Lately I’ve been in the mood to design my own workout regimen… again. (You may have noticed that I sometimes do this.)
This time around, the theme is listening to my body. If you’ve been following along with my sporadic 2017 posts, you know that I’ve been running a lot and also doing P90X. However, after pulling a calf muscle and then sidelining myself with a lower-back injury of some kind – all within a two-month time frame – I had to do some soul-searching and admit to myself that the fitness regimen I was working with was inadequate for my needs. It’s true that I felt like a super-hero while I was injury-free, but those injuries couldn’t have just come out of nowhere.
Now, the temptation here is to rush to the knee-jerk conclusions: Ryan took on too much, or P90X is “too difficult.” But those kinds of conclusions aren’t any more helpful than stubbornly insisting that my injuries are random and unrelated to my fitness regimen. If I’m going to be smart about this, I’d better approach things with a level head.
Yesterday, I took the liberty of doing just that, and the results were as follows:
Confronting My Reality
It’s time I finally acknowledged some of the shortcomings of my fitness regimen. After all, it seems like every time I try to get serious about training for a race, I pull a muscle. While I don’t think it’s possible to avoid absolutely every injury or physical setback, if there are enough common threads in the onset of setbacks, it’s time to confront your stubborn illusions, overcome them, and learn from the experience.
To wit, the fact that lower back pain and calf injuries have been such a ubiquitous presence in my training life for so many years suggests the presence of a persistent problem that I am not fully addressing. I intend to address that now, so let’s discuss.
I’ll start with the lower back pain. Lower back pain is somewhat common among runners, especially among runners who seldom lift weights. The typical source of the problem is inadequate abdominal strength. That’s a hard pill to swallow for a guy who’s doing “Ab Ripper X” every-other-day, but it is what it is. While herniated discs can happen somewhat “at random,” recurring back pain that gets worse from exercise is not a random event. An ideal-for-Ryan training regimen will include a lot better care for the abdominal muscles.
One smart thing I did while I was injured was scheduling an appointment with a massage therapist. I’m a chiropractic skeptic, but I am a big fan of massage therapy, especially when the therapist is experienced and knowledgeable. After just one 50-minute session, I felt much, much better. My massage therapist helped me identify some tension in my lower leg that had gone unnoticed; namely, in the dorsiflexion of my feet. As per her explanation, insufficient dorsiflexion puts excess pressure on the calf muscle through the connecting tendon. The resulting tension in the calf muscle can cause undue tension in the hamstring, and that hamstring tension can impact the lower back. (The ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone, the shin bone’s connected to the knee bone…)
I’ll admit that it sounds a little far-fetched to suggest that insufficient flexibility in my ankle caused my back injury, but the truth is that her explanation mirrored my experience to a T. When I broke my running streak, it was because I suddenly felt my lower calf muscle tear. The next day, I realized that it wasn’t just my calf muscle, but also a region near the top of my glute. Within a few weeks, my lower back was giving me trouble. Logically speaking, it all seems quite connected.
This means that I now have two major weaknesses to work on: abdominal muscle strength and flexibility in the leg and foot.
That covers my recent injuries, but I have more than just those two problems. One problem – which seems to be genetic, as it is visibly apparent in my father, and was visibly apparent in my grandfather as well – is that weak back and shoulder muscles cause my posture to fall forward a bit too much. This can sometimes result in neck and shoulder pain, but even when it does, it looks unhealthy. The right way to deal with this is to strengthen my back and shoulder muscles to help offset it.
With that, I have a list of three primary weaknesses I want to offset with my future fitness regimen: Abdominal strength, upper back and shoulder strength, and overall flexibility.
Designing My Solution
Now that I know what I need, it’s time to think about how best to address my needs.
Thinking first about abdominal strength, let’s consider how best to approach this. Because my lower back a weakness of mine, I’m going to have to consciously avoid abdominal exercises that put excessive strain on the spine – at least until I can build up the necessary strength. So, more planks and fewer sit-ups, and if I choose to do leg raises or hip raises, I should do the versions of those exercises that include support of the spine. Leg-based plyometrics are also out of the question, at least for the time being. (And, believe me, this makes me sad. I love my box jumps!)
Upper back and shoulder strength is an easy thing to address. It just means I need to do a lot more push-ups and pull-ups. In particular, I think pike push-ups are going to be extremely important for me because they put a big emphasis on the stabilizing force of the trapezius muscles, in addition to just the deltoids. But I’m going to have to incorporate the full suite of push-ups in order to build adequate shoulder muscle strength, and a big upshot of this is the fact that you can’t do a push-up without also doing a plank: Push-ups are good for abdominal strength, too. It’s like killing two birds with one stone.
That’s just the shoulders, though. I’ll need pull-ups to address the weaknesses in my upper back, and lots of them. I’ve been doing pull-ups for a long time now, but the truth is that, like most people, I always slack off when it comes to pull-ups. I can do three times as many push-ups as I can do pull-ups, and that is just demonstrative of the underlying imbalance that causes my posture issues and neck pain. My goal here is in fact to be able to do as many good-quality pull-ups as I can do push-ups. It’s the only way I’ll ever really fix my problems.
Finally, there’s the matter of flexibility. I stretch a little bit before I go running, and I have been stretching a little bit before each P90X workout recently, but it’s not good enough. I have identified a particular set of leg stretches that tend to make my legs and back feel much better. What I’m going to do from now on is give myself at least 10 or 15 minutes of flexibility training every morning, stretching my tightest, most problematic muscles as far as I possibly can: hamstrings, calves, Achilles tendons, hip flexors, and shoulders. I intend to go through the same stretch routine at night, before bed, and also before I run. That will give me three good stretches per day, and hopefully in time these muscles will start to loosen up.
Now that I know what my weaknesses are, and how I want to address them, it’s time to actually put in the work. In future posts, I’ll be outlining my workouts. I admit that these aren’t always the most thrilling blog posts here at Stationary Waves, but it’s part of what I do here. I’ll try to offset the ensuing boredom with some more interesting blog content, for those who aren’t quite so interested in what workouts I’m doing on a daily basis.