Proprioception, Pain, Mobility and the Agility Handler

(Original post on May 6, 2016)
For those of you who know me, you may know some things about me, such as:
  • I’ve been doing agility since my young adulthood, through two pregnancies, postpartum, and into my midlife-full-time-desk-job life.
  • My background in athletics was varied, but my very first passion was dance (ballet was my passion, and all dance is still my passion today). My second love was soccer, in particular I loved the footwork drills and the challenge of protecting my goalie (I was defense). Next, which stole my heart and my entire adolescence, were the equestrian sports (in particular, hunters, dressage, and hacks). My final athletic passion was and still is agility.
  • I have always been fit (regardless of actual weight) and into being active. I have done weight training with and without personal trainers (my favorite to this day is the leg press: PBs being 12 reps of 420lb pre-kids at age 28, and 10 reps of 320lb post-kids at age 43), I’ve been in running programs (3K-5K is my favorite distance), and lane swimming. Hiking, canoe trips, camping done that and love them all!
So what? It means, I know what it feels like to be fit, strong and able to move my body how and where I want. I know I have taken my mobility for granted a lot of times, but I also know what it feels like when my physical capabilities have been mildly to significantly diminished, either by injury, pregnancies, or life at a desk.
One of the frustrations I started experiencing after my second son and the advent of my 40’s was that I was no longer able to move on course the way I used to be able to move. I wasn’t as fast, I wasn’t as nimble, and I looked stiff in my videos. My coaches would tell me to bend this way or that way, or yell out to “Run faster!” or comment that I looked like I was “tiptoeing through the tulips” (that was my favorite comment which mirrored my own assessment of my movement). They all agreed that I was a “fast runner” but it wasn’t enough.

It was frustrating.

As a coach, I sometimes see this exact same frustration in my own students when I ask them to do a maneuver and they try and don’t quite get the move. I ask again. They try again. I ask a different way, and they try a different way, and each time, not quite getting it. The frustration mounts to the point where the student may give up and say “I can’t do it,” or push through unseen pain by me to do it “right.” As the instructor, I used to feel like I failed my students because I couldn’t get them to move just right.
Then a series of events brought a new world of knowledge and insight to me. Insight that I think every handler and instructor needs to know. I guarantee you, this is worth the read.
First, I blew out my shoulder. Technically, I had a tear in one of the tendons in my rotator cuff (I believe it was the one associated with the bicep). It was a jagged tear and deep in the layers that make up the shoulder, which meant surgery for me wasn’t an option. Full-out rest was required: no picking up the kids, no tugging with the dogs, no agility.
Why did it tear? I thought it was because of an agility move… Well, yes and no. Then I thought it was carrying my 30lb toddler everywhere and putting him in and out of the car seat. Again, yes and no. All of those didn’t help and they were the “final straws that broke the camel’s back,” however, the true cause was my posture, systemic weakness, and translation of movement. Technical words for “a weak, postpartum, desk-life core set the stage for poor stacking of my body, making everything work in inappropriate ways: little muscles having to do the big muscles’ jobs; big muscles getting weak and not “firing” when needed.” My body was a mess, but I was still in the sport I loved.
Sure, my shoulder blew-out… Sure, once I had to have my ankles taped at a trial because of searing shin splints. Sure, I had to see my physiotherapist regularly, my chiropractor weekly and my RMT bi-weekly to keep me functioning. Sure, I had to work SUPER HARD to run at a speed that looked like I was tiptoeing through tulips, but what were my alternatives?!? I was getting old, and that was life, right?!?
The lowest point of my active life was when I started picking and choosing what activities I would and would not do to protect my agility life. When swimming, running, weight-training, and dancing made it onto that Do Not Do List, I knew something was fundamentally wrong with the picture.
Then I met Claire Miller Murphy, who is a movement coach, Pilates, Yoga Tune-Up® instructor and has too many other credentials to list. Claire spent an hour assessing my movement (or lack thereof), watching some video clips of my agility runs. Then, with the most calm and confident voice ever, she looked straight into my eyes and said, “We can fix that. You can do better.”
Sweet, sweet music to my ears!! 🙂 I was ready for the fix! It was going to be a series of squats, right? Burpees? Sprints? Push-ups (to fix that shoulder)?
No.
It was going back to the basics. First thing, relearn how to stand and how to breathe! (Seriously, those two things were my homework for the first few days. Pay attention to how I was standing, and how I was breathing.) Release the tensions in the tight (a.k.a. fatigued and weak) spots. Strengthen the weak (not firing) spots. Reconnect the bits that are supposed to connect. Do all of that with impeccable form. Then worry about integrating more bits, and then more. No weights. No speed. Simple and incredibly challenging precise movements instead. Once the foundation was set, then we started speed, and light weights. Remember, the muscles that were supposed to do the work hadn’t for years… the light weights were what I needed. (I love big weights….)
Okay, so that was the what, but being a professor and curious, I wanted to know the why!
Here’s the bit that every instructor and handler needs to know: Pain and stellar coordination cannot co-occur. When there is pain, coordination is affected. If you are in pain, you physically cannot be as coordinated as you would like, even if you push past the pain. If your student is in pain, they physically cannot be as coordinated as you or they would like, even if you coax them loudly or tell them how to do it in 20 different ways.
To get a little bit technical, I need to talk about three types of awareness in the body: nociception, mechanoreception, and proprioception. We hear a lot about proprioception in agility (it is your ability to sense where your body is in space), and we know its importance for our dogs to do agility. This is why body awareness trick training has come to the forefront a lot in the sport. As handlers, we also need proprioception to know where our arm is relative to our body (serpentine arm, threadle arm, support arm), we need to know where our body is relative to the equipment (running into equipment hurts), we need to know where our feet are pointing (yes, to the future, but where in real time).
Coordination requires proprioception. You simply cannot manipulate your body through complex handling maneuvers without an awareness of where your right arm is relative to your shoulder, relative to your core, pelvis, legs, feet, other arm, hands, head… you get the point.
However, proprioception is not a single sensory system in our body. There is no single type of neuron that tells our brain where our body is. Rather, it is computed from visual input (what you see), vestibular input (inner ear), and mechanoreceptors.
Mechanoreceptors are part of the nervous system that are stimulated by physical inputs (touch, muscle stretching, joint motion). Nociception, which is awareness of damage or potential damage that can be perceived as pain, appears to have nothing to do with proprioception, at first glance. However, nociceptors and mechanoreceptors have a funny little relationship. When the nociceptors are firing, there is a decreased ability to process mechanoreceptors’ information.
A cool lesson I learned in physiological psychology in my undergrad days was that if there was a point of pain in the body (let’s say I cut my arm and it isn’t bleeding badly – just hurts, a lot). Then if I were to massage or press down on a point on my skin immediately beside the point of pain, the neuro-transmission from the pressure (via mechanoreceptors) would actually block out the “pain” nerve transmission at the point in the spine. This happens because it is believed that only one “packet of information” can get through “the gate” at that spot in the spine at a time. Thus, the brain only receives the information of the pressure and results in a diminished perception of pain. Doulas use this technique a lot to support women in labour by applying pressure to the woman’s low back.
Well, nociception can also inhibit mechanoreception. If you stub your toe, are you aware of where the rest of your body is in space? If you ever experience that “Day 2 Pain” after Leg-Day in weight-training, note at how coordinated your walking is. It is more likely to look like a walk from a Monty Python “School of Strange Walks” than something you’d want to do while receiving a lifetime achievement award. Thus, when the nociceptors are active (indicating damage or potential damage), then there is diminished proprioception.
But pain’s effects don’t just end there: it leads to compensation, and it also diminishes mobility and range of motion. When the range of motion is limited, then there is what is called translation of movement (we borrow mobility from another part of our body).
  • If one can’t rotate one’s spine to “rotate” the shoulders while keeping the hips facing forward, then one moves the hips along with the shoulders (hello knee problems or tripping over one’s feet).
  • If one can’t move one’s legs in the hip joints, then movement is borrowed from the pelvis (hello “sexy walk” and hello knee, hip, ankle, shin problems).
  • If one can’t stabilize the torso through activation of the appropriate “core” muscles, then all hosts of problems arise as the body tries to ‘lock down’ and ‘hold it together.’
So, while Claire started to work on my awareness of my neutral spine, we worked on releasing the pain and tension from all the translation of movement and compensation effects from my life experiences through Roll Model Therapy ® techniques. As I regained more mobility in my body and more proprioception, we also at the same time started to re-strengthen the muscles that (in my words) went to sleep at the desk or were obliterated thanks to my wonderful boys. No weights. No sprinting. No HIIT. Simply foundation work on my body. Body awareness tricks for me. Rolling on the balls (not foam rollers – I used to use that – balls are WAY more effective).
A year later, I not only have speed, but I have ease of speed, mobility, proprioception that still surprises me. I haven’t had this in years!!! I see my chiropractor bi-annually for a check-up, and I haven’t needed to see my RMT in over five months. I’m also back into swimming, dancing, and weight training (my personal trainer would get so mad that despite our intense workouts, I never have Day 2 maladies as I always used impeccable functional form and rolled away my troubles – he stopped being mad when I had him join me in a post-workout roll with the Roll Model Therapy® balls).
I also have a newly found appreciation of the frustrations I see in so many handlers, and to that end, I’m finding myself having a lot more conversations with students about their pain and physical limitations to find safer ways to handle without pain. I also find myself talking more about the proper alignment and what needs to be engaged to safely do a serpentine at speed without inviting injury. Now I feel I have failed if I see them push through pain.
I also know that until handlers heal the injury (remove the adhesions in muscles, tendons and fascia), let go of the tension (from the hideous postures of smart phones, dumb desks), find the proper alignment, turn on the muscles that need to be on, integrate the bits as they need to be integrated, then all the weights, sprinting, pushing through the pain won’t help coordination and speed. Those tactics reinforce the current patterns in the body, reinforce the maladaptive translation of movement, and the pain decreases coordination and proprioception. I’ve been there, done that, then I blew out my shoulder.
As Bobby Robson (an English footballer) once said, “Practice makes permanent,” and as dog trainers, we know there is a lot more practice occurring in everyone’s daily life than on the agility field.
So what are you practicing with your mechanics and proprioception on and off the agility field?
[Note: I am not, nor claim to be, a kinesiologist or medical specialist. This is a story of my experiences and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I always recommend talking to your medical specialist before starting any new workout regime.]
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