and mentally.  My contributions to FYMP will continue to explore this phenomenon and hopefully help as many people as possible improve their quality of life.