Sore Quads, Swole Necks, and Sport Specificity

by Keith Norris

“Chaos is what we’ve lost touch with. This is why it is given a bad name. It is feared by the dominant archetype of our world, which is Ego, which clenches because its existence is defined in terms of control.”  Terence McKenna

Being fully immersed in a particular subject — in my case, S&C and the Paleo diet — means, at times, to be smacked over the head with the reality that you’ve lost touch with what is generally understood by those not immersed to be “true”.  That is to say, having spent too much time discussing the etheria of a subject with subject matter insiders can totally distort your perception of what the public “knows” about those same subject.  Sometimes that smack over the head comes via a mainstream “diet” or “fitness” article (thanks Dr. Oz), and sometimes it comes right out of a client’s mouth or actions.

Case in point: I have a client who took part recently in a rather ambitious week of heliskiing.  Excursions like this are not unusual for my client base, a group who posses the means, freedom and desire for such activities.  Very cool indeed, as I love working with people who enjoy milking everything they can out of life.  But, there can be a downside here.  Specifically, keeping them healthy while in pursuit of these helter-skelter excursions can be, well…daunting.  And this is mostly because of their failure to truly understand the finer points of sport specificity

Now, I should mention at the onset that my example here — the heliski guy — is 50-ish and strong as a friggin’ bull ox in the traditional lifts.  But not particularly, though — shall we say — svelt.  Think, built like the ex offensive lineman that he once was.  In other words, not your classic “ski-bro build”, by any stretch of the imagination. And I should mention, too, that Austin Texas is not exactly a ski resort town.  That is to say, my clients (many of whom do ski from time-to-time) are performing this rather intense, sport-specific activity at infrequent intervals; a couple of times a year at the most.  And this activity always follows a good bit of cramped travel.  And then what does that client do once they’ve arrived at ski nirvana?  Ski as much as friggin’ humanly possible, of course, because ya gotta cram it all in in the few short days you’ll be there.  Oh, and let’s add plenty of booze to the mix as well.  It’s vaca, y’all! 

This is, of course, can be a recipe for disaster.  Or one hell of a business model, if you happen to be an Austin area chiropractor or orthopedic surgeon.   

Which brings us back to the particular client in question, who was agonizing over why his quads were so unimaginably sore after his first day on the slopes.  And again, we’re not talking your normal, run-of-the-mill ski slope here, but an effin heli-drop route.

Uh-huh…

Well, the reason why his quads were so blown-up, of course, has little to do with his strength in the gym (which, like I said, is pretty damn good), and has everything to do with sport specificity.  

I’ve often said that strength is a bucket, and the more strength you possess, the more “stuff” you can load into that bucket (hat tip to Dan John).  And I still stand by that statement.  However, as with all things in life, there is a continuum to consider; degree and context still matter.

Imagine that. 

Now, without the underlying strength my client possesses, he’d never even begin to be able to pull this activity off to begin with.  Or, he’d get mauled in his first ass-over-tea-kettle tumble.  But he is strong, and too, still fairly athletic, and so the act of skiing itself was not such a big deal.  However, since he rarely performs this particular activity, his musculature (and CNS) took a friggin’ beating from the unique nature of that activity.  This is akin to tossing a 10 year old who happens to be a pretty good shot, a semi-auto rifle.  “Good” does not imply “expert” any more than “solid” implies “unbreakable”.  A semi-automatic rifle possesses a different feel and nature than does a single shot 410.  And 10 year old Johnny just hasn’t been in the saddle long enough to be to adjust to that feel on the fly.

There are a myriad of angles to sport specificity, but I asked my client to consider just two scenarios: (1) that Lance Armstrong’s having been a bad-ass in the TDF did little for his ability to excel at distance running.  Or mountain biking, for that matter.  Was he more “fit” than most of his competitors?  Was he at a decided genetic advantage from an endurance perspective?  Probably a safe bet to say that he was, in fact, way superior in both of those counts.  But why did he not clean house, then, in these events, given the fact that he is, by all accounts (and even without the help of PEDs) and endurance freak of nature?  Sport specificity.  Quite simply, he hadn’t yet mastered the particulars of those sports.  Yet….

Scenario 2: back when I played football, I spent a hellacious amount of time training my neck.  Neck bridges of all manner, ad nauseum; the Nautilus 4-way neck machine and I were intimate partners. As a result, I possessed at that time, the classic good-luck-finding-a-dress-shirt-that-fits, football neck.  But every spring and summer, during the first week of full-pads practice, the same excruciating neck soreness ensued.  As well as a general body ache.  And not because of the bumps and bruises (those were there, too, of course), but specifically due to muscle and joint soreness.  Because no matter how well-trained one is (and I was) in an S&C sense, there is simply no duplicating the force absorption that must take place during the sport itself, short of engaging in the sport itself.  Power cleans will probably always remain a staple in football S&C programs, as much for training force absorption as for training force production.  However, as good as a properly executed power clean is, it simply cannot duplicate the muscular and CNS trauma of butting heads with a 240 lb fullback.  An off-season’s worth of power cleans may keep a defensive back from crumbling like an accordion in that scenario (to this I can personally attest).  But to not be rudely sore from the act?  Yeah, that’s why elite athletes in training camp move like Walking Dead zombies.  Same thing for the day following a lay-it-on-the-line game.

The sport itself is, of course, a high-risk endeavor.  As is intense skiing.  And the balancing of, on the one hand, preparing an athlete for that kind of an onslaught without (on the other hand) putting them at undue risk during training is the very essence of smart Strength and Conditioning.  And it is a balancing act.

Insert CrossFit slam here which, today, I’ll forgo ;)

So, back to my client.  What’s the only thing that will alleviate that skiing-specific soreness?  Well, in addition, that is, to maintaining his smart exercise regimen?  You guessed it — frequent, yet moderate intensity, skiing. Frequency forces the body to adapt to the specifics of the particular activity, while the  moderation component helps reduce some of the inherent risks involved with the sport itself.  Again, it’s a balancing act.  The same reason why (smart) football programs rarely engage in full-pads practice during the season.  Going “shorts and shoulder pads” helps moderate the impact of the sport while allowing skills to be worked frequently.

Now, something tells me that “frequent skiing” as a means to alleviate quad soreness is something that I can get this particular client to buy into.  

I’m not so sure, though, about the moderation part… ;)

In health, fitness, and ancestral wellness -

Keith

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