Do you ‘Walk like a Man’?

Not a gender-specific criticism – I promise!

I just love Frankie Valli songs and had to use one of his song titles for this blog! That he can still be out there doing his Farewell tour and perform at 84 years is already amazing – and when we add in his vocal range, it is an inspiration that shows how training & technique can keep you going for a long time.

But this blog is all about posture – the muscle memories that we learn from young in how we stand, walk and sit.

A little game to play

Here is a little game to play next time you are in a place lots of people are standing – whether in a bar or waiting for a bus and a train. Have look at how people are standing. Specifically, look at their legs and the back of their knees. Are their knees locked out backwards? My experience is that at least half of all people stand like this.

It is often called ‘sway back posture’. Standing with the knees locked back pushes the thighs and the hips forward, which in turn means that the pelvis is tilted forwards (posterior tilt). This means that the lower spine has to counteract this by flattening (which is actually increased flexion vs the natural curve) and then the shoulders are back, but the head has to balance – so it leans forward, sometimes leading to a rounding of the shoulders. In terms of the muscles, this is tight quads, psoas and up the spine, with underactive glutes & abs, and probably short and tight hamstrings. All of this from simply locking the knees back – a habit that was probably learned from the day that they started to stand & walk – and is now embedded into decades of muscle memory.

And extending this to walking

Now watching people walk, it is striking how many people walk with the legs leading the way. Almost like cartoons. Where their legs and lower body lead the way and then the body catches up (see Robert Crumb’s ‘Keep on Truckin’ image for an exaggerated view.) This movement is simply an extension of this quad-dominant posture. Watch a crowd walk across a road and see what a large proportion of people have this walking posture – with the hamstrings, glutes and abs taking a holiday whilst the quads and spine do all of the heavy lifting (literally). 

A walking posture that looks after the spine and the posterior chain feels a bit like the POSE running technique – as though you are almost falling forward each step, with your leg coming under you to catch your body just in time. And with it, the pelvis moves gently compared to the rest of the body every stride (like a bucket maintaining stability to ensure that its content does not leak out) and the rest of the muscles work around it. A clue that you are on the right track is that you can feel the abs activated with every stride. Plus you may feel that you are taking fewer steps, with a higher cadence (more per minute) – which can be a very efficient way to walk.

If you are really keen to understand it, get a friend to video you walking – watching you from sideways on. The camera never lies!

Things that you can do

Changing how you stand and walk every day accounts for a lot of hours, and can really make a difference. So here are a few tips that may help:

  • Correct how you are standing every time – and as well as breaking at the knee, move it around – move into a small split stance and move the weight around
  • Think about how you are walking all of the time
  • Give friends and family the permission and request to comment on your walking, so that you can all work on it together
  • Stand tall, and find some moments to stretch in the day
  • If you are sitting for long periods, make sure that you stand and walk at least once per hour (ideally a lot more than that!)
  • Always try to sleep stretched out, not curled up or with your legs bent up
  • Make sure that you keep your feet parallel (not turned out) with every step when you walk

For more detailed guidelines and support, check out Jonathan FitzGordon’s advice on https://corewalking.com/

Obviously – as the song title suggests – how you walk projects some of your personality. But making sure that it is functionally kind to your body should keep you out of pain for a lot longer.

Best of luck – walk tall 🙂

Masters athletes: looking after ourselves to avoid injuries

With half of the adults in the UK now over fifty, looking after ourselves and avoiding injury is something that is on the minds of a lot of athletes. And so many training harder for longer, and turning out new age-group records every year, there can be pressure for age group athletes to push ever harder, and potentially into injury.

I was struck by an interview with James Cracknell OBE last week, in preparation for rowing in the Cambridge Blue Boat for the Boat Race this year, aged 46. He claimed that he can still put out close to the power (in endurance terms) that he did in his 20’s when he rowed to Gold medals in both the Sydney and Athens Olympics, but that the recovery is completely different; he talked about nurturing every aspect of his body to make the start-line in a couple of weeks’ time. And of course James Cracknell is an inspiration in terms of injured athletes, having suffered a brain injury after being hit by a petrol tanker whilst cycling across the USA in 2010.

The realities of the body with age

Medical studies show that from our 30’s onwards, there are changes in the body (which we intuitively play into by moving into longer distances and more endurance events, rather than the short, explosive power of our younger years):

  • Muscle loss due to fewer, smaller and weaker muscle fibres
  • Greater rigidity and brittleness of tissues such as tendon and ligaments, reducing flexibility
  • Reduction in bone density
  • Slower release of synovial fluid in the joints
  • Reduced power due to fewer fast twitch muscles
  • Reduction of sensory inputs and responses for good balance
  • The long-term impact of posture and lifestyle factors

The good news is that exercise can hold back these declines

Weight-bearing exercise is excellent for bone strength, and also maintaining power and muscle strength.  There is also clear evidence that sports and interests that develop flexibility and balance can maintain these too – so things like yoga and tai chi can be low intensity things on your rest day that really benefit your body too.

The challenge is injuries get more frequent and recovery takes longer

The part that older age groupers will all tell you is that the battle to avoid injuries is more challenging and recovery takes longer. This just means that you need to listen to your body and give it what it needs.

Some simple ways to avoid injuries

Proven approaches that are worth building into your training plan are:

  1. Warm up for longer and do a good selection of drills that raise your heart-rate to the target zone, as well as mobilising your joints and activating the key muscles
  2. Have a longer and more gradually tapered cool down after aerobic exercise
  3. Follow a good stretching and muscle release schedule – daily if possible
  4. Focus on correct technique and good posture, ahead of the length of the session
  5. Make sure that you follow the goal of each session – and therefore have the right mix of lower intensity and higher intensity, not just always doing the same sessions at the same intensity
  6. Give yourself the right amount of recovery time, taking more if needed. Within this, uninterrupted overnight sleep is really important.
  7. Do resistance training as well as cardiovascular exercise. Use cross-training to reach your goals when you are concerned that you can get overuse injuries, and think about reducing impact and moving in multiple planes and with movements in multiple parts of the body.
  8. Keep working on flexibility and balance
  9. Keep your training plan adaptable, so that you can listen to your body
  10. Keep a training logbook that includes aches and pains, so that you can spot warning signs for injury early and act on them
  11. Take injuries seriously – don’t try and push your way through them. And give your body the rest and recovery that it needs
  12. Go for the health checks that you are offered – especially the checks on blood pressure and cardiovascular health

And of course, above all, enjoy your training and racing.

We only have one body for life, so it is worth taking good care of it as it matures