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Seeing the non-hiking in your hiking (or running, surfing, pickle ball)

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

The subtitile for this post could be: Don't Pull an Oprah :)

There is a spiritual practice in my lineage of looking deeply into the nature of things in order to become aware of all of the conditions that must be present for that thing to come to fruition.

A flower is a classic an easy way to start this practice. In order for a flower to exist there are many non-flower conditions that must be present: the soil (with just the right pH and environment), the right amount of water, sunlight, perhaps a gardener to tend to the plant. Coffee is another cool example- one can reflect on the plants that grew the beans, the clouds that showered the water, the sunlight, the farmers that picked your beans. Through this process of deep reflection we come to see how interconnected we are- both with nature and others.

Our being able to perform the movements we love can be broken down similarly. In order for me to be able to surf, there are MANY conditions that must be present. I must have a stable enough car to get me to the beach, I must have a means of transporting my surfboard, the waves, wind and tides all impact my access to my sport. I’m so finicky as I age, even the number of other surfers in the water influence my decision to paddle out or not.

There are also many elements within myself that must be present in order for me to surf: I need to have enough shoulder range of motion to paddle, enough hip flexibility and strength to pop up, enough strength to paddle into waves.

As a physical therapist of many years, the most common way I saw suffering in my patients was derived from the inability to look deeply to notice all of the components required for a healthy movement to come together. We may think that our desire, or the expectation that “this is something I have always done” is sufficinet for our movement to be succesful.

Let me skip you the trouble of exploring this- it is not.

Instead, the process of looking before you leap- breaking down the specific components of your beloved movements, and looking critically to see if you have all of these prerequisites- is the rceipe for succesful movement outcomes and less injury.

For example, when someone loves hiking- their calf strength, ankle flexibility, foot and ankle balance, hip strength, cardiovascular endurance, transfer training all need to be present in order for their hikes to be sustainable.

This disparity in conditions and function can be amplified by the aging process, where we have glacially slow incremental losses in strength and mobility. These losses can render us less functional over time, unless we are working specifically on addressing the prerequisites of our function. These changes can happen imperceptably, so subtly so that we are not aware until we are embarassingly unable to get down a slope with friends, or unable to keep up when climbing a hill. Guarding our strength and muscle, our bone, our mobility, our cardiovascular function, our ability to get up and down off the ground- should be a process all of us are independent in and take as seriously as guarding the profits from our retirement accounts. What is, after all, more important that the retirement account of the physical body?

Further confusing the process of slow loss of function is that socially, there movements that have gotten labeled as “easy” when they should actually be labeled “difficult but low impact”. I am thinking specifically of walking or pickle ball.

For some inexplicable reason, these movements have been put in a category of “I should or you should be able to do this” without needing to work on the conditions that make the movement possible.

I can think back to seeing an image of Oprah Winfrey hiking for the first time after her joint replacement. She was leaning on her hiking poles as she descended a hill in Montecito.

I remember thinking that it was so obvious by her posture (adducted hips, knees bracing together, blanched hands as she death gripped her poles), that she had not yet learned or created the conditions for that movement to come together successfully. If even Oprah (who surly has the best rehab team?) isn't getting this insight, what hope is there for us mere mortals? Why wouldn't someone tell Oprah that she can happily return to her activity after certain benchmarks have been met?

After many years as a physical medicine specialist, I have learned that the reduction of pain, or the fixation of bone ALONE will not make safe movement a reality.

At best, a great surgery can create a window of opportunity in which a person can make advances in creating the prerequisites (the strength, mobility, neuromotor skills) to successfully achieve the movements they desire. Surgery will never absolve someone from having to do the work of building muscle, stiffening tendon, and making neurologic patterns more safe. If your biomechanics and muscle was poor prior to a fusion or joint replacement- they still are following your replacement.

That being said, I am hopeful we can all learn the skill of looking at our movements with greater objectivity and insight. We have to go beyond the superficial perspective that society offers, and lookin with greater objectivity and information.

I want to break down the requirements of pickle ball, to reduce, not a full list, but an incomplete list of the conditions required for both of these activities to arise.

Pickle Ball:

Calf strength at a level of hopping/ plyometrics

Hip strength at a level of hopping/ plyometrics

Agility training (the toughest form of progressed strengthening)

Plyometric ability of the shoulder

Hand/ eye coordination

Grip strength

Cardiovascualr conditioning

Healthy knee and hip biomechanics

Neuromotor planning and flexibility

Plyometrics require a flight phase- often hopping from one foot to another. In order to achieve the strength requirements to perform plyometrically, we must be able to move our bodies through weight bearing of double, progressing to single leg.

These strength requirements are no joke. Plyometrics expose bone and tendon to forces as high as 4-5 times our body weight. And in the context of pickle ball- that is happening while you are tracking the target, planning your return, and changing direction.

In order to walk/ hike well, the strength of our calf muscle needs to be robust such that we can lift and lower our body weight on a single limb about 20 times. We also need to be able to get up and down off of the ground safely. These, of course, are not the only conditions that are required, but they happen to often be overlooked.

Within the next 20 years or so, science will be published to help guide us in our safe movement efforts and hopefully make us more successful in staving off injury. Tables will be compiled so that if you are a 25 year old female wanting to surf, you can assess your shoulder, hip and core strength to see if your outcomes match the strength requirements that reserachers have compiled among healthy active female surfers.

Please do not wait for these publications before your start taking strides toward safety! Science is notoriously slow, and who knows when and where this will happen. Who can profit financially from us having less orthopedic injury?

Please start today by looking for the interconnections between your current physical assets- your strength, your vision, your flexibility, your cardiovascular fitness- and the requirements of the movements you seek to enjoy.

The more curious and deeper we look, the more we can tease out the specific conditions required for the movement we love to take shape. The more honestly we can see the complexity of what we are asking from our physical bodies the more we can live in peace with our physical realities. This type of earnest practice can demystify both movement and the perception of how the body is performing.

If you are uncertain about where to get started with safe strengthening please join us in Practical Strength Foundations – targeted to help women create lasting and practical strength they can use and build on lifelong.

Happy Holidays and Happy Building and Preserving!


Chana Bear- a true condition for happiness at the beach!

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