Specificity in Training
One of my favourite pastimes is to put my feet up for the afternoon and watch cricket, I also enjoyed playing it when I was younger. As an Englishman, I follow the England cricket team. Every now and then, I'll see a YouTube video of some of the players training in the gym, and I ask myself a few questions; a) Is this really helping?, and b) Could this actually be making their performance worse?, and c) Could it be increasing their risk of injury?
These are important questions to ask because there is scant evidence for any of these exercises improving performance or preventing injury (here we go again). The first England cricketer shown in this video is fast bowler Mark Wood, and anyone that knows their cricket will know that he usually can't get through two test matches in a row without getting injured, so I am going to question the efficacy of his weight training regime.
Is this fair though? It could be that he is just one of those guys who is vulnerable to getting injured and bowling fast is strenuous stuff. However, when you think about it, what is the point of lifting 60Kg vertically when your stock in trade is bowling a 163 gram ball forwards/horizontally? There are other aspects to cricket, like sprinting, throwing and swinging a bat, but does lifting heavy weights in the style in the video above directly upwards help that either? It makes no sense to me whatsoever.
I have a personal illustration of this also; a few years ago I rode my heavily loaded touring bicycle from Darwin to Melbourne, about 4200Km. I averaged about 155Km a day (nearly 100 miles) for 28 straight days. You'd think that after such a feat of endurance I'd be as fit as a fiddle when I got back, yet even after a week's rest I felt extremely heavy-legged, especially while running. As someone who a couple of months before ran a 78Km ultramarathon, I could barely manage 20 minutes, and I think I have never felt worse on a run. But why though? Surely all that cycling counted for something?
The fact is that cycling bears little or no resemblance biomechanically to running, and in my experience, to perform better at any discipline you need to exercise very specifically. If you aren't going through similar kinds of movements, you're not going to get better, and it is my opinion that you'll likely be worse-off.
I have learnt this lesson slowly in my time doing different sports. In my early twenties, I played squash at a decent standard and I played and trained regularly with my best mate Pete as we were of similar standard. Sometimes I'd get the better of him, but I acknowledge begrudgingly that he came out on top more often than not, despite the fact he hardly stepped foot in the gym. What irked me almost as much as losing was that after a hard game, I'd be the one in worse physical condition. Now maybe he just moved better, had better technique, and made me do more work, and sure this was probably likely, but I did hours more training. Why was I more fatigued?
It has taken a while to realise, but it is likely that I was less efficient around the court for a reason, and part of that reason could well have been down to the training I was doing. Did it resemble playing squash, I ask myself now, and the answer is that it really didn't.
How Should we be Training Then?
This is the million dollar question. With purely athletic exercises, like running, throwing, and jumping - the traditional athletic events - then the integrated training system that I would promote on this website is the optimal way of training. Having correct posture, training your gait, and practicing rotational and horizontal force vectors will directly improve these core human movements.
But what about sports like squash? We haven't evolved to play squash, so would training our bodies to optimize our evolutionary biomechanics be the best way to train a professional squash player?
Perhaps many of you don't know much about squash, but it is a highly athletic sport and the pros are extremely flexible, often doing the splits to retrieve balls. The positions they get into don't do them much good in the long-term, though, and I have many friends who were pro squash players that have had hip replacements.
There is no doubt in my mind that once a pro squash player has retired, gait and posture training would be tremendously beneficial. During their career, however, it is not so clear that all of the principles of this kind of training would help improve their performance. As a part of a pro squash player's training, I believe it would play a significant role in injury prevention, but there may be some principles that need to be ignored.
Traditional stretching is one practice that I am not a fan of. Humans have optimal length tension relationships between muscle groups, so if you stretch in isolation, this will upset your coordination in movement and potentially reduce elasticity (remember that elasticity doesn't only include flexibility, but the ability to spring-back). Gymnasts and ballerinas, for example, don't last long in their careers and they are probably the most flexible of athletes. They need the flexibility for their discipline, however, just like squash players, so I have to admit to not knowing the correct balance to find in these specific cases. How much should you train evolved biomechanics and how much should you train specific movement ability to be a ballerina, a gymnast, or a squash player? Like I've stated already, though, after retirement these professionals need to train their gait and posture to avoid injury later in life.
Back to cricket for a moment, because it has some different aspects to squash. I would argue that cricket's main physical movements are more closely related to human evolved biomechanics; running, throwing, and swinging a bat come to mind. In cricket, although a physically demanding sport, professionals do not have to be the kind of physical specimens you have to be to become a pro squash player, so the extremes of fitness training are not required. You only have to look back at some of the greatest cricketers and you won't see great athletes, but more highly skilled athletes.
With this in mind then, I think training posture and gait in keeping with evolved human biomechanics would greatly help cricketers and prolong their careers, especially bowlers. James Anderson, England's record-breaking fast bowler, is starting to be prone to injury and if he wants to continue playing, I believe this kind of training is the only way he is going to do it for very long. The years take their toll, and I would be super-interested in assessing his gait and posture to see what a long career in test cricket has done to his body.
There is Only One Way to Prevent Injury
There are a whole variety of ways to train for different activities, and you'll find that if you try them - as I have - they don't cross-over very well. To improve performance in any physical discipline, you need to be specific. However, to prevent injury - both while you're young and when you have retired from sport - there is only one way, to improve your gait and posture and therefore your biomechanical efficiency.
There is no other way, and the logic behind it is simple; you have a body engineered by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years of evolution. It is designed to move in a certain way; to be as efficient with energy and as soft on your joints as it possibly can, because if it wasn't, you wouldn't be here today. If you pull a hamstring running for a bus, it's painful and you have to go to the physio, but if you pull a hamstring running from a predator, you're dead. If you use up too much energy in your every day movements, you just buy more at the supermarket in today's world, if you do it when food is scarce, you starve. Having an efficient body was a matter of life and death for most of the history of our species, and because of this we sculpted a body that didn't let us down when times got tough. Hopefully, we'll never return to those times, but we need to exercise our bodies as if we were in those times to get back our physical robustness and prevent injury.
At the time of writing, much of the world is in lockdown because of the coronavirus. Supermarket shelves look empty, and fears of a dystopian future of societal collapse are popping-up in people's minds. So ask yourself this question; if the food supply ran out and you had to go foraging and hunting for food tomorrow, how long would your body stand-up? I'm not for one minute suggesting this is actually going to happen, but if your answer is, "not long", it is likely that even in a strong and stable world, you'll be in chronic pain for most of the rest of your life, and at least won't be able to enjoy the activities you love doing. Start learning to hold yourself properly and move like you have evolved to. Once you start moving better with less pain, you'll wonder how you lived life any other way.