I noticed something in my own training recently that I wanted to share, because it illustrates an interesting way that training can make you perform and feel better. One day last summer at the playground with my five year old, I was watching kids effortlessly land jumps off various structures. I decided that landing a jump is a very fundamental movement skill that I had neglected and could stand to improve.
The reason I had avoided this movement for a while is that it makes my knees a little tender and sore. Landing a jump requires absorbing a lot of force at the knee. My common experience is that a lot of aggressive changes of direction from either landing a jump or cutting in sports can make my knees feel a little stiff and sore. It's not a big deal, just enough to feel it a little when climbing stairs and training the day after.
So when I approached this movement I decided to be very careful, grade my exposure, and try brushing up on my skills in the absence of any major forces or stresses. To do that, I started with just dropping into a squat quickly as opposed to jumping.
I also changed my technique. I noticed that the kids at the playground usually land jumps with the trunk angled forward as opposed to vertical, which increases the work at the hip muscles, and brings the hands closer to the ground where they can absorb some of the force. All this takes pressure off the knees.
So on each landing, I made sure to slap the ground with my hands to absorb some force, even on the tiniest jumps where I didn't really need it. It felt a little floppy and uncontrolled, and I looked just like my one year old when she was falling forward onto her hands about 400 times per day while learning to walk.
But it worked. This removed a lot of pressure from the knees, and felt really good. I started increasing the height and intensity of the jumps, and within minutes I was comfortably landing jump from heights I hadn't jumped from in at least ten years. With no knee tenderness at all.
Within another few minutes I had completely forgotten about the idea of taking it easy and was jumping all over the place with foolish abandon, not paying any attention to my knees at all. At the end of the session, the dumb part of my brain thought I was immortal, and the uptight worrying part thought my knees would pay the price for a day or two.
Later that day, I noticed something interesting. As I was climbing stairs, I noticed that my knees felt better not worse. They felt stronger and springier. I decided to test them a little with some sporting cuts and they felt better there too. I actually felt younger and stronger. Why was that?
Here is my explanation.
Obviously not enough time had passed for the structure of the knee to have changed at all. Warming up is not really a good explanation either, because I do not get the same effect from warming the knees thoroughly by other means. In fact, all the work with the knee musculature should have made them weaker not stronger and maybe even a little inflamed.
Maybe I changed my motor control patterns at the knee, making it more efficient? Possible, but I'm not convinced. I do all sorts of coordination work at the knee and it is very beneficial, but has never resulted in this type of feeling.
I think what happened is that the training session didn't so much teach my brain new movement skills, but convinced it that certain movements were safe to do.
Pain (and weakness) at a joint results from the brain's opinion that the joint needs to be protected. There was something about my training session that convinced my brain that my knees were not as old as they thought they were, that they didn't need as much protection as they were currently getting. So it gave me a longer leash to play with. This is why each training session should always send a little good news to the brain about the state of the body.
What do you think? Have you ever experienced something similar? What kind of news is your exercise sending your brain?
Let me know in the comments.