This time of year finds nearly every athlete being pushed and tested by their coaches. There is nausea, gasping of humid August air, and bent over stances under blistering sun.
Tis the season! Hell Week is fine and well, to an extent. Team sport athletes need to bond and gain mental toughness. For coaches, interviews and tryouts provide little of the insight or natural selection process that comes from a few gut-busting conditioning workouts. Severe shock to the system can usually be minimized with a little off season training.
But here we examine the point in time immediately after the sprint, when the coach leans in to a small sea of dazed athletes and starts talking.
I’ve been there on more than a few occasions, utterly exhausted, trying to get my life together, when the coach delivers a nugget of inspirational advice or a scatterbrained diatribe. I’ve heard both. But one bit of barking from a particular coach stands out.
“Get your hands off your knees and stand up.”
“Stand up and breath, ya bunch of pansies.”
Yes, coach Painter repeatedly referenced pansies and
advised rode us regarding standing tall when trying to recovery from strenuous activity. I’ve heard variations of this, minus the pansies, repeated by a handful of other coaches in the years since. Nobody ever questioned it. Does standing tall during recovery really achieve anything?
To say that recovering tall may score you a psychological victory over the opponent is one thing. Feeling exhausted in a late-game situation and looking up to see the opponents showing no signs of fatigue can be mentally defeating. But what about the claim that standing upright is better for recovery because you can take in more air than leaning over?
It’s time for a lesson from Anatomy & Physiology 101.
The primary muscles of breathing (respiration) are the diaphragm, the internal intercostals, and the external intercostals. These muscle are active when you are resting and under light exertion. Some physical therapists and trainers go into great detail regarding the effects of spine position on the diaphragm, and this is true to a degree. But the leverage of the primary respiration muscles changes minimally with acute changes in torso position.
The accessory muscles of breathing do not play a significant role during normal breathing. These muscles around the upper neck and chest wall help move us around and generate significant forces on the neck, shoulder, and scapula. But when the neck, shoulder, and scapula are fixed, as when standing leaning forward with hands on knees, these muscles essentially reverse their function, pulling the clavicle and ribs up- and outward. Viola, greater rib cage expansion and greater volume of air entering the lungs.
Side note: People with emphysema and other diseases of respiratory distress often sit and stand with hands planted on their thighs or a table. They naturally assume a posture that is most efficient for their struggling lung capacity.
The bottom line is that standing upright to recover offers no special physical benefits. When your legs are spent, it feels good to take a portion of your bodyweight through your arms. In fact, as compared to leaning forward, standing upright may effect a slight decrease in recovery and performance for the next physical effort. Coaches should consider, at least at times, allowing athletes to choose how they recovery. Slump, kneel, or lay down…let performance do the talking.
“I don’t care how you recover, let’s see who can complete a 3rd or 4th line drill in under 26 seconds.”
I have no doubt that coach Painter meant well. As much as I would like to go back and hand him a textbook or bouquet, I should also thank him. If you’re a team sport athlete, simply do as the coach says (within reason.) Stand on your head between sprints if he or she tells you to, with the understanding that optimal physical recovery may not be the main point.