Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 52 - Dan and Melissa - STRETCHING THE LIMITS OF PERFORMANCE - Part 3 of 3

Melissa, I’m going to jump back over you. I want to talk a little bit about what kind of research you’re doing right now. I think I saw on your website you’d had, I just copied down the title, it says “the effects of static stretching on muscle activation and force capacity”.


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JESSE: Melissa, I’m going to jump back over you. I want to talk a little bit about what kind of research you’re doing right now. I think I saw on your website you’d had, I just copied down the title, it says “the effects of static stretching on muscle activation and force capacity”. But I couldn’t find a link to like ResearchGate or anything like that from that. So, I didn’t get any details. So, I have to ask, is static stretching back in? I thought we killed it off several years ago. Why are you looking into it?

MELISSA: Okay. So, the first manuscript of probably two total that I’m working on for my Ph.D., at least in this topic is in revision, so we’re working on it. But really, yeah, like you said, we know static stretching is probably not ideal before performance, especially explosive performance, like sprinting, throwing, vertical jumping; anything you want to do that requires a lot of power and a short amount of time.

So, I worked with someone who actually came from like a yoga and therapeutics background when I started my Ph.D. And she was really interested in applying self-massage, or like foam rolling using lacrosse ball, anything like that, where you’re just kind of massaging the tissues yourself, versus say getting a massage from a practitioner.

And that can actually improve the amount of force or torque that you produce with the muscle. And so it’s kind of this crazy combination of, well, these two things have opposite effects on power or force production, talking about static stretching and massage. But everyone thought that they might produce these results through the same mechanisms. So, by increasing the extensibility of the tissues or know how compliant or stretchy your muscle and tendon unit are.

So, we decided to take our methods that we use in our lab pretty frequently to study all different types of things, whether it’s multiple sclerosis, aging, anything that impacts the nervous system, and its ability to control muscle force. And so we actually record muscle activity and can decompose those signals to look at how individual neurons are activating portions of the muscle.

So, we use that technique to try and take a look under the hood at these mechanisms underlying stretching and stretching when you apply massage, kind of right beforehand. So, that’s how I got interested in stretching. It’s not something that if you asked me like, oh, what do you want to do your Ph.D. in when you’re studying how people move? I don’t think I would have been like oh, stretching for sure.

JESSE: Stretching for sure.

MELISSA: It’s kind of a crazy thing because it’s so basic, but we still don’t understand what is happening in terms of why we have those deficits in performance. So, big takeaway, just to boil it down to what you can actually apply, if you’re trying to go for maximal performance is if you want to increase flexibility, but not decrease your force production or your ability to do a maximal activity of some sort, you can static stretch, but also apply some light massage. So, I like to apply it to hurdling.

So, I’ve been training for the steeplechase when outdoor track season comes around each year for the past two years, and after the winter, I’m pretty stiff. So, I really need to get into hurdling condition. So, I’m not about to go do some hurdle run-throughs while not having enough flexibility in my hips, but I also don’t want to decrease my force output while I’m hurdling. So, I can do a combo of static stretching and some light massage and get that improved range of motion, not decreasing performance at all.

JESSE: Okay. So, we’re bringing static stretching back. It hasn’t completely died off. You’re reviving it is what you’re telling me?

MELISSA: It can be useful.

JESSE: Okay. Okay. It’s just like you said, we don’t necessarily have all the information yet on why things work. So, it’s kind of interesting to see. Have you guys ever been out like, could be at the track or trail, whatever. And you’ll see somebody say in their 50s or 60s and they’re doing a routine from like the 70s, I guess it’s like a 70s– they’ve been doing that same stretching routine since the 70s and they haven’t changed. It’s almost like a time capsule of like, the recommendations from that era.

And then you’ll see somebody a little bit younger and they’re doing something different and then like, you guys are doing something different. And you can see those changes based on what seems like sometimes the hunches of like, “No, we’ve had like this trunk club does this routine and they do better. So, we should all do that.” And when we don’t necessarily have all of the data in… Are you familiar with Dr. Keith Baar at UC Davis? I think it’s UC Davis.

MELISSA: I don’t recognize the name, but I’m horrible at names.

JESSE: Okay. That’s okay. I had him on the show a little while ago. And he does more work with, see if I remember this right, like studying the relationship between tendon elasticity and muscle function. So, he has recommendations on like, the things you should do for basically, like you guys probably already know tight tendons, loose muscles, and like, the various changes and how that affects performance and that kind of stuff. It seems similar to kind of what you’re doing. So, I didn’t know if you’d come across any of his papers, as you’re like looking through stuff. So, you guys both are coaching or coach people. Correct?

DAN: Mm-hmm.

MELISSA: Mm-hmm.

JESSE: So, I want to ask a little bit about that. The first thing I just want to ask is, when you have people come to you, do you guys see any common pitfalls or things that a lot of people continue to do that you’re like, all right, we need to get rid of this. This is what we should be doing instead?

MELISSA: That’s a good question. Does anything stand out?

DAN: Yeah. Especially in people that are not younger, like we’ve coached people, I’d say everything from like 18 years old to middle age, older adults, that just have various goals. And I would say one of the things that you definitely see with people that maybe didn’t grow up doing running as part of a sport or doing whatever, triathlon as part of a team; they usually don’t have much intensity, and there isn’t a lot of periodization to their week.

And so I find with people that haven’t done that, it’s really potent. Even just one day of higher intensity and one longer day per week suddenly can make them quite a bit faster like we had someone go from, I don’t want to misquote their first time. I think they were a 4:05 marathoner to a 3:38 marathoner in like six months, and it was really just with the guidance of having slightly longer long runs and some intensity. So, I think that’s the one thing I would say that comes up a lot. And then the second is just keeping your easy days really easy and your hard days hard.

MELISSA: That’s true.

DAN: I see a lot of blending of those two things. So, I guess it all comes to the same point of having that periodicity in your training over the course of a day, week, month, etc.

JESSE: What do you guys use as a baseline for when you’re trying to set up your zones, I guess I’ll call them? There’s all kinds of different terminologies I grew up with, like easy pace, long-run pace, tempo, threshold. But then it’s like those get blended to so you can say like zones or heart rates or whatever. What do you guys use as your baseline for setting up all these different speeds for your athletes to go through?

MELISSA: Well, we usually start out, like if someone has no background in running, for example, but they want to get into it, they want to try and finish a 10K, or a 5K, you know, just complete it. But we want to include intensity. But maybe they have no idea what pace feels like, you don’t want them checking their watch every 10 seconds. Instead we go by RPE or like rating of perceived exertion.

That’s our go-to for just getting someone going, kind of feel out their different intensities and figure out really what a maximum intensity is for, say, like one minute of running. And then usually from there, we kind of move into a combination of effort and pace. We each kind of, we have our own individuals that we coach and bounce ideas off of each other. But do you have anything you want to say about how you move people forward?

DAN: Yeah, I agree. I think my goal sort of whenever I’m coaching somebody is to get them to be more autonomous. So, one of the things that’s always worked well for my running is really knowing what effort and what pace should feel like. And so for sure, if someone’s a beginner that mismatch is probably going to be a lot more pronounced. So, you might say okay, we’re going to start with this you know effort.

Maybe you have heart rate or maybe you just have their RPE and then kind of adjust over time. But then as you start working with a more and more advanced athlete, I think the goal should be more they should know what a five minute or a 30 minute or an hour repeat should feel like.

And then we’ll see based on their current fitness, their current fatigue levels what the output is. So, I really like to preach like my big go-to is like being comfortably uncomfortable. I think if people can get to that feeling, and they know where that line is, and they can ride that line for a long time, I’m super happy because I think they’ve started to learn a lot about their bodies.

JESSE: I often– So, I do another show where I just talk about running stuff and I kind of preach RPE as well, so I’m in that camp with you. But I also know, I have– my college roommate who ran with me, he has the hardest time with RPE. It’s like he’s a robot. He’s not a robot.

He has plenty of feelings, but it’s just like he’s glued to his watch to tell him what his pace is and all that kind of stuff. He just has the toughest time figuring out what a pace feels like. How have you worked with anybody like that? And if you haven’t, how would you try to transition him from clock watching to going to feel?

MELISSA: That’s tough. I don’t think I’ve personally worked with anyone who was glued to the Garmin pace.

JESSE: Yeah, and keep in mind, you know, now much longer but at the time it’s not like he had just stepped into running. He ran all throughout high school, all through college. So, he wasn’t brand new to it either, so you can– If somebody is new, you can kind of chalk it up to that, like, hey, you’re just not familiar with how your body feels at different effort levels or even different, you know, going from base to build, bumping up the speed, maybe you’re a little rusty.

He just seems to have a hard time with it. And we had that conversation over and over and over again, trying to figure out how to communicate that feel to him, and it just never quite stuck.

DAN: I think it’s interesting. I’ve coached one person I can think of, or two, in particular, that didn’t really do that feel very well. And I think there are two different problems, kind of what you were just adhering to. One is a newer runner, I think, has a lot smaller gray area between easy run and maximal run pace. So, I think for them, it’s just harder to settle into a tempo, a fast day, an easy day.

I think that’s one set of issues. And I think that’s a little bit easier to solve. I think somebody that has been running or training, cycling, whatever for a long time, really just needs those numbers. I think it’s a different set of circumstances. And I think for the right person, maybe that person just always needs to be data-driven.

But I think things that can be really are helpful like, “Hey, just do a run without your watch. Look at the clock before you leave when you come back. Why don’t you try and do some of these repeats where you don’t actually get the feedback until the very end?” One of the books that Melissa and I really like is from Percy Cerutty, the great Australian coach. So, he coached guys, back in the 50s and 60s that were running low 13 minutes for three miles at the time like Mary Hallberg, and he really preached that the time that you run or the pace that you run shouldn’t be your input.

His big thing was [??? 12:35] should run hard for five minutes, and we’ll see what the time is. And I think [??? 12:38] start getting people into believing that then that can be part of a solution. But for some people, maybe they do just need a data-driven approach, more so than others.

JESSE: Yeah, that’s fair. And that’s one thing I just don’t know is how often we were able to just like take the watch away from them and just be like you gotta struggle through it. It’s that comfortably uncomfortable in a different kind of situation where you don’t have that crutch anymore. And I don’t know that I could convince him to do it nowadays. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of incentive. But I think it’d be interesting to see too. I always kind of wondered and, Michael, I love you if you watch this, but– And he knows. He has no musical ability at all and I have a musical background.

So, I always kind of wondered if, like, the way I feel running has to do with the rhythm of my legs and the rhythm of my breathing in conjunction with the legs and kind of how my body is moving. And I kind of wondered at times whether my music background kind of played a part into how I felt my body versus him and he just doesn’t have that connection. Whether that was the divide, excuse me, or were the kind of disjointed…lose my words, but where the cutoff was or the break off where he just wasn’t getting it.

DAN: I definitely don’t have a musical background. So, I grew up swimming, and especially in like late 90s, early 2000s it was all just about like soon as much as you can every single day. And so I think that helps me kind of figure out swimming in contrast to running, your feel for the water is, I think varies so much from day to day. But you know, even little things like just subconsciously knowing the number of strokes you’re taking per lap, how each stroke feels, I think all of those like when you’re doing them for so long.

You do so many hours of swimming, you start figuring out what’s sustainable and what isn’t. I know I also when I was younger had this like much younger in my teens, if I would do a running race, I’d just go out so, so hard. And I felt like I figured out through just always dying like what the appropriate amount of hard was to go out, which is one way I guess to come to that lesson.

JESSE: Yeah. That reminds me of, you know, a lot of people go through that but that reminds me of in eighth grade, this is the very first year [??? 15:13] cross country for me. You know, we had t-shirts and I don’t know if you guys were this way, but everybody’s always excited about the team t-shirts. Eighth-grade, high school, it didn’t matter. And our coach that year made sure the quote on our shirt was, “Go out like a dog, die like a hog.” And I don’t think we all quite understood what that meant yet, but we really loved the quote.

DAN: That’s funny. I like that one.

JESSE: Yeah, so I come back to that.

DAN: Yeah. Our dog likes to take runs that pretty hard.

JESSE: Yeah. It’s like sprint out the door and then they start falling back. As we kind of run short on time, you guys may not have seen– If you didn’t watch all the way to the end with Travis, you probably don’t know this. But this season I’m asking everybody the same question. Since I’ve got two of you, I’m happy I’m gonna get two answers. But I’m asking everybody this year, what do you think the purpose of sport is?

DAN: You want to go first or second?

MELISSA: Second.

DAN: I think sport for every person has a different purpose. I think for some people, it fills some sort of desire, a need to figure out what the absolute best something you can be is. I know, for me, like just the continuous sort of Sisyphean task of figuring out how fast can you be is something that’s really rewarding. I think it also has a beautiful aspect of bringing people together and connecting people from different backgrounds, different abilities into a common goal. So, whether that is erasing each other, but at the end of the day, unless it’s really for a professional prize, you’re both there to kind of support each other.

And I really saw that like last year running California International Marathon. There were like 100 guys trying to go through the Olympic Trials standard. And halfway through it was this really cool thing, sort of the opposite of a prisoner’s dilemma where we’re all– they’re actually kind of helping each other. It wasn’t like there are only a finite number of spots. And so I think things that do bring a bunch of people together to be their best is one of the best sort of embodiments of sport.

MELISSA: Good. That’s a good one. The marathon, I spectated, the marathon by bike, and it was so cool. Just seeing the humongous groups. Yeah, everyone had like the warm fuzzies kind of like chills watching all these people work together, passing bottles around. It was pretty neat. Let’s see, I would say the purpose of sport is, when I think of sport, I think of two things.

One is teamwork and really building that bond with other people and there aren’t that many cases in modern life where you get that sort of bond with other people. Maybe in the workplace, you have a pretty good relationship with your coworkers, but nothing really replaces the physical effort, getting those endorphins and pushing each other to do something that’s really challenging.

And I think if sport had to be individual, that’s kind of, especially in this quarantine time, this last like two months, I’ve been kind of exploring that other side of it, where it just becomes about creating something that’s challenging each day for yourself and setting small goals that you move yourself forward and become a slightly better human being. Whether it’s physically or mentally or mastering some skill, and it’s just those small steps forward where you’re challenging yourself. And eventually, you become so good at something that it’s like play, right. And I think that’s every athlete’s goal is just to become so good at something and enjoy it so much that it’s all joy.

JESSE: Great answers. Some new stuff too. That’s one of the thing I love about asking that question is because sport affects us all so much differently. It’s like I’ve got my own personal reasons, but then everybody else has their own reasons. But like you said, it’s one of the few places where we can kind of come together and be a collective unit working towards a common goal and share that bond. So, anyway, thanks for the thoughtful answers. Dan and Melissa, where can people find you if they want to get in touch with you, coaching, see what you’re up to, any of that kind of stuff?

MELISSA: Oh, you can check me out on Instagram and Twitter. My Instagram handle is MMazzo, M M-A-Z-Z-O, and my Twitter handle is MelMazzo M-E-L M-A-Z-Z-O.

DAN: I am absolutely horrible at actually posting but I’m DFeeney, F-E-E-N-E-Y, 31 on both Instagram and Twitter. And we have our dog social media is LilotheLobo. I think we spend more time posting for her than for us.

MELISSA: Probably.

DAN: And then for coaching, we– Velocity Canyon Endurance Project is the name of the coaching company that we run. So, if you just Google that you’ll find it and we have some social media for that as well. But yeah, I always love to talk to people about whatever, everything from athletics to philosophy to statistics, whatever.

JESSE: I’m gonna have you guys back on because we can go pretty deep on philosophy sometimes.

DAN: Sounds good.

JESSE: Thanks for spending some time today with me guys.

DAN: Thank you.

MELISSA: Yeah. Thanks.

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