I'm very lucky to live near a place called "Slings" which I have mentioned on my blog several times before. There are lots of new fangled places that offer the latest gimmicks to get you off the couch and into shape, but this just makes it harder still to separate the wheat from the chaff: Slings is definitely not chaff. Lately a lot of things have lead me to the same place: it's where I buy my Vibram Five Fingers (including the ones I have on order for my 9 year old son); it's where I have been treated for my back pain by an excellent osteopath and it's the only place I have found (other than Amazon) which stocks those foam rollers which I find excellent for said back pain. They even stock Vivobarefoot shoes!
I was just chatting to a work colleague the other day (one of the very few people I know who runs in minimalist footwear) and he happened to mention the Functional Movement System. With a name like that I was naturally sceptical, but coming from him and bearing in mind that that Timothy Ferriss dedicated a whole chapter to it in his life-hack book "The 4-Hour Body", I was curious to say the least. When it turned out that his search for a qualified FMS professional had also lead him to Slings, I decided to make an appointment to find out more.
I met with Juan Nieto, who spent an hour and a half subjecting me to unintentionally humiliating and surprisingly demanding tests of balance and agility. In spite of the Under Armour Spiderman t-shirt I was wearing, agile I was not. At least I did OK on the treadmill: Juan said that, had it not been for my good running technique, I had scored so low on his test that he would normally not have recommended that I should run! One of the principal conclusions was that a lack of pelvic stability was causing my lumbar muscles to compensate, thus leading to the lower back pain I had been experiencing lately. It might have been a slightly guided diagnosis, but it made sense. He also noted a lack of flexibility in my ankles, meaning that I ran much more on my toes, "like a sprinter". On this point I wasn't 100% convinced that I should let my heel land with anything more than the fleeting "kiss" it currently plants on the ground, but he was certainly right about my landing slightly ahead of my center of gravity and my relative slowness in extracting my foot from the ground which are probably all related. He even noticed the slight assymetry with which I lift my left leg (well) and my right leg (not so well). In spite of this, he also spotted that my toes are quite rigid (partly due to a bunion) - something perhaps unusual for a "barefoot runner". He prescribed me a very detailed set of exercises that I should do which were, again, surprisingly demanding. For example, one thing is to do a "plank" just any old how; another is to do it with a pole on your back to which you must keep perfect alignment. It made me realise that even when I was doing exercises such as the plank to supposedly improve my stability, the small deviations from the ideal position were due to other muscles compensating and this is bad: you end up reinforcing the compensation itself rather than training the weakness you are trying to address in the first place.
I have since been on the FMS website and tried to find the exercises Juan prescribed me. It's clear that they were so tailor made to my particular ability (or inability, as the case may be) because I was unable to find the exact versions, that it only served to increase my faith in the benefit of doing those exercises. The good thing is that they can be done more or less with things you find around the house.
From what I managed to glean reading the first few chapters of the founder Gray Cook's book, the system aims to be as holistic as possible, refraining from dissecting "movement" into component "motions" where possible but, instead, establishing a set of 7 standard tests to guide the practitioner towards a set of corrective exercises for the most important short falls. Having an objective metric is essential to be able to monitor progress (and maintain faith in the method, necessary if you are going to make the requisite investment in time as well as financially). However, Gray emphasises the point that the metric should not be the focus in itself, rather that it should indicate where the focus should be applied. The tests have been designed in such a way that failure to complete them adequately correlates with increased injury rates in sports according to research. So the system purports to be a way for active people to pre-empt injuries. We will see! I have - touch wood - been injury free for several years but, as Juan said, I am still young and I cannot expect to be able to maintain the intensity at which I am currently training into my old age, unless I make sure that I am not "compensating". It is clear that my back pain is an early warning system.
Immediately after the session, I went off to the gym at work where I knocked off 5 sets of 3 minutes at 3:10 (19 kph). I have never managed to do this before and it was "easy". It's true that it was off peak, so the gym was much cooler than normal - also I think my Spiderman t-shirt may have some cooling effect after all - but I also think that the exercises I had done with Juan had directly helped by reminding my body of the role of my hips in running. I have written before about a similar experience I had when I did the Pose Clinic in Odense (Denmark) a few years ago. We were filmed running before and after a drill which was essentially a "plank" with a partner pressing down on our glutes (read: bum) to add resistance. I noticed nothing while running but the difference was clear to see on the video frame by frame: all of us without exception spent less time on the ground and more in the air in the second video. Dr Romanov, the inventor of the Pose Method, is big on exercises to increase hip strength.
I was a little reluctant to add another method / system / technique to my existing pile, with all the possible conflicts and confusions that this could cause, but FMS made a lot of sense to me and slotted in quite nicely alongside the others. I was half expecting to be told that I should stretch in order to increase my flexibility, but this could not have ben further from the FMS philosophy!