Slow Down to Speed Up
General guide for lasting change, illustrated on my experience in overcoming chronic knee-pain.
This article is about the actions I took to get rid of chronic kneecap inflammation.
I start with the (1) Experience to illustrate the situation I was at 2 years ago. Then I explain my (2) Thought Process to make the connection how I got to the (3) Basic Model, which I used during rehabilitation.
After that, (4) Further Concepts are described to get a more refined picture. Lastly, (5) Application in Broader Context is intended to give you inspiration for using my lessons learned in general problem settings.
Basketball had been a constant source of happiness since I was 13 years old. I would spend hours shooting hoops. Every time I play with friends, when we’re done it’s like coming back to my life from far away. When I’m in the game, other things don’t matter.
I am no Michael Jordan, but I can stand my ground. I always took pride in being fast and agile, rather than strong. My legs are in great shape, or so I thought. I could dunk easily and outrun most guys. Maybe that caused me to never take a closer look. There was no pain while playing. The rest of the time, I just ignored it. Keep playing. Keep running. Fight through the pain. I didn’t want to stop, as sport was a major stress relief to me. It got to a point where sitting in a chair for 30 minutes became almost unbearable without stretching. That’s when I accepted that I had to take action.
I remember walking in the woods one day. For the first time I really tuned into my knees. It was a combination of two feelings. Relief that now I can spend time getting healthy again. I stopped playing competitively. More disturbing, the realization how bad it actually was.
A long process began. The good thing was, the slightest tension on the tendons around the kneecap caused a hefty pain response. Instinctively I tried to walk in a way that minimizes the hurt.
I need to mention that I began practicing yoga at that time. I had tried it a few times before and used it to fill the hole my basketball-abstinence left.
A big part of yoga is developing body awareness. I transferred this approach to walking. It was surprising how sub-optimal my usage of feet, legs and hips had been.
In retrospective it’s almost funny. The whole time I spent my attention on two words. Higher and faster. It seemed straightforward. To increase the vertical leap, just jump as high as possible, as often as possible. Who cares about landing, what goes up must come down.
Walking uses less energy than running.
Gee, Thanks Einstein!
— Hear me out =P
When walking, I used to not pay much attention as to what the brain is doing. But to jump really high, your whole body (and mental focus) is needed.
Therefore, speed and strength demand processing power. Just like in a computer. We face a trade-off.
Through reducing the intensity, the brain can allocate freed up energy towards observing. That’s why simple sitting and breathing has such profound impact.
It was a humbling experience to start again with slow steps at full concentration. Walking is the first thing we learn. Yet there I was, having a hard time doing it. Almost like learning a completely new skill.
I shifted weight around and focused on different muscles. Over time it became clearer, how the most effective movement would look and feel like.
The execution still takes up a lot of my concentration. Sometimes I catch myself with peculiar tense, funny positioned hands. I put so much attention towards the feet or ankles that I forget about the rest.
Anyway, I used to think fixing things is done by working harder. The same way most of us simply study more if the grades aren’t satisfying.
As I learned this is, while true, a very one-sided approach.
Of course, in my case there were lots of techniques I experimented with. Fascia rolls, barefoot shoes and a wide variety of exercises. But I want to explain to you how I found out what has to be done.
Because I was forced to stay away from any form of hard training, I had time to experiment.
What I found is counter-intuitive because it seemingly lacks progress. Noticeable change will take a great amount of time. What am I talking about?
Let me explain on the example of walking. I drew the distribution of resources as below. The more difficult/intense a task, the more of your “brain capacity” is used for the output.
If the physical intensity is lessened, the feedback evaluation has a higher quality. Because more capacity is available.
Progress seems nonexistent at first. Two reasons for that. One, it’s a change of the reference system itself. Tuning into the less used muscles even makes you feels weaker in the beginning.
The second reason is that the improvement happens on a subtle level. As an example, I’m just barely jumping as high as I used too, but with much more ease and fluidity. The foundation is now set, getting that explosiveness back only a matter of time.
Another reason I was stuck: To operate at maximum speed and power, the body will rely on what it knows best. Working with the most often used neural pathways requires the least amount of energy.
Slower and less complex movements lets one obtain the advantages of the below shown feedback loop.
Roughly said, I operated by putting full power to the upper legs. With regard to the loop above this meant: Minimal activity of the brain considering the output filter and input.
What can you do, to get a feel for the extent of the loop and your current way of accessing it?
Start with walking how you usually do. Then, in incremental progression over many steps test out a singles parameters full range of possibilities.
That could be leaning towards one direction. Trying to change the direction in which your knees point. See how much force you can put on each point of contact with the ground.
Never forget to ask the opposite. I tried to walk using my quadriceps as little as possible, for instance.
As a general measure, the harder walking gets, the more your learning about it. Integrating this process eventually makes it accessible at high intensity too.
To be more precise, the model needs to be expanded. It holds true for any insulated muscle. Most activities require functional movement, meaning multiple muscle groups. So let’s include them.
What you see above is a lineup of different groups. The marked levels display my previous jumping pattern.
The red line depicts how much of my processing power is used for activating/controlling each group.
That means, much effort went towards the upper legs and very little towards the ankles.
Note: For the sake of simplicity, the lower limbs are divided it into 5 parts. Feet, Ankles, lower Legs, upper Legs and Hips. To complete the picture, imagine my upper body behaving like an inflatable tube man dancer.
Where to allocate our conscious attention is theoretically flexible. But as with most things, we habitually rely on “our usual way” of doing things.
Let me take the red line into a separate plot. Critical about this is, that the focus was mostly caught up in the feedback loop of my upper legs.
Above you see how the capacity is maxed out for the upper legs (70% for the engagement, 30% for feedback). Don’t get me wrong, the upper legs need to be strong if you want to jump high.
My mental program said I had to work on increasing my maximum capacity. At the same time, I could have achieve much more improvement in other areas (as depicted by the green line).
While the recognition was the first step to an improvement, the process had just begun. Below you see the direction I went.
The blue part shows how I changed the input filter. In red, how to change the output filter. This is all in order to prepare for making the improvement (as shown in green)
Remember: How easy it is to shift the blue curve depends on the amount of strain the movement pattern (which consists of speed, force and complexity) demands.
Application in broader context
Thinking that more output follows more effort resulted in a performance-plateau and a lengthy rebuilding phase.
The orientation towards “maximum growth” is ever so prevalent. I have my doubts about it.
From the outside it looked as if I stood still. I wasn’t reaching any higher on the backboard. But internally I set myself up to go further than before.
Why is this important? Well, pushing hard is actually not that difficult. It seems that we lack motivation, but that is only because we don’t know which direction to go.
So if you don’t feel motivated, don’t listen to stupid advice like “just go out there and do it!”. Nobody has to tell you that, once you know what it is.
Motivation comes from the latin movere, which means moving. It’s absence is simply your brain telling you not to move. Or to go a little slower.
Now trace that back to the first graph. What happens if we move slower? Right, we free up capacity to handle input.
Don’t feel pressured to go to the gym and lift as much weight as you can or run with super high intensity. There is great value in a softer, more receptive way of doing exercises (or anything, for that matter).