By Jared Alden/Moonshine Ink
There is no greater defeat for athletes than an injury that prevents them from doing the activities they love. It’s a dose of therapy from the daily stressors and struggles that come from being human in a complex society that often feels less than ideal. Perhaps the most unwanted aspect of becoming injured is realizing that, somehow, we did this to ourselves while attempting happiness.
If we want to do the sports we love in the mountains for many years, we should consider an approach that will help us avoid disaster and engage risk more responsibly. So what exactly are the frequent mistakes that can occur? Overtraining and undertraining are two. To avoid these common training pitfalls, one should cultivate harmony of mind, body, and movement within nature, an accomplishment perhaps more valuable than any stand-alone athletic feat.
Overtraining injuries can arise as our regime becomes too obsessive, if not an unhealthy addiction of sorts. When we overtrain to the point of injury we are pushing ourselves too hard for various reasons. A risk when training is becoming addicted to the highs of performance as endogenous brain chemicals take precedent. For example, runner’s high refers to a euphoric sensation that is caused by the release of a variety of chemicals by the brain’s pituitary gland and hypothalamus to enhance performance. Like any chemical addiction of the brain, withdrawals from feel-good chemistry leaves one feeling dissatisfied and wanting more. How can athletes cope with a fatigued body that needs time off, while the brain still wants chemical satisfaction? Ignoring the body’s need for rest and pushing ourselves more and more is not the solution, but rather a common form of overtraining that leads to injury. Adding a variety of activities to our workout regime, often called cross-training, is a good approach to avoid overtraining within any single discipline. We enhance our ski racing by swimming laps or playing basketball as part of a balanced regime.
Peer pressure may lead to overtraining as we lose awareness of realistic expectations and attempt to acquire skills too quickly. As a friend attains an advanced skill, making it look easy, suddenly we expect ourselves to perform the same. This is why training in groups can be beneficial as we learn by example, but in some cases injuries occur as social pressures disrupt mature decision-making. We trust our coaches and team leaders, and so when we hear someone say “you got this,” we believe them and make the brave attempt to go bigger or higher or longer, but perhaps prematurely. Good coaches and athletes themselves must identify when individuals are ready to advance performance free of social pressures.
Obsessed or addicted athletes are more likely to ignore their body’s warning signs and provoke injury by overperforming. Consider also that our society values athletic performances in which determination masks an injury, such as Kerri Strug’s Olympic gold medal vault in 1996, and Danny Way’s 2005 skateboarding jump over the Great Wall of China — both performed with major ankle injuries. These accomplishments are influenced by social pressures, which compel athletes to ignore their injuries and perform regardless of the stakes. This type of risk-taking behavior is not limited to world-class arenas but can be observed at any local pump track, skate park, or ski slope. Passion, determination, and goals do not harm an athlete; injury occurs when mind, body, and movement lack harmony.
Injuries from undertraining arise from the same lack of harmony, but are caused by being underprepared. Professional instructors structure their lessons using step-by-step progressions based on the student’s level of ability; this approach includes avoiding level-up terrain until current-level terrain has been mastered in a variety of ways.
Undertraining also causes injury when athletes assume or expect to repeat performances at a later time. Often, we are simply unaware of how much time we spent preparing our minds and strengthening our bodies to achieve a certain level of performance. Hiking a big mountain once doesn’t guarantee the same fitness and performance forever.
A good example is a skier who warms up over several hours, then visits the terrain park and does small jumps, later attempts larger ones, and eventually lands their first ever 360 off a large ramp. The next day the skier brings family over to the large jump to demonstrate the 360 with the assumption that it will be an easy repeat performance, but the skier’s mind and body are not in the same harmonious state as before, snow conditions might have changed, and as such, the attempt fails. Thus, good training is aware of the progression required to awaken the skills necessary for advanced performance, while undertraining makes the mistake of thinking the skills are always present without activation.
A wonderful example of an athlete that maintains harmony of mind, body, and movement in nature is a mountain lion. Mountain lions can’t afford injury, so they focus more on awareness training and less on energy expenditure; this approach helps them avoid miscalculated risks, wasted energy, and injury. Consider also how much time these cats spend resting, grooming, and recovering from their athletic feats. They master the balance of strength training and skill development with recovery and awareness through their senses. Mountain lions are not addicted to the chemical highs of the brain, but rather sustainable effort, so they don’t over- or under-train to the point of injury. By observing and connecting ourselves to nature, such as emulating the ways of the mountain lion, we too can harmonize our mind-body connection to avoid injury and enhance our movements.