I have been taking a thoughtful look back at my athletic journey, from the day I first lifted a hurling stick as a youngster to the injury mire of recent years. Not-traumatic
injuries don’t occur for no reason, so somewhere along the way my physical development was clearly hampered by some inefficient inputs to the system. Tracking back over the years to see what I could have done differently may selfishly help guide me going forward, but might also save others from making similarly perilous decisions themselves.
The previous post focused on the need to supplement your sport with lots of fun and varied movement, and the injury-laden consequences of combining a sedentary lifestyle with participation in high-intensity sports. As you become older and take your sport more seriously, naturally the more committed you are to improving, training harder and for longer. Paradoxically, in my case, that probably expedited my dates with the surgeon as I built strength on top of dysfunction.
This brings me to those years between 17 and 23 where I trained the hardest and ploughed on through pain signals that were trying to tell me something, until I finally surpassed the body’s breaking point. If I could turn back the clock, here are some things I would do differently.
Body before Barbell
I began to get stuck into weights when I went to College, and was lucky enough to have excellent guidance in the UL Arena. My goal was to improve my hurling by getting strong, and get rid of the crippling low chronic low back pain that had been a constant for years. The first program I was prescribed was a daily dose of Chin-Ups and Step-Ups. Simplicity that would bring a tear to Dan John’s eye. And from there it was the usual menu of squats, deadlift, bench press, rows, cleans and snatches, and core. It’s easy to fall into the trap of going to the gym every day and thinking you are doing the right thing to become a better athlete. It’s nice, there’s a roof over your head, there’s music playing (usually 90’s Top Hits), and even at your heaviest, pushing a weight off your chest or standing up with a barbell in your hands, well it’s relatively comfortable and you can make rapid gains. No doubt that getting bigger and stronger will make people better hurlers and better athletes, but there has to be more to it than that.
I was perplexed for years that when hurling with the College or Na Piarsaigh, while I was contentedly muscularly developed and often stronger looking than the opposition, I’d still sometimes find myself pushed off the ball by a scrawny-looking lad who never set foot inside a gym. I often looked on with incredulity as Limerick’s Ollie Moran would come into the gym and do a few sets of curls and sit-ups and head out again, only to watch him throw people around the place in Thurles that weekend. They had something else, what I’ve since seen desrbied as field strength or farmer strength. It’s not mentioned in Baechle and Earle’s Essential’s of Strength Training and Conditioning, but it is real.
My training was lacking this transfer of Gym strength to Hurling-specific strength. The strength needed in half a second to make your opponent stick to your body as he tries to pass, or to hold your marker off as you leaped for a contested high-ball. Dumbbell and barbell training limited me to increased strength within these narrow confinements. I was so content making the easy gains with chin-ups and the powerlifting moves that I neglected the real essential ingredients; balance and co-ordination, raw grip-strength, controlling motion in all three planes, reactive agility. I could barely stand on one leg for ten seconds yet wondered why I was so easily pushed off the ball on the field.
The development and expression of this absolute body control and self-dominance is becoming ever more popular. Ido Portal, MoveNat, Functional Range Conditioning, Gymnastics Bodies, Exuberant Animal and many other training methods emphasise mobility and movement rather than muscle building alone. We all knew that we had to be able to do push-ups before bench pressing, but turns out there are many steps in between that we left out.
Not only are you holding back improvements in sports performance by marrying yourself to weights, but it is likely that you are increasing your susceptibility to injuries. But hold on a second. Every strength and conditioning coach the world over tells us that strength training is the key to injury reduction. It can be of course, or it can lead to more injuries depending one’s definition of strength training and focus of one’s efforts.
As Dr Andreo Spina says; it’s all well and good to train with perfect form in the gym, but you’ll be sorry you didn’t improve your tissue’s load absorbing capacity in the direction you got injured in. What happens if we pivot during a sprint but haven’t trained rotation in the knee? Or if you roll your ankle without the mobility to safely invert or evert? We are told it is dangerous to flex your spine in the gym, but then you bend your back a hundred times during a hurling or football match. Dr Spina is talking about the need for strong ligaments and tendons as well as muscles, and the ability to express this in every possible direction. Turns out it is more dangerous to always train in neutral when we constantly live outside of it.
Coach Christopher Sommer of Gymnastic Bodies also elaborates on the importance of strengthening the body’s connective tissue to improve that person’s resiliency;
What we found is that the stronger the adult is, probably the more brittle and the least mobile they are, the more apt they are for injury… They don’t realize that there’s specific physical structures that have to be adapted as well to support their training…They’re unaware that the metabolic rate of tendons and connective tissue is one tenth that of muscle tissue. So they’ll go and start climbing the rope and their muscle will be fine but they’ve overloaded their joints…It’s not a question of if you’re going to get hurt, it’s simply a matter of when. It’s inevitable. (Paleo Solutions Podcast, Episode 213).
If I could turn back the clock to the beginning of my gym training days, I would encourage my ego not to worry about the shiny dumbbells so much until I had mastered my own body. I’d make sure I could walk across a balance beam without falling off it before worrying about how much I could Bulgarian split squat. And I would work more on building useful strength rather than just the strength to lift nicely-shaped iron rods.
The third and final installment of this retrospective look at my physical development will consider the effects of diet on physical capacities.
Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.