An Exploration of Strength

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An early season Canmore landscape taken from Lady MacDonald. The snow can make ascending these mountains challenging, but the environment can give us the strength to make it all worth it.

Disclaimer: Before getting into this post, I want to preface this discussion with the understanding that I am no authority whatsoever on any kind of training, physical therapy, or rehabilitation. However, I will be discussing my thoughts on certain aspects of physical activity and rehabilitation based solely on my experience working with and learning from several individuals who may be considered knowledgeable in their respective areas of expertise. My intention is to provide some context to how I think about what drives our bodies to move forward. In other words, I’m just one guy who runs long distances in a reasonably healthy fashion – take my perspective with a grain of salt.

 

You Are Strong.

What comes to your mind when you read that?

Is it physical strength… or mental strength? Maybe you can lift heavy weights at the gym, or maybe you have a strong will when it comes to overcoming a personal challenge. But really, are these actually two unique things?

Ya, obviously… a strong mind isn’t going to let you pick up your car with your bare hands! 

A strong mind may not let you overcome physical impossibilities, but it can let you tap into an incredible physical potential that most people are unaware is possible. This concept is explained in the central governor theory (CGT). This theory states that your brain will make sure you’ve always got something in the tank. From an evolutionary perspective, this mechanism ensures you are able to tap into extra energy in case of life-threatening situations. Think of it this way – if your ancestors routinely exhausted themselves to near-death trying to hunt for food, they’d be quite easy targets for a predator. Today, this central governor still controls and limits our physical abilities, however we now have a quality of life that prevents this mechanism from being critical to our survival.

CGT has yet to be definitively proven, but it’s a great illustration of how our mind can allow, or restrict, our body’s ability to conduct physical activity. It explains why you are absolutely exhausted to the point of puking after a full on sprint for ten minutes, but two minutes of rest and you could do it again if it was required.

Using this theory, one could argue that we’ve got a third form of strength residing in our nervous system, a ‘Nervous Muscle’ so to speak, facilitating the transition from mental to physical strength. Those of us who regularly expose ourselves to uncomfortable conditions, which stress both our mental and physical strength, will likely have a more developed Nervous Muscle to help us cope with discomfort and overcome physical and psychological challenges.

This then begs the question, can we directly train our Nervous Muscle? I would argue, yes, it can be trained in a number of different ways:

Passive: Experiencing the success of meeting goals (e.g. physical, behavioural, mental, career or education related), you will provide yourself with personal examples of how action can lead to a tangible result. This experience creates a memory bank full of situations where you have been clouded in uncertainty and yet still found the direction needed to succeed. Thus, converting future ideas into tangible results will seem less daunting, allowing you to be more efficient with the process from concept (mental) to completion (physical).

Active: This is where you purposely put yourself into situations that harden you. Whether it be a difficult training effort, studying for an exam, or any other activity that requires you to put yourself into an uncomfortable position (discussed further in my last post). The more you stress your ability to persevere through difficult experiences, the easier it becomes to overcome similar uncomfortable situations in the future.

Neuromuscular Therapies: The first two categories are a bit more abstract, while this one deals with the physical components of the brain-to-muscle communication. For example, when an acute injury pops up that affects your potential for physical performance, your brain unconsciously sends signals to your muscles in a very noticeable way by shutting off certain muscle groups, tightening or overworking others, signalling the release of inflammatory chemicals, or generally forcing you to compensate in various ways to protect the damaged tissue. Your brain is unconsciously governing your physical symptoms. Unfortunately, many times your body continues these compensatory reflexes far after the initial injury is healed as your mind gets used to the new compensatory patterns. These changes can impact your body long term if you don’t address them – ever heard someone complain about that one time they hurt themselves and they’ve had a bad back/hip/knee ever since?

Therapy modalities such as physiotherapy work to help re-engage and activate the affected muscles and their neurological pathways to restore healthy movement patterns. Traditionally, these therapies consist of very focused approaches to directly treat the acute symptoms. For example, consider you are experiencing runner’s knee that stems from weak hips not being able to maintain a stable knee, causing it to collapse inward with each step. The obvious solution is to get those weak muscles activating again through a combination of manual therapies to release the tight muscles and tendons (foam roller on the IT Band, anyone?) and exercises to strengthen weakened muscles. This approach is trying to tell your brain that it’s okay to use your muscles properly again now that the initial injury is healed. In a sense, to retrain these muscle patterns, you are working backwards from the muscles to the brain, rather than your normal, healthy activities which begin with letting your brain do its thing.

Practitioners are now starting to develop more holistic approaches to complex issues. When it’s not an acute injury (e.g. you didn’t break your leg or tear a ligament), you might run into chronic issues that aren’t quite as easy to solve. There are some treatment modalities that address these issues by attempting to identify more complex compensation patterns, which restrict the restoration of healthy movement function. However, a lot of these techniques initially rely on the patient’s perception of symptoms when narrowing in on a diagnosis, which can be difficult as most people in general do not have a well-developed sense or feel for their own body.

Now, let’s take this one step further – can we draw a line in the sand that says, on one side, I’m injured and need therapy, and on the other, I’m healthy. If so, at what point are these modalities helpful in restoring healthy movement patterns? Is it when I’ve got pain? Or are there other symptoms that may not be apparent? How do I even know if I’ve got healthy movement patterns?

I’d take a wild guess and say almost everyone over the age of 25 is not 100% healthy when it comes to strength originating from the mind-body connection. If you’ve got an ache or pain on a regular basis, you aren’t as strong as you could be, and you can’t engage that Nervous Muscle as effectively as possible. Think of it this way, if your knee is giving you a bit of a dull pain, you will hesitate in pushing yourself 100%. That hesitation (for good reason!) means you aren’t as confident or mentally strong as you could be. Or, maybe you decide to ignore the pain and you are giving your activity 110%. It’s more than likely that there’s going to be some underlying compensation, which creates inefficiencies in your movement patterns. Guess what? You aren’t as strong physically.

Alright, so we probably don’t know the root cause of our movement dysfunction, we might have some pain (but maybe not!), and we want to be mentally and physically performing at our best… where do we go from here?

Well, I’m hoping to explore this question over the 2017 season of running, looking at these passive, active, and neuromuscular approaches to flexing this Nervous Muscle. Strength comes from many different places, and from my perspective, everyone has an incredible amount of untapped potential to be strong, whether it be mental, physical, or a combination of both. Maybe it’s using what you’ve got to the best of your ability, or maybe it’s making tangible improvements.

A considerable portion of this exploration is going to be dedicated to looking at the benefits of Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT) and its applications to long distance running. This treatment modality specifically targets the neuromuscular connections from brain to body, to create efficient muscle contractions, allowing for healthy, sustainable movement patterns. I like to think of MAT as more of a neurological workout, rather than a form of physical therapy. The sessions are intended to help improve movement efficiency, not necessarily to rehabilitate an acute injury (although that is many times a benefit!).

For almost a year, I’ve been working with Sheena Denscombe of Health Matters Fitness to develop a strong foundation using MAT to increase my tolerance for the stresses of long distance running, by ensuring efficient muscle contractions within all movement patterns engaged during a run. Now that I’ve got this foundation, we are going to apply these techniques in a very specific way to see just how much of an impact it can have on my running.

I will be writing a series of posts over the course of the 2017 running season dedicated to my experience with MAT, focusing on the concept discussed above about improving my Nervous Muscle, or the interface which facilitates communication between mental and physical strength – where tapping into your real potential begins. This Nervous Muscle is really where MAT shines, as I have experienced over the last year, and will be exploring further over the coming months.

Ultimately though, it’s not about physical performance or how it shapes my strength as a runner. We’re going to explore how we can use this to maintain and improve my health and enjoyment from running. After all, this whole running thing is just another part of my pursuit of happiness.

 

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