Biomechanics of the Outdoor Athlete by Trivik Verma

In the age of rapidly evolving outdoor sports, athletes deal with injuries while simultaneously growing faster, fitter and stronger. Their bodies are like fingerprints, a balance of its nature versus the nurture it receives. What dictates the course of their bodies - musculoskeletal injuries, diagnosis and learning?

Vibram USA – a barefoot running footwear company – was sued in early 2012 for asserting that their shoes reduce foot injuries and progressively strengthen foot muscles. A long debated topic of discussion – barefoot versus shod running – has gripped both scientists and athletes for decades. Yet, all practitioners of the sport regularly face befuddling injuries; some because of the nature of the sport itself, while others due to the lack of a proper form.

I was ignorant of this fact five years ago, when, while practicing a different sport altogether, I heard the sound of a muscle stretching irregularly as I jumped for a Dyno.

A Dyno – in climbing parlance – is a dynamic movement to leap across a blank section of rock to grab a hold that is otherwise out of reach. This looks simple with enough grace but masks a volley of internal forces, sometimes outrageous in magnitude.

The silence in Fontainbleau was overwhelming. Laying on a crash pad, in the epicenter of outdoor European bouldering, I reflected on the consecutive winters spent inside climbing gyms, training regularly for any outdoor adventures.

A rotator-cuff tear on the left shoulder of a climber after executing a dyno. Illustration: Naveed Hussain

A rotator-cuff tear on the left shoulder of a climber after executing a dyno. Illustration: Naveed Hussain

Once back in the Netherlands, I visited a doctor, who diagnosed me with an inflammation of the rotator-cuff. She advised me to train my shoulders for at least a month before I started climbing again. I inquired about the extent of the injury and wondered how it could have been avoidable.

First, let’s talk about Danny Way. Unless you are a skateboarding enthusiast, it is hard to put a face to that name. In 2005, he jumped off a ramp to clear a 19-meter (62.34 feet) gap at The Great Wall of China. This is no ordinary feat in itself but most of the world, at that moment, was oblivious to a tiny piece of detail. His steering foot was smashed and his knee had broken mechanics at play. In addition to living through this incomprehensible attempt, Way threw a 360 in mid-air. He then did it five times over. The amount of force a human body would experience standing on earth was quadrupled in Way’s case.

In comparison, a dyno demonstrates negligible force.

Every so often, in climbing gyms scattered around the globe, teenagers crawl through overhanging 7c (5.14 in US terminology) routes, exerting much more force on their bodies than a mere dyno would. Today, they have abundant resources, controlled environments, thoroughly robust exercise regimen and dogged food habits. Alternatively, I started climbing much later in life; when my body had already set up limitations on its abilities following a lifestyle that barely involved any stretching.

Raffael Walter attempting a boulder in Selma, Switzerland, through a rehabilitating left elbow. 

Raffael Walter attempting a boulder in Selma, Switzerland, through a rehabilitating left elbow. 

My recovery and subsequent physiotherapy after the episode in France made me realise the nature of my body. The truth, at least for most of us with a sedentary lifestyle (coupled with demanding athletic endeavours), is that our bodies are accustomed to being at rest. We spend, on average, a third of our lives sitting, a third sleeping, and maybe a minor fraction of the remaining third indulging in very demanding athletic activities. It is conceivable that such extreme forces may make us prone to injury on occasion.

Musculoskeletal injury is one of the primary hazards of industrialisation where normal body movements are occasionally compromised by regular lifting of weights. Dr. Kathryn Sophia Stok – a lecturer at the Biomechanics laboratory of ETH Zurich – asserted in one of her lectures, “Muscles are a core element of strength,” in an attempt to reiterate how important muscle forces are in the study of Orthopaedic Biomechanics.

Our muscles are made up of basic rod like units called myofibrils. It is the contraction of the myofibrils that generates the force a muscle produces. We can train our neural pathways for better contraction of muscles to exert more force. A child’s brain learns faster and adapts muscle contractions quicker to the task they are performing. Have you tried learning how to ski at the age of twenty-four? Kids aged four or five are much faster and more comfortable at learning this sport, or for that matter any exacting sport.

The same myofibrils allow professional climbers like Alex Honnold and Ashima Shiraishi to warm up on menacingly flat pieces of rock, habitually. Honnold is thirty years old. Shiraishi, as the The Guardian reported in March 2015, became the first female to climb a 9a+ route (5.15a in US climbing terminology). No female has ever achieved such a feat earlier. Shiraishi is only thirteen years old.

Let’s try a different perspective, one that doesn’t excuse the older generation. How is it that Dean Karnazes (aged 52) runs through the warmest conditions known to man and Will Gadd (47) climbs overhanging ice walls in sub-zero temperatures? Just in case our standards have already digested the potential of these outdoor athletes, Kilian Jornet is attempting to “run” up Everest in 2015.

These athletes neither have a different bone structure, nor are they dictated by special mechanics. So what explains this spectrum of physical variation? Our musculoskeletal system is like a fingerprint; everybody has one, yet each is a story of its own. The environment individuals grow up in, their eating habits, physical routines and medical histories are all factors that shape this story. It is the same set of bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles and cartilage, packed up in a personal experiment of nurturing.

Ironman Zurich, 2014. Athletes from around the world are training in cold open waters before the race. 

Ironman Zurich, 2014. Athletes from around the world are training in cold open waters before the race. 

Locomotion is one of the cardinal functions of our musculoskeletal system. Tissue component surrounding the tendons allows us to move our limbs with ease avoiding any excess stress on them. Tendons control the movement of muscles by connecting them to the bone. Whereas, ligaments keep the bones in place by connecting them at joints preventing unreasonable movement of our body parts. This intricate network of bones and surrounding tissue works in perfect synchrony.

A disruption of this locomotor system can turn a privilege like walking or holding a glass into the most arduous task, especially during old age. Reflect on a senior member around you who may be suffering from Osteoporosis. This condition results in weak bones that are more prone to injury. Osis – degeneration of tissue (collagen fibers in this case) – results in the bone and tendons around the bone to degrade in their tissue component. In contrast, itis – inflammation of a tissue – is the body’s response to an injury to muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage and bone itself. Sometimes, longer periods of wear and tear of our joints or tissues (leading to repeated inflammation) cause chronic damage and ultimately, degeneration.

Inflammation of muscles or tendons is common among climbers and runners. How many times have you landed wrongly on your strong foot while bouldering or running along the trails? Once an injury occurs, the first step to dealing with it is to form a diagnosis. The frequently occurring ones become common terms of use and are often used incorrectly. For instance, the difference between a strain and a sprain. Muscles and tendons can be strained upon stretching. Tearing or stretching of ligaments is called a sprain.

When we abruptly land on our foot and hear a snap, it is associated with a sprain. The ankle, along with a multitude of ligaments to support the joint, also has attachments to the tendons of the muscles of the leg. Hence, as non-practitioners of medicine, we do not have enough knowledge and experience to point out the difference. Doctors try to do their best to diagnose the problem. Its success depends on how accurately we dictate our medical histories. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, spotlight shifts to repair and rehabilitation, which depends on adequate treatment given in time with proper follow-up and patient compliance.

All the examples of extraordinary physical prowess (despite injuries) commence from a single point – Learning. Even if evolution is understood down to its very ingredients, we have to depend on our learning abilities. This learning process of our brain put simply, starts with imitation. As a child, we have seen our neighbours “jog” with bent vertebrae, landing on their heels. The runners among us start running like that trying to naturally correct their form. But sensory feedback in running is delayed (most often until after injuries) because we have worn “comfortable” shoes all our lives. In contrast, the Tarahumara people, a tribe settled in the high sierras of Northwestern Mexico, who run barefoot, have different biomechanics. As is clear from the text of Born to Run, a book written by Christopher McDougall, to this day they are faster and fitter than most ultramarathon runners in the world.

In this epoch of accessible climbing gyms, we learn to mimic all kinds of climbing habits. A larger gym-climbing population crimps on small holds with a closed hand grip, the thumb covering the fingers, acting as a lock to avoid any slipping. This is the fastest way leading to injured fingers. “The correct way of doing this, with open handgrips where the subjected force is the least, is often ignored as it takes months of patience to develop such a style of climbing,” Doctor Schweizer told me.

I was sitting in his office – bereft of any expectation– with a folder of my past diagnosis, and a taped finger. A different but old injury had restricted me from climbing regularly. After my blasé narrative, Dr. Schweizer asked me to remove the tape and prepare for an ultrasound, the first in a year of visiting doctors across three continents. A finger pulley injury – a tendon related injury often attributed to climbing – had left me with an awkward feeling in my hand. The ultrasound indicated that everything was intact. I didn’t believe him, skeptical of having countless unsatisfactory opinions and therapies. He smiled and said, "You shouldn't stop climbing." As a hand surgeon of Swiss origin, he has a rather unconventional manner of dealing with his patients. Perhaps because he is a climber himself.

Raffael Walter on a classic Jura pitch (5.10/6a) in the middle of a cold, foggy morning.

Raffael Walter on a classic Jura pitch (5.10/6a) in the middle of a cold, foggy morning.

Dr. Schweizer has been climbing for more than two decades, something I realised when he first shook my hand. He showed me the results of our radiology examination. I was surprised to notice that a layer of collagen fibers, maybe three times as thick as mine, had developed around his fingers. He correctly pointed out that I must have started climbing four years ago back then. These fibers take time to generate, and progressively add to the strength of our hands.

In later life, I am attending a lecture in orthopaedic biomechanics. After a series of injuries that I have tumbled through since France, the inevitable consequences of the sports I indulge in are now transparent. Mikhail Baryshnikov, cited as one of the greatest Ballet dancers in history, says, “The more injuries you get, the smarter you get.” A lot of people have never studied the mechanics of their bodies and still manage to avoid unnecessary injuries.

By sixteen, Honnold was doing one-finger pull-ups. Steph Davis, prior to discovering her passion at eighteen and becoming one of the strongest female climbers in the world, religiously played a piano while growing up. Dean Karnazes quit his corporate job at thirty to add more running hours to his life. Mandy-Rae Cruickshank has gone deeper than most across oceans around the world, without supplemental oxygen. Jeff Clark surfed the Mavericks alone for fifteen years until others discovered it.

These are mind boggling feats performed by individuals who have spent a better part of their lives perfecting the art of balancing mind and body, learning to demand just enough of themselves, which makes them achieve what seems impossible but have the wisdom to stop when damage outweighs performance with long lasting repercussions. Yet, there is one thing in common for all of these outdoor athletes. Injuries. No one escaped them.

This article was edited by a practicing medical doctor for any inconsistencies. 

(As published @ The Outdoor Journal)

Half-Marathon by Trivik Verma

The streets were empty. I remember running along a canal that did not seem to end until a bridge appeared. I crossed the bridge to the other side and ran back the same way I came. The city of Rotterdam was lit as usual, somewhere after midnight. I neither knew the time nor the distance.

I have been running since I was in high school, in between other sports life has thrown at me. The only way for me to stay in control of my own body is to let it move. In the early days of my childhood, an Indian self-proclaimed holy being - as I refer to them - told my mother that I would follow the course of a flowing river, untamable and free. I believe him and the only thing any godly personality would ever have to say about me. I believe him because it is the truth.

I run more than thirty kilometres a week. These unabated and unconditional units of distance come at a rather debilitating cost. I run because I don’t like people. I don’t like crowds gathered together to prove a point or to celebrate and compete. These kilometres come at a cost of social anarchy that revels in my being as I run to change everything this society stands for.

So it came as a surprise to me when I found myself on the starting line of the Lausanne Half-Marathon minutes away from the gun shot that would, as I were to find out, dramatically not change anything about my life. Ryuta, my Japanese friend, finished the marathon minutes before I was about to start mine. He urged me to come here and I signed up because well you know everyone runs. So what the hell.

Barefoot shoes, check. Heart rate monitor, check. GPS active, check. The first few kilometres were fun. I was striving to maintain my speed while not tripping over slow and coagulated hordes of runners one of whom just smoked a Marlboro light merely twenty minutes before the race began. Not to judge anyone but hey, when you run, don’t run with your tobacco deodorant in my face. Anyway, he was long gone as I sped up to 11.4 kilometres an hour.

There is a strange sense of abandonment in running. Your head clears out as if the momentum of the body is much faster than the brain and the thoughts don’t have enough time to catch up. Sometimes I get out-of-body glimpses of myself where I imagine my strides perfectly touching the ground one after the other.

Lausanne was stunning. It was a clear grey sky, thanks to the sun doing its magic over the lake. The clouds acted as a perfect spread between the sandwich of mountaintops and a crystal clear lake. Every time I felt exhausted and not in control of my pace, I looked left glancing over the shadows of vineyards to see sailboats and windsurfs moving steadily in an ocean of water that looked like a painting straight out of MOMA (Museum of modern art). I just like the sound – moma.

Running is beautiful, except of course when you outrun your joy. Some famous runner must have said that somewhere and it stuck with me. I always make sure never to outrun my joy. Running amidst a crowd of eclectic runners not only confused my thoughts but also my strides. When I run, the only thing that matters to me is to feel in control of my body and let go of my emotions. There is a beautiful space in my head that gets developed every time I let go. But running with so many people made it look pointless. At kilometre nine I normally realise a brush of burn on my inner thighs and run past it, but it started to feel drab and pointless at this time and the burn became a constant badgering thought in my head. I looked left failing miserably to grab any ounce of motivation from the sandwiched clouds or the quiet blue lake. The lean and lanky fellow next to me was quite focused, running with a gait unmatched by anything I have seen before. He didn’t have a watch, a cap, and sunglasses or for that matter any music either. He was apparently running for the beauty of running in plain simple clothes and shoes that looked straight out of the eighties.

A lot of running is now industry driven where people (including me) frequently buy new gadgets. Some make it to marathons; some get washed away by lack of a strong will to keep the ground moving beneath their feet. Some never care. They run for running. Heart rates don’t matter. Water seems to appear when they need it. Sun is a boon not a bane. There are some people who just… run.

This guy jolted my soul to fade the nonsense and keep running. I picked on it and maintained a steady pace for the next three or four kilometres. He was obviously here to do what he did best and in a timely manner went past many in front of me. He even crossed the pacemaker that I intended to cross.

I am not a competitor, and I couldn’t give a fuck about winning (winning against what?). But this race brought out the worst in me. It made me want to finish, but finish better than the person running in front of me, every time I crossed one. Given that my performance was average, this would be a never ending task. I felt appalled with the lack of joy I was experiencing. The innocent smiles of children throwing their hands at the athletes in unreserved joy were the only thing that kept me going.

The race did give me a dose in reality. I am much more aware of my body limitations and the hacks to overcome them. I was never a runner who ran because running was so awesome. I ran for the aftermath, the cold and desperate thought of feeling your internal organs breathe against your skin. There was a moment when I became aware of my existence as a micro individual in lieu of being a soldier in an army of some ultimate being wallowing in the misery of a questionable routine.

Now, living through a mild ankle injury, I look over my cold and dark city. I see a meandering trail longing for every step of this lonely road. But I promised someone that I would wait till I fixed my ankle.

Ironman Zurich, 2014 - The almighty human beings of our time by Trivik Verma

Boris Stein, from Germany, won the Ironman Zurich 2014 under nine hours. Seen here moments before collapsing on the side.

Boris Stein, from Germany, won the Ironman Zurich 2014 under nine hours. Seen here moments before collapsing on the side.

A vivid account of the race, and undying admiration for the ‘indestructible’ spirit of the Ironman triathlete.

I am not a 4 AM person. The only people outside at that time are either inebriated strangers or the ones who build your city. There were more than five thousand enthusiastic people walking haphazardly in all directions. If you are an early riser, there is much to learn from these athletes and their loved ones.

The swimming leg of the race.

The swimming leg of the race.

Zurich was hosting an Ironman. Thanks to a methodical city, beautifully arranged around a crystal clear lake, one can swim, bike and run (in that order) at the same time. I was determined to catch the start and headed straight to Safa Island, a small piece of land connected by a narrow bridge, where more than 2400 fluorescent green caps, who traveled from different parts of the globe, were waiting in the cold and captivating waters of Zurich ready to destroy their bodies over the next sixteen hours. I was confused about what was to be gained, mostly by doing it for an audience.

The whistle blew, crowds cheered and the water level of Zurisee rose by a small margin. This 3.8km swim features a unique Australian exit over the Safa Island. I have swum many times in the Zurisee but never at 545 in the morning and never with world-class athletes from around the world. The energy here was incredible, owing to the love and devotion from the families of these unstoppable machines. There are only a few people in the world who run, bike or swim with all the energy they have got. Doing all three together in one day was evident enough of what a human body could achieve.

Racing through one of the biggest financial capitals of the world, Zurich has a remarkable view of snow-capped mountains and lush green fields. Just twenty kilometers out of the city, athletes find themselves in rolling green farmlands and loud cheers of spectators lined up on either side of the track. For many of them it was their first Ironman race and quite a tough one that. Two laps that include two climbs, “The Beast” and “Heartbreak Hill”, can get to one’s nerves after a cold-water swim in not so sunny conditions.

Racers found themselves in the company of many nationalities bustling with so much vigor and cadence that it was hard to differentiate between their ages. I spent some time lingering around the transition zone talking to a few organizers. Manuel was busy making this event a solid hit but had a minute to say, “This is my fourth race and the energy of this crowd makes up for my lack of sleep. At the end of the day, when I see them crying and laughing while limping away from the finish line, my job is justified.”

On the sidelines, a stranger was walking into the water alone. He asked me to oversee his belongings. When he came out, I asked him why he was not taking part in the race. He replied by saying that he wanted to come check out the city and the circuit. He bought a Speedo wetsuit and wanted to try it out in the cold waters of Zurisee. He said I would find him on the starting line next year.

The dedication of Ironman athletes is beyond recognition. Naturally, we practice one sport, train for it and attune our bodies to every bit of reaction the sport demands. An Ironman race, seemed to me, took a lot of shifting in mental attitudes towards sports that are all endurance oriented in nature but have very different regimens for training. I was in awe of the entire show and started feeling an itch to experience the inexplicable joy that I saw on their faces.

All the racers were in a zone of their own and many did not even acknowledge cheers and hi-fives from their own families from the sidelines. There were many women amongst many men in the race; not only upholding a good fight but also surpassing many of the bare chested, six-pack infested muscle men.

Daniela Ryf, Swiss champion, women's section, running through her first lap of the marathon.

Daniela Ryf, Swiss champion, women's section, running through her first lap of the marathon.

Daniela Ryf, the champion of the women’s section, came out of the transition zone after the biking part ended. I remember how the noise in the environment grew to a different scale at her appearance. She was running like there is no tomorrow and not an ounce of worry on her face. I followed her graceful steps for about a kilometer from the side just to figure out if my own running stride was getting better with time or not. Above all, I was having fun.

The transition zone was bang in the middle of the race and had commentators, both in Swiss German for this vast and animated audience and in English for the International community that was visiting. Hotels and hostels in Zurich were completely booked.

The final part of the race is a marathon; four laps around the lake in a U-shaped circuit that passes through the city and some of its parks. I noticed the ingenious ways in which the runners had stacked chocolate bars and some kind of juice in their body tight skins. By the third lap, many were just strolling past and stopping for a kiss or two from their partners. Many were still running, with a strong pace and totally zoned out, just looking at their fancy GPS watches every now and then, perhaps hoping for this grueling event to end.

At this point I rushed to a small bridge from where one can spot bikers and runners, at different paces, going alongside each other. In my opinion, these bikers are the heroes of the day, struggling for more than fourteen hours as they see runners heading towards the finish line and the constant commentary of how some German beat his own record. They still had a marathon to begin.

At this stage I spotted Nikhil Kapur, running his second lap. Nikhil, from Pune, Maharashtra (as intimated by TOJ), is a businessman and was running his first Ironman. Unfortunately, I could not get down from the crowded bridge in time to get to him and cheer him through that part. But at this point it felt really incredible to find an Indian going through this international event and doing really great at it.

Cycling through the cheering crowds. 

Cycling through the cheering crowds. 

Next stop was the VIP photographer’s lounge. I had to pull some strings but I got a media pass to enter this zone. I had previously only seen the inside of such a place on television. Luckily, I had a camera to justify my presence there.

The atmosphere was getting tense and the crowd, louder. The commentators had already made it clear who was going to win, unless some unknown forces play their part at the last minute. Of course, the German television crew was there to welcome their star athlete and winner of Ironman Zurich 2014, Boris Stein.

Stein came to a halt just before the finish line, shed tears and pulled the finish tape seconds before collapsing on the ground. He must have been physically destroyed and mentally elevated at the same time. He got up again, gracefully accepting his medal, to hop along the final row of his fans and thanked everyone with teary eyes and an unbelievable expression of accomplishment. Moments later, Stein fell on the grass outside of the winning arena and was wrapped in a silver blanket by his partner.

The electricity that ran through this crowd uplifted my spirits and I saluted to the two thousand odd athletes that were still running and biking for their indestructible spirits. Though I swim well, my fear of open waters keeps me from thinking about being on the other side of an Ironman someday.

(As published @ The Outdoor Journal)