Encouraging Health and Happiness

Train to be a better athlete

To get slick in all ranges of motion, you need a different method of training; one based on equality.

By Wina Sturgeon

Every athlete knows that to beat the competition, you need more than just the physical knowledge of the sport you compete in. Even if you don’t compete in an organized event, there are always those little undeclared races where you want to pull ahead of someone on a bike or run faster than some stranger toiling up a hill.

While regular time on a treadmill or with weights may give you physical prowess, it doesn’t give you the functional speed and coordination a good athlete requires. To get slick in all ranges of motion, you need a different method of training; one based on equality.

For example, cyclocross is basically a bike race with obstacles. There are rocks and barriers over which competitors must lift and carry their bikes; a feat that requires a type of plyometic strength in the legs. But wise cyclocross athletes make sure they train by practicing carrying the bike on both sides; so that their body is balanced and capable on both sides. That way, the muscles most used during a bike carry — traps, lats, biceps, glutes, spinal erectors and quads, are equally developed. If the bike is always carried on the same side when it needs to be lifted off the ground, only the muscles on that side of the body will adapt to the task; the muscles on the other side will be weaker.

The same with running. You may always start off with the same foot and stutter-step to change to that foot when encountering slippery or difficult terrain. If one leg is noticeably more dominant than the other, you’ve probably created a muscle imbalance. But to test yourself, use a tape measure to measure your thigh at the top, middle and just above the knee. Is one leg bigger than the other, more muscular? If so, you must consciously work on training the other leg to match it in strength and coordination.

The same with sports that require ball handling. If most of your effort in basketball is dominated by the same arm, the core muscles on the other side of your body will be weaker and less flexible. You may not feel the need to practice getting the ball to the net with more effort from your less customary side, but if, during every basketball practice session, you practice shots and passes using your non-dominant arm, you’ll do a lot to equalize the strength and coordination of both sides. And, in a pinch, you’ll be able to use the weaker arm with enough force to get the ball away from an efficient defense.

It’s also important to train in ranges of motion outside your normal sports conditioning routine. One of the ranges of motion (ROM) that often give athletes difficulty is moving the body laterally, or sideways. A good exercise to use for practice is the grapevine, a kind of sideways run, where one foot crosses in front of the other, then in back. Then the grapevine is reversed, with the other foot used to cross in front and in back. This exercise, used mostly as a football drill, is good agility training. But to make lateral training more useful, incorporate a bit of plyometrics into the work. Stairs are great for this. Use a short flight of stairs, 12 to 13 steps. Hop up the stairs sideways, first facing in one direction, then the other. This makes certain muscles stronger and more “snappy,” so that when you need to make a sideways move, you can do it as forcefully as a move forward or backward.

Again using stairs, learn more about using the mass of your body. Put one foot up two or even three stairs. Then, without using your hands, push the mass of your upper body over the upper leg forcefully enough to be able to put all your weight on it and lift the back leg up to that stair. Do this exercise practicing first with one leg in front, then the other. This helps you instinctively learn your balance when maneuvering the considerable mass of your upper body. It more or less burns this instinctive knowledge into your muscle memory, occasionally allowing you to pull off a surprising move that puts you on the podium.

Training outside the box of your regular sporting moves will make you a better overall athlete no matter what sport you play.

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