Shifting the burden, recovery techniques, and systems thinking.

The mainstream of sports therapy and recovery is catching on to the idea that a lot of the most common techniques are actually shifting the burden systems.

Shifting the burden systems are systems that get created when there is a problem that has certain symptoms. Because it’s often easier or simpler to mitigate the symptoms than to address the fundamental solution that takes care of the problem, the symptoms get mitigated while the problem continues to grow (and becomes harder and harder to solve).

Icing, stretching, and using foam rollers are three great examples of shifting the burden systems. While icing can help reduce swelling, it often damages the surrounding tissue, causing even longer delays in recovery. Stretching, while helping muscle soreness, causes muscles and tendons to become elongated, breaking the patterns of structural tension in the body. Using foam rollers, as a recent article suggests, mitigates the pain caused by muscle imbalances (which allows the imbalance to grow until it becomes debilitating).

In other words, all of these systems share the same characteristics: they create “quick-fixes” that seem to solve the problem, while actually the problem continues to grow.

Systems thinking lets us take these three examples and find the underlying similarity between them. When a therapy, recovery, or growth solution seems to work extremely quickly, it is important to lead with the following question: “Am I looking at a shifting the burden system?” Most often, when something works extremely quickly, it is just the symptoms that are being resolved. The hidden problem keeps growing and growing, until damage to the system—the inevitable sports injury—“comes out of nowhere.”

As athletes, we all have to keep a lookout for shifting the burden systems. Did we get too tired, and shift the burden of pushing off from our gluteus maximus to our gastrocnemius and soleus (in our calves)? Did we get injured in our non-dominant leg abductors, and shift the burden of supporting the body to our dominant leg adductors?

These are all examples of compensation patterns. While they may work in the short-term, but ultimately hinder our ability to develop and perform athletically.

Furthermore, it’s important for us athletes to realize that once we have defined what a shifting the burden system is, we don’t have to study every new therapy, recovery, and exercise technique and impartially judging its merits.

For example, a recent article initially referenced by the Gait Guys suggested that a possible treatment for hip pain/reduced hip mobility would be to coach patients into pushing off with their gastrocnemius (calf) muscle. Thanks to systems thinking, we don’t need to look further than this short mention to know that this is a shifting the burden system. The main drivers of the body’s athletic expression are the hip muscles and the thigh muscles. They are the ones that should be pushing off, period (as the Gait Guys sensibly mention). Shifting the burden of pushoff from the hip muscles to the calf muscles will address the symptoms (hip pain) while reducing the need for the hip muscles to remain strong. The hip muscles will weaken over time, and their suceptibility for injury will increase. Classic shifting the burden system.

This is what systems thinking lets us do: extrapolate cleanly and freely from one system to the next. What works in one economy will work similarly in another, because they are the same kind of system. When we restrict the body’s inputs (by dieting), the body will respond like any other economy: it will shrink, beginning by cutting back on infrastructure. Just like economies respond to a policy of austerity by cutting back on public infrastructure, education, and health, the body starts cannibalizing bone and muscle, and starts winding down the functioning of non-essential organs.

Restricting inputs of energy (food, resources, money) does the same to every economy, no matter what economy you’re talking about.

We athletes should become well-versed in systems thinking, to develop a deeper and more intuitive understanding of the forces that shape our athletic expression, and athletic development.

The underlying similarities between seemingly different things should become obvious to us. Rather, it behooves us to look beyond superficial differences in everyday things to understand the underlying patterns and the systems beneath those patterns. That’s what this blog is for.

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