Is there really a difference between “injury-prevention” and “training specificity”?

A lot of us are familiar with sports specificity: you tailor your training to achieve greater performance in individual sports. Some of us go as far as being “event-specific.” We train trails for trail running events. We practice running the inclines and hill lengths we’re likely to encounter during the event.

But I think that we can take the concept of training specificity a lot further: particularly as it pertains to the realm of injury prevention.

What does an injury mean from the perspective of athletic competency? It means that there was some stress, supposedly germane to the sport, that the body simply could not tolerate. Presumably, this is a stress that the body can (and should) adapt to.

I’m not talking about obscene stresses such as the micro-concussions that have been shown to cause brain damage in football players. I’m talking about simpler things: dehydration and hypoglycemia after a marathon, shin splints, etc.

Let’s take shin splints, for example. Shin splints are reputed to occur due to the repetitive stress associated with running. Shin splints—and the subsequent stress fracture—cause people to lose training time and training quality, increase the overall stress of training, etc.

My point is this: an inability to cope with a particular stress (resulting in an injury) is a bottleneck to development.

If an injury prevents a runner from improving, or puts their athletic future at risk (and it does), then injury-prevention should be at the very top of the priority list. Put another way, injury-prevention is the ultimate sports-specific training: it means training the body not just to get better at the sport, but to train the body to handle the basic stresses associated with the sport.

This is a difficult proposition for many people: it is different on a case-by-case basis. The same symptom (shin splints) can have a multitude of causes. When the issue is the amount of stress, increasing lower-leg strength by itself can solve the problem. But others may need to fix an imbalance between the front and back muscles of the lower leg, for example. Others yet may be erroneously unburdening the big calf muscles by giving the job of knee flexion entirely to the hamstrings.

Failure to address any of these issues can dramatically reduce the training response: tighter muscles and less mobility means less neuromuscular feedback. But a higher heart rate is necessary to drive stiff (and weak) muscles. This means more stress. And because some muscles are stiff, the body geometry is disadvantageous: it isn’t going to align itself (or remain aligned) with the primary vectors of force.

Fixing any of these issues will allow the body to learn from and adapt to the sport. Ultimately, I believe that the runner who “paradoxically” spends time correcting muscle imbalances or strategically strengthening bone, muscle, tendon, and connective tissue—and running less miles because of it—will need to run far fewer miles to observe the benefits of training.

We need to make the choice to not merely roll out our tight quads or hip adductors after the fact. I think we need to address the underlying cause of that tightness (a process which may or may not include myofascial release). And I think that we need to put this within the larger context of our training and racing: in no way does injury prevention or rehab constitute “taking time off” from training.

Preventing injuries and doing the rehab is a much better—and more honest— example of “training the body” than going out and slogging miles that are just going to put us back on the table. In every way that matters, we’re doing the training that our body needs, right now.  Tomorrow, we’ll be able to go out and do the training we want, and achieve the effects that we want.

And how much happier, faster, and healthier would we end up if we can trick ourselves into wanting to do the training our body needs?

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