As I woke up this morning, I felt like my legs were made of lead and my back like an iron rod. I get cleaned up and then get ready for my day. I drag down my giant 4lb sack of MuscleMilk Gainer protein powder down from the shelf and begin to mix it up in a patented plastic bottle that I got roped into buying off Amazon out of sheer convenience of “nutrition.”
“Everyday gains” is what the protein powder sack reads. But really? What is it I would be gaining? Strength? Power? Better beach body looks? Weight? When I was working in outpatient orthopedic-focused PT clinics, I’d see three basic types of people: sedentary, weekend warriors, and committed athletes. The sedentary folks may have chronic pain issues that prevented them from being active at all. Whether the chicken or the egg came first, it no longer really mattered because they were where they were and needed to pull through chronic pain to be healthier. Their basic fitness could be so low that everyday function was a struggle. Weekend warriors might’ve been passionate about their hobbies and athletic pursuits but were always struggling with the compromises of real life. Put in a few miles per day of running after working a desk job and then limping across the marathon finish line to discover aching, swollen knees for weeks afterwards. They might’ve been fit enough to sprint for the bus to avoid being late to work but the tough compromises in time from a sedentary job and an “active” lifestyle outside of work created a hard balance for their bodies to cope with. Lastly, the committed athletes occupied another realm of issues that sometimes arose from their efforts to always push the upper extremes of performance. Stress fractures, early onset of arthritis, torn or degenerated tendons from high-repetition / high-load activities for years and years comes to mind. Sure, not everybody in the clinic fit into these generic boxes nor did their medical diagnoses always follow these patterns, but they certainly did so frequently.
When I think of athletes trying to progress in their sport, I think of the difficulties that people have in general with keeping a balanced lifestyle and balanced body. Let’s say you go to the gym and lift weights with a steady pattern over several months. If you are following a good program, you should be gaining strength and maybe power depending on the workouts you are doing. At the end of those several months, you have gained strength and power but have you improved performance? Say you have noticed better performance in the sport of your choosing because your program was well-tailored to be translatable. Are you then less likely to be injured pushing the upper limits of performance in that sport? If you can’t say yes to that question confidently, I’d venture to say your training made you gain in certain areas of fitness but did not make you become more balanced. By gaining in one/several areas of fitness (e.g. strength or power) you may have declined in flexibility, speed, or coordination.
A well-known, local orthopedist named Scott Dye has a phrase he calls the “envelope of function.” Basically, every organ in your body has an upper limit in its operation where it can function normally without being injured. Exceed the envelope and you overload the organ, causing reactive problems. I like to expand that concept into a whole-person perspective: gradually expand your limits through smart and comprehensive training to create a buffer between the minimum required fitness needed to avoid injury and operate in optimal performance.
It’s my personal opinion that athletes who experience nagging pains during and after their pursuits while calling it “all part of the game/sport” are in a degree of denial or possibly simple ignorance. From working with hundreds of people over the years, I can safely say that there is typically a way to help resolve or address pain arising from sport, often with rather simple concepts and changes. Often times athletes with that singular-drive mentality and obsession with one element of the sport have a hard time expanding their minds to accept the possibility and value of being a well-rounded individual while also being highly specialized.
The bottom line is that when you think about “bettering” yourself through training and sport, I encourage you to work towards gains in multiple areas of fitness so that as your fitness improves, you remain a well-balanced individual. Focusing upon one area of fitness and foregoing other elements of good health will end up biting you later on down the road. Our bodies are good at compromising in the face of unbalanced change. Don’t let the illusion of gains fool you into thinking you are actually a healthier athlete.