Athletic Body in Balance: Determing Energy Leaks by Gray Cook

Overcoming adversity is a common theme in athletics. In defeat and injury, which all athletes will experience, athletes are either created or destroyed. Objectivity reason, and action are the keys to turning defeat and injury into opportunities to discover weaknesses and learn more about yourself. Every sport has stories of young, small, or average athletes who are forced to practice with older, bigger, or better players. These athletes confront their weakness every day, which can be overwhelming. But an athlete who uses a little objectivity and reasoning in these situations can prevail.

For example, a basketball player goes against an opponent of equal size and strength but has superior skills and achievements. As expected, the less-skilled player gets beat at every scrimmage. Initially, he gets discouraged, but then he realizes discouragement is not productive. He gets smart and looks at the situation objectively.

His opponent has a better vertical leap, but their shuttle run stats and quickness are equal. He recognizes a 10 percent difference between them in offensive abilities and a 20 percent difference in defensive abilities during the first and second quarters, but a 40 percent difference in offensive abilities and a 50 percent difference in defensive abilities during the third and fourth quarters. So a significant problem seems to be fatigue. With this information in mind, the basketball player plans an aggressive conditioning program. First, he adds interval training using a jump rope and wind sprints. He adds skill drills between sprint and jump rope routines. Not only does his endurance improve, but offensive and defensive skills also begin to improve. Eventually a well-rounded, mentally and physically strong athlete emerges. By confronting his weaknesses, the athlete was able to overcome them. It's the way that creates the warrior.

Coaches and athletes probably misunderstand weak links and energy leaks more than any other topic in sports and conditioning. Everyone understands the injury that is caused when an athlete slips or when two athletes collide, but athletes and coaches are constantly perplexed when an athlete's shoulder slowly starts to hurt more and more or when low back pain starts to occur daily in training. Barring any disease or deformity, such pain is usually the result of microtrauma.

Microtrauma results from small amounts of stress imposed on the body over time caused by poor biomechanics and overtraining. Both cause excessive strain on the body, but each has distinct potential as a cause of microtrauma. Poor biomechanics refers to movement mistakes in which the body compensates and uses suboptimal joint alignment, muscle coordination, and posture. These little mistakes often cannot be observed by the untrained eye and don't immediately hurt performance. They manifest as fatigue and appear when the fundamentals of conditioning and technique are not observed. Because these tiny errors often don't hurt performance, the athlete is usually not aware of the problem. Overtraining is not about movement mistakes. In fact, overtraining can result from too much of the right thing. Training in excess is due to a loss of perspective.

To get at the heart of the problem, one must decide whether the microtrauma is a result of too much of the right thing or too much of the wrong thing. Most blame microtraumas on overtraining and not enough rest and recovery, but this often is not the case. For example, imagine an athlete who has increased her running distance, added more plyometrics to her training routine, and added speed and agility work. Suddenly, her right knee starts to hurt. Overtraining is an easy scapegoat, but the left knee did just as much work. Why doesn't it hurt, too?

The term “weak link” does not mean simply a muscle weakness; it can be used to identify any physical limitation. It also can be used to identify inadequate movement patterns, poor endurance, faulty coordination, limited sport skill, or a lack of flexibility. An athlete starting or restarting a conditioning program will have many goals and aspirations, many things he wants to change and fix or improve. It is best to focus on a single component that needs improvement.

Many athletes think they already know what their weakest links are. However, it’s extremely difficult for an athlete to evaluate herself without some objective tool or standard criteria. Opinions, emotions, likes and dislikes about training and conditioning, as well as the chosen sport or recreational activity, are all key factors.

As a rule, strength, flexibility, endurance, power and speed programs are discussed and practiced as though the components were separate and independent. The truth is, they are interrelated. Separating them makes as much sense as individually training each finger and thumb and hoping they will work together when it's time to catch or throw a ball.

Testing for weak links is done in phases. Movement is considered the root. On top of movement is physical conditioning; on top of physical conditioning is skill. First, you test movement. Then you test physical conditioning. Finally, you appraise skill with the help of coaching, video analysis, and records of past and present performance. At this point, movement and physical conditioning should be the focus because they are the foundation of skill. It is important to strengthen, or at least balance, the foundation before reassessing skill. This may seem like common sense, but athletes at all levels fail to practice this principle.

Balance is a key factor in elite training programs. Strength, flexibility, speed and stamina must be balanced. Without balance, efficiency is sacrificed. When efficiency is lost, so is power. An athlete needs to be open and willing to test objectively and train accordingly, to administer the tests and do what those tests say to do. An athlete may desperately want to improve speed, but if the test reveals that speed is adequate (although in need of improvement) but flexibility is the weakest link, then he must be committed to work on flexibility first and progress to a speed workout only when speed is the weakest link. This requires discipline. If flexibility is the weakest link, then speed training could potentially cause injury or biomechanical stress over time. High-level speed training requires maximum range of motion and flawless body awareness. Both of these things are significantly limited when flexibility is limited.

Energy leaks can result from weak links. The term energy leak indicates poor efficiency as well as stress. An energy leak occurs when all of the energy generated to perform a certain task or movement does not go specifically into that task or movement. Science tells us the energy must go somewhere. Usually, the energy creates stress within the body. The stress can take many forms. It may cause unnecessary work or movement in another part of the body, placing greater stress on certain muscles and tendons (strains). It may create unnatural motion of the spine or limbs, placing greater stress on joints and ligaments (sprains). This movement can create stress and trauma that may go unnoticed for weeks or months. Eventually the athlete will pay the price if the stress continues. For example, consider an athlete who is generally stiff throughout the hips. Testing identifies flexibility to be the weakest link, but the athlete continues to insist that strength and endurance are what he needs to work on. His training could have many energy leaks. Let's say he chose to run hills instead of focusing on flexibility. Hill running requires the athlete to lift the knee as high as possible. Hill running promotes acceleration, leg strength, and good sprinting form, but an athlete who attempts hill running without optimal hip flexibility will use some other form of movement to help gain the stride length necessary for hill training. The brain and body will compensate for the lack of flexibility and use alternative movement patterns. This athlete is not working through the weak link; he is working around it and is creating an energy leak in doing so. Poor form almost always results in an energy leak.

It’s possible for an athlete to perform well even when poor form is used, but eventually the athlete will experience breakdown, inconsistency, fatigue, soreness and even injury. It should be the goal of the training program to create efficient movement in the activity. This will conserve energy, keep the athlete relaxed and allow the athlete to practice more and compete with less stress.

The problem is that poor form may be easier, more familiar and more comfortable and it may even seem to take less energy than proper form. Proper form, however, will take far less energy in the long run. Poor form, even if it leads to some initial success, will eventually rob the athlete and cost far more time and effort than what is required to fix the weak links. Poor form can incorporate less overall muscle activity and therefore seem easier, but don't confuse this feeling with efficiency. Muscles are accustomed to generating the desired movement and maintaining optimal body position. To be efficient, the athlete must fulfill both criteria and then demonstrate the ability to reproduce the activity without a decline in quality. The athlete who understands this will be more efficient and will develop the muscles that were designed to perform the activity.

Microtrauma can be the result of overtraining, but multiple factors are associated with microtrauma-inadequate warm-up and cool-down, lack of body awareness, poor nutrition and hydration, as well as suboptimal biomechanics. Preferential training, in which the athlete practices one form of training to the point of neglecting others, can also play a role. Do what is necessary; there's no way to avoid it. If testing shows a weakness in one area, that is the area that must be trained. When testing reveals improvement in that area, another area can be addressed. But until that point, work on the weakest link. Retesting should identify the next weak link, and so on. This can get tricky. Realize that completely getting rid of a weak link is not a destination-it's a journey. It has been said that the only person who is truly objective is the one who knows that he is not. It is so hard to be objective about oneself. This book will help identify the weakest link and train it accordingly. Objectivity is built into the system.

Gray Cook is a Physical Therapist board certified in orthopedics and is Reebok’s first Master Coach. He is also author of the new book “Athletic Body in Balance” from which this article is reprinted with permission (Human Kinetics; 2003; $19.95; www.humankinetics.com).