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Why Use the Integrated Spring-Mass Model?: Understanding Limitations to Optimal Performance

In the last segment, I discussed the Integrated Spring-Mass Model that accurately depicts the body as a system of springs to absorb impact. The topic of this post is the limitations to someone’s optimal performance, mainly in an athletic event, and how the human spring plays an important part in it. This information also relates to normal movement or performance at a physically demanding job, and I will relate to that at the end. Coaches, trainers, and therapists for youth sports, college sports, or professional athletes, should understand each athlete has an optimal performance that can improve (or deteriorate) over time. Reaching that optimal performance is the goal of every athlete during a contest, race, etc. While some motivational speakers will have you believe that limits are a product of your imagination, Ralph Reiff, current athletic director at Butler University and previous director of St. Vincent Hospital’s Sports Performance, disagrees.

In his book “A Field Guide to Athletic Performance: The 24-Hour Athlete”, Reiff outlines his thoughts on the important aspects of building an athlete, of which chapter 3 outlines the limitations to optimal performance. These limitations range from the logical major stuff – training design, health, diet – to trivial events, such as a girlfriend/boyfriend not liking the athlete’s post on Facebook or stressing out over an upcoming test. Of all these limitations, coaches should focus on the ones they can manage. These include:

  • Health/Wellness

  • Genetics (mainly the response to training loads) and age

  • Training (optimized workloads, taper)

  • Ancillary components: Experience, strategy, mental preparations, nutrition, skill development.

The biggest challenges that Ralph Outlines involve monitoring training and outside influences:

1. Training Monitoring

  • How do we quantify training load? Volume is easy, intensity is hard to quantify.

  • How do we separate aerobic conditioning from strength from skill in terms of quantification?

  • Can we quantify recovery?

2. Influence of Outside Factors that Affect Optimized Training and Preparation

  • Sports at the highest level is entertainment. Money clouds things.

Understanding what can and cannot be controlled is the first step in knowing how to proceed with a training process. Reiff’s advice is to identify controlled items early in development. These factors may vary by age level, and may include training methodology, selection of equipment, time of day of training, and intake of fluids and food; much of this will be discussed in later posts.

So, where does the human spring model play a role in optimal performance? You could say that if someone is sore or has a tight muscle you would know that they won’t achieve optimal performance. What I am talking about is deficiencies that aren’t felt or seen until something is too late. One example is flat feet; an athlete with flat feet that wears arch supports probably won’t feel much pain. However, a flat foot, or referred to sometimes as ‘adult flat foot deformity’ is often caused by a tear in the tibialis posterior tendon. That tear causes a drop in the arch and a loss of much of the athlete’s spring. As the arch sinks down, it can cause over-pronation in the ankle as well. I went to a running store back in 2017, and by putting a camera behind me while I ran on a treadmill, they saw I had over-pronation in my right foot. Their solution, however, was to give me shoes for pronating feet. My right leg felt better, but my left one sure didn’t! The problem with buying products for different feet problems is that they don’t fix the problem, they only delay the onset of pain from the breakdown of the spring.

Figure 11: Example of Adult Flat Foot Deformity

Another big reason to keep a healthy spring is to withstand impacts to the upper body. The spine is able to move and bend in so many different combinations, and the rib cage and muscles in the chest, abs, shoulders, and back also have some spring-like capabilities. However, spinal misalignment and tighter muscles in the shoulder, back, and chest can decrease the efficiency of the spring at the spine-chest floor, as well as the neck-shoulder-head floor. These need to be healthy for high-impact sports like football, lacrosse, hockey, and soccer. A healthy human spring can handle getting knocked down at a running speed, but someone whose spring is weak from tight muscles, inflammation, or improper back alignment won’t be able to withstand the demanding impacts of the game.

Outside of athletics, optimal performance can be one's ability to perform a physically demanding task at work or at home. The optimal performance of a senior citizen is normally lower because of the breakdown of the spring system over a long period of time, causing arthritis, back pain, and more. Most of us who were active in athletics when we were younger did not go on to do a lot in college, yet many of us are still active in a recreational manner. So whether your idea of optimal performance is being able to run 10 miles a week or just being able to climb stairs and walk without the fear of falling, unlocking and improving your spring system is the key to improving the limitations on your body's ability to move.

Hopefully you have kept up with me so far! Understanding what the limitations are to an athlete’s optimal performance are necessary to improve his/her abilities and keep him/her healthy. An injury will decrease optimal performance and increase the time it takes to raise the limitations on it. This information works across all stages in life, so keeping a healthy spring system when you're younger will allow you to move better when you're older as well. If you're just learning this for the first time, it's not too late to start getting your movement back. The spring capabilities of the human body depend on how we take care of ourselves, so the next segment will be about how to take care of the human spring.

For more information on the Ralph Reiff's notes on athletes, get his book “A Field Guide to Athletic Performance: The 24-Hour Athlete” here.

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