by Russ Ebbets
Simply put, invisible training yields results you cannot see. It begs the question then – why would one waste valuable training time for a seemingly inconsequential result? Of course, one would not unless a reduction in nuisance injuries, improved balance, coordination and force production, enhanced performance and career longevity are not important. If that is the case, turn the page.
In America we are obsessed with how things look vs. how things are. We can blame our celebrity culture, social media or the glossy magazine rack at the supermarket but for many Americans beauty, fitness and the judgment of one’s potential rests on one’s “look.” Everyone knows the adage that you cannot tell a book by its cover, but it is something most of us do most of the time.
Attention to core stability, foot strength, balance and proprioception, diet or mental processes are just a few of the areas where seemingly invisible efforts can have profound results in terms of health and performance. So, while invisible training may be an oxymoronic term (a union of opposites) taking a deeper dive to examine the subject and to create strategies for practical implementation is worthwhile.
For most people core stability erodes over one’s lifetime. This opens the door for a host of problems that include low back pain, hip and knee problems, balance issues and the propensity for falls in an older population. The reasons for the rise in these maladies can be blamed on our sedentary culture, obesity or linear movement patterns but bottom line, attention to core development for most ended with one’s high school gym classes.
For a runner core stability helps both the “top and bottom.” Up top, core stability allows one to maintain a desired running posture longer and further into a race. An erect trunk posture allows for a more efficient breathing pattern that also can influence the onset of fatigue. Well-conditioned core muscles help to stabilize the low back and lessen the damage of the continual pounding of one foot strike to the next.
A stable lower core allows one to solidly “post” when one is in the one-leg, single support phase of the running action. A stable core eliminates lateral sway, saving seconds in the race effort and making forward movement more efficient.
Planks done “around” the trunk tone the core musculature. While experts disagree on the length of time these exercises should be held, 2-3 sets of 15 seconds each several times a week will condition the area and help mitigate most problems. We are talking about a minute’s worth of work 3-4x per week.
A dynamic warm-up is a series of simple, seemingly effortless actions that gently move the muscles and the joints of the running action through proscribed ranges of motion that prepare the body for the greater stresses to come in a workout. Arm and leg swings, gentle circular motions at the hips combined with easy jogging helps to “warm-up” the engine, get the blood flowing to various body parts and lessens the shock of more forceful actions to come. Ideally this time should be 10-15 minutes’ worth of “easy” work, but studies have shown that as little as five minutes of activity can be beneficial.
Balance and proprioception are two concepts frequently mentioned together and although similar are not synonymous. Balance can be defined as the ability to hold a posture with the eyes open. Proprioception, on the other hand, is the ability to hold the same posture with the eyes closed. Proprioception relies on one’s “muscle sense” or the ability of the muscles to figure out where and what one is doing in the absence of sight. Between the two, proprioception is the more poorly developed. This is not to say that balance, for most, is a highly developed sense. The ability to stand on one leg longer than 15 seconds would be a challenge for many.
Why is balance so important? In my world, balance is the most important biomotor skill (speed, strength, endurance, flexibility and the ABC’s of agility, balance, coordination and skill). The expression of the biomotor skills is what makes an athlete athletic. But why balance? Because without balance, one cannot express any of the other biomotor skills. It is a skill taken for granted until it begins to disappear, and one enters the spiral towards death.
Drills that enhance balance and proprioceptive abilities include standing on one leg, use of a balance board or Bosu ball and the foot drills. Done faithfully, improved balance will lessen nuisance injuries, improve posture, focus force production and aid performance.
Eccentric resistance training is a missing training component for most athletes. With resistance work a muscle goes through three phases, the concentric, isometric and eccentric. This applies to all muscular movements, but is easier to visualize with a lifting example. In the bicep curl the weight is lifted towards the shoulder during the concentric phase. The moment where the movement stops and is held stationary is the isometric phase. As the weight is lowered back to the original position, this is the eccentric phase. Eccentric motion happens during the lengthening phase while the muscle is under tension.
In America we place great emphasis on the concentric phase with little to no attention paid to the isometric or eccentric phases. The momentary hold of the isometric phase improves joint stability and subsequent elasticity which in turn aids expression of the stretch reflex. It is during the eccentric, lengthening phase that muscle pulls typically happen. The reason? Very little to no time and attention is paid to this movement phase. Therefore, eccentric muscle movements are underdeveloped, uncoordinated and more susceptible to injury.
The simple solution is to develop this phase by doing “negative” resistance training where one slowly moves through one’s full range of motion (concentric to isometric to eccentric) slowly. The old Nautilus lifting model is a useful guide. The Nautilus method called for two seconds of concentric movement, one second of isometric hold and four seconds of eccentric movement.
The foot drills – I feel safe saying if one were to admire a male or female bodybuilder very few would be drawn to observing the feet. I’m sure there are some, but there is no point going there. The foot, for a runner, is one of the critical links in the ground support system of the closed kinetic chain of the leg. Yet it is a safe bet no one is doing sets and reps to strengthen, stabilize or gain hypertrophy of the muscles of the foot.
While foot strength, particularly plantar flexion (pushing the foot down like when using a car gas pedal) is important, I would contend that balance and proprioception are more important. That judgment is based on the fact that there are several multi-axial joints at the foot and ankle. One’s ability to stabilize these joints, in a desired sequence and position, prior to creating force greatly determine the angle in which force is provided and ultimately how productive that force is in terms of forward propulsion.
The six foot drills (YouTube – The 6 Foot Drills, 2:52) address the various balance and proprioceptive planes of motion the foot can go through and have a secondary benefit of creating strength in these exaggerated foot positions. Practice time required is about 3-4 minutes, start to finish. The drills should be done daily in bare or stocking feet.
Sports psychology is the development of the mind. There is a line in the Bible that goes – we walk by faith, not by sight. If that’s true, it could be said that we also run by faith; but what is faith? Faith is an unquestioning belief that our actions (in this case consistent training) will produce a desired benefit. Faith is intangible, immediately unprovable but also invisible.
Sports psychology then becomes a collection of values, thoughts, behaviors and beliefs that are intangible and invisible but direct decisions and actions that ideally produce desirable results. Therefore, adoption of such personal qualities as punctuality, organization, decisiveness, perseverance, integrity, dedication, sacrifice and faith become invisible personal qualities or character traits that are, coincidentally, the common denominators of most successful people.
While one might buy a book or CD series, platforms such as YouTube can also offer inspirational and motivational speakers who can offer direction.
The final area is diet and nutrition. There is much to say here and much of it has been said before. Fresh fruits and vegetables, water based foods, minimal red meats and animal fats, daily supplements, avoidance of refined, fried or heavily processed foods and drinking plenty of water are all recommendations that have been championed for ages. One cannot build a superstructure without the benefit of high quality foods that fuel and nourish the body in both the long and short terms. Conversely, a lifetime of poor decisions is what sparks the wonder of one’s 25th year high school reunion (“What the heck happened to…”).
What is the cost of all this “invisible training”? As with any change it is a valid question. Is the time, effort and money worth it? Planks and sit-ups are free, the foot drills are free, and a dynamic warm-up is free. The development of one’s personal qualities requires a shift in thinking patterns and is also free. Changing one’s diet may engender an expense, depending on where one starts. The elimination of one fast food meal per week should cover that difference.
The real cost with all these invisible changes is to one’s time. That being said, we’re not talking about dramatically increasing one’s daily or weekly training time. Rather the recommendations are for shifting focus and training activities for as little as 15 minutes a day. Is it worth it? That depends on one’s reason to run. If running is simply 30-40 minutes of “me time” where you can get away from the job, the kids or other responsibilities – jog on. But if one’s goal is achievement, personal development or pursuing one’s potential with determination and drive these simple changes can have a profound effect, even a visible effect on a season and a career.
Russ Ebbets, DC is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the sequel Time and Chance. His most recent book, A Runner’s Guide, a collection of training tips and running articles was a 2019 Track and Field Writers of America Book of the Year finalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.