Ruminations on sports, training, health, and wellness

Posts tagged “massage

A Massage Therapist’s Notes on an Imperfect Art

Nearly 2 years ago, when I was just starting to post on this blog, I was thrilled to attend a talk given by one of my childhood heroes, Robert Ballard, who answered my questions about how to get kids excited about science. He told me to meet their passions with matched enthusiasm, and to keep asking questions of my own.

Two years later, and I’m happily in the position of doing just that — getting young people excited about science as I continue to delve into the beginnings of what I hope will be a career as a science educator. Yesterday I took my students on a tour of active biomechanics labs at a high research activity institution, and this morning we talked about physics in the context of football pads and baseball bats. It’s been a pretty awesome week already, and it’s only Tuesday night.

temp-complications-cover-203x300The highlight of my week was outside the classroom, however — I had the great good fortune to attend another Bryan Series talk given by Dr. Atul Gawande: surgeon, MacArthur fellow, and author of four highly acclaimed books. I read Dr. Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science in 2010 while I was recovering from a cholecystectomy (which made me really glad I waited until after the surgery to read it when I got to the chapter about how often cholecystectomies go terribly wrong). The book made me examine my own approach to science and knowledge; one of my great frustrations with massage school was hearing teachers parrot outdated assertions because that was the way it’s always been done, even though advances in science give us new perspective on our practices. Dr. Gawande’s approach to medicine by asking why we do what we do, whether it’s working, and how we can do it better was the first in a series of “eureka” moments that ultimately led to my decision to go to graduate school and pursue a better rounded education in STEM topics.

I’m batting 1.000 at questions I submit to Bryan Series speakers actually getting asked in the Q&A portion of the lecture; I posed to Dr. Gawande how allied complimentary healthcare practitioners, such as massage therapists and acupuncturists, can communicate better with physicians to become a more effective part of the healthcare team. Dr. Gawande described his sister in law, a massage therapist and “holistic healer” in Asheville, NC as an “artisan” whose vocabulary and rhetoric regarding medicine failed to mesh with his own and resulted in communication breakdown even when probably talking about very similar things. But, he said he recognized that his patients seek out practitioners like her for their services, so it’s important for physicians to be aware that these people are meeting some kind of particular need. And he added that his wife much more frequently seeks advice from her sister than she does from him.

Albinius-217x300Atul Gawande’s tacit acknowledgement of complimentary alternative practitioners as a bit of a fringe entity to the medical mainstream speaks to a lot of my frustrations with massage education and science education as a whole. I had a huge epiphany when I took a continuing education class on structural myofascial therapy last winter and I caught myself tuning out as soon as the instructor mentioned “energetic connection.” My woowoo-ometer is on a pretty fine hair-trigger these days. But as I willed myself to appreciate the spirit of the instructor’s message, I realized that when he talked about the implicit energetic connection between the feet (energetic grounding) and the hip (energetic centering), he was using different words to describe the principles of biomechanics that I know and embrace — kinetic energy manifested in the form of mechanical work is dispersed from the feet (ground reaction force) to the hip (joint reaction force) by the same network of musculoskeletal and connective tissues he was describing as a “myofascial meridian.” Holy crap. Mind blown. We’re talking, gray matter spattered on the walls, here.

We massage therapists devote a lot of hand-wringing to being taken seriously as medical professionals. Indeed, we have come leaps and bounds thanks to leaders in the field who are producing some very fine scholarship and advocacy for better education and standards for licensure. We’re enjoying a very exciting time for our profession as cutting-edge evidence-based practice collides with millennia of tradition to snowball into a paradigm shift. I’ve only recently come to recognize that great groups of thinkers and doers don’t become great without extremely hard, intentional work. I want to be there — out on the front lines, surging ahead at the prow as we enter a new era in integrative medicine.

I also recognize I can’t do it alone; this has to be a group effort. The old adage goes, “dress for the job you want.” We, as a profession, need to become fluent in the language of progress. We need to make a concerted effort to learn not only the common tongue of medicine, but of professional scientific practice. Let us abandon the days of “we do it because that’s the way we always have” and open wide the floodgates of the relentless, “why.” We need to be critical consumers of information and implacable questioners of the provisional. When our best understanding of our practice evolves, we have to evolve with it.

I take my fair share of barbs for voicing my criticisms, but I assure you I hold no one to a higher standard than to which I hold myself. I make no asservations of touchy-feeliness. I am utterly fascinated at the phenomenon of how different people, presented with the exact same availability of information, can arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions on any matter (science or otherwise), and I am recognizing that my convictions I hold to be self-evident are just as true to me as their mirror images are to my peers who fall on the opposite side of the fence. What I mean is that I am becoming more aware, as a practitioner and an educator, that all truths should be subjected to equal scrutiny to separate the staunch edifices from the crumbling sand foundations. When we ask the tough questions, we have to be prepared to accept tough answers.

Keep digging, friends.

Digging


The Illiotibial Band: Nefarious Foe, or Misunderstood Friend?

Runners, cyclists, and just about anyone who moves their legs on a regular (or irregular) basis has probably encountered the Iliotibial Band: a dense, fibrous tract of tissue running from the outside of the hip along the side of the thigh to connect just below the knee. And if you have experienced sensation associated with this tissue structure, chances are high that it was not a good experience.

afp20050415p1545-f1IT Band pain symptoms and range of motion inhibition, often referred to under the umbrella term “IT Band Syndrome,” is a common condition among individuals who engage in repetitive leg flexion and extension, and while exact figures for the entire population are unknown, some studies estimate prevalence over 20% in people who run or walk long distances. Symptoms usually present with pain in the lateral hip or the attachment at the knee, although sometimes tissue adhesions in the side of the leg cause pain when the structure is stretched, as in running or cutting movements.

The IT Band is itself not a muscle — structurally, it can be thought of as a long tendon tail attaching at the bony prominence at the top of the lower leg, just below the knee (at the prominent knob of the lateral head of the Tibia bone; it probably hurts a bit if you press on it), running up the side of the thigh, and fanning out to blend into the Tensor Fascia Latae hip muscles and Gluteus Maximus, which finally attach at the Iliac Crest, the upper rim of the pelvis (hence ilio-tibial). Like all tendons, the IT Band has little blood supply and nerve innervation, and is primarily composed of collagen, elastin, and fibroblast cells. While it cannot contract on its own, the muscles at the top of the hip (primarily the Tensor Fascia Latae) put tension on the IT band to abduct (bring away from the body’s center line) the hip and leg. Think of a rope and pulley system — the rope in this case represents the passive IT Band structure, serving to distribute the force applied to it from the other side of the pulley. This is particularly important in walking and running, where the leg involved in stepping forward during the “swing” phase of gait relies on the abductors and deep lateral rotator muscles of the hip to keep the pelvis level and stable. You may have seen runners or walkers whose hips “dip” with every step — this often indicates dysfunction in the Tensor Fascia Latae and hip rotators.

It is important to view the above graphic as a representation of the actual structure within the body; I like how the artist has indicated that the white tendinous fibers of the IT Band blend into the muscle tissue at the hip, but I think the characterization of the IT Band as a separate bundle of tissue laying on top of the surrounding muscle is a common misunderstanding, and refining our concept of the IT Band as it actually exists and functions in the body has great implications for practitioners and athletes alike.

the_muscles_of_the_leg_919014Our understanding of human anatomy comes largely from dissection of cadavers, wherein individual muscles and anatomical structures are identified by being excised with a scalpel from the surrounding tissue. This gives us a detailed sense of the three-dimensional body, but by manually separating the tissue, we also often tend to mentally isolate these structures and forget that the elegant, intricate musculoskeletal system recruits fibers from a broad range of tissues for almost every motion. Take a look at Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of a dissected leg to the right (click to expand to full size). This intricate and amazingly accurate drawing from the early days of human anatomical study indicates the same fanning connective tissue structure in the upper hip as it blends with the hip abductor muscles, but we don’t see the same IT band structure drawn separately from the surrounding tissue — it’s more of a thickened strip of tissue that forms a groove in the side of the thigh. You may have seen athletes with highly defined, sculpted musculature who exhibit the same structure; the IT Band appears as a groove along the side of the thigh and forms a tendon bundle at the tibia attachment. Just as the connective tissue structure of the IT Band blends into muscle at the hip attachment, there is also a great deal of “feathering” into the muscles of the lateral thigh — namely, the lateral quadriceps and hamstrings.

DSC_0151Why is this distinction important? To go back to the previous rope and pulley analogy, we can refine this understanding to not just a single rope pulling on a single endpoint in a single plane of movement, but a network of pulleys pulling on a web of ropes that disperses tension across a wide area, with each structure interacting as tension is applied and released. The interactions are so intricate that even the most sophisticated biomechanics models can only provide simplified schematics of the forces at work in the living body. You may have seen similar art and architectural structures, called “tensegrity models” that exemplify this concept. Below is a video of renowned bodywork practitioner, researcher, and teacher Tom Myers showing an example of a tensegrity structure and how it relates to the body:

Watch how the model moves when Tom pulls on a piece of the elastic thread — look closely and you will be able to see other elastic threads disperse tension, with some going taut and others going slack, which changes the position of the rigid dowels. The model demonstrates how a rigid structure with limited elasticity can affect the contractile structures it attaches to. An example of this in practice might be flexion of the hip to kick a soccer ball. As the leg is brought up and the angle of the hip becomes more acute, the quadriceps fire to extend the knee and flex the hip. Since these fibers tie into the IT band, this motion exerts force along the length of the IT band, which will functionally rotate the leg inward (medially). To prevent rotation, the deep lateral rotators that run across the glutes must fire to compensate. This is a simplified explanation of the processes at work, but is meant to demonstrate the kinetic chain of events that occurs with movement and the forces at work to stabilize and compensate to promote strength, accuracy, and protect against injury.

Taking this same example a step further, suppose one of the muscles working in concert to accomplish the kicking action is weak or impaired due to injury or improper training. The Piriformis, one of the deep lateral rotators of the hip that runs beneath the glutes from the Sacrum to the Femur, is a common offender for hip instability and insufficiency. Without the Piriformis firing properly to prevent medial rotation, other muscles that may not be as well adapted for hip rotation must be recruited to preserve stability, including the Tensor Fascia Latae. The IT Band, already under tension from its connection with the Quadriceps, comes under additional tension from the Tensor Fascia Latae to pull the leg into alignment, putting even greater stress on the IT Band attachment at the knee. Can you see how this could lay the groundwork for pain, inflammation, and chronic injury?

The prescribed treatment for pain and tightness in the IT Band has long been stretching, manual therapy, and foam rolling along the length of the outside of the leg, which still assumes the concept of the IT Band as its own discrete, free-gliding bundle of tissue and discounting the connectivity to the surrounding muscle. I’m making the argument that this isn’t necessarily the most effective nor the best biomechanically sound approach to treating IT Band Syndrome symptoms. Stick with me here.

Think again back to the tensegrity model Tom Myers was playing with. If one segment of the elastic thread was under significant tension, it would produce slack on other thread segments — that’s how vector energy dispersal works. What if, instead of approaching the problem by addressing the tight thread, we look for ways to bring appropriate tension into the slack threads? This accomplishes the same goal of dispersing tension equally, without further assaulting already inflamed, sensitive tissue.

In the case of the IT Band, this translates to gentle stretching and mobilization of the Tensor Fascia Latae — remember, the IT Band itself is essentially a passive structure and translates tension from other muscle attachments instead of exerting any force itself — and rehabilitative exercise to strengthen the deep lateral rotators in the hip and glutes. I am not recommending this as a cure-all approach for every presentation of hip and lateral knee pain; always seek evaluation from a medical practitioner to properly diagnose pathology and pursue the best course of treatment. For everyday tight, tender IT Bands, here are three exercises that target the supporting musculature to promote balance and optimal movement patterns:

First, the Clamshell — the model in the video is using a resistance band, which can be omitted and introduced later as strength and mobility progress.

Next, the Glute Bridge; I like this single-leg variation because it requires more global hip engagement than a symmetrical bridge hip raise. Adjusting the angle of the raised leg (pointing more toward the ceiling) will help to recruit more low back, hip flexors, and hamstrings to maintain balance.

Finally the Triplanar Hip Exercise (one of my clients fondly refers to this as the “fire hydrant;” if you are a dog owner, you will quickly recognize why!). The model in the video has good form but I would recommend slowing down the pace for more accurate muscle recruitment. The three elements are full extension of the leg, lateral rotation, and flexion pulling the knee into the torso.

These exercises are a great starting place to promote hip mobility and strength for runners, cyclists, swimmers, and active individuals in general. You can make them more difficult by taking away the stable base of the solid floor, for which Bosu Balls and wobble boards are excellent tools. These also make a great pre-activity warm-up or post-activity mobilization. If you have sciatica or back pain symptoms, consult a health professional before beginning these exercises, as excessive tension in the deep lateral rotator muscles can sometimes exacerbate nerve impingement symptoms. Always stop if you feel pain or pinching, and work within your abilities, progressing as your strength improves.

I hope this perspective on the IT Band sheds some light on its function and structures. This essential tissue mass in the leg is an important factor in all activity and movement, and healthy function will improve performance and prevent injury.


A Change of Scenery

Hi friends!

It’s time again to set aside lofty expectations of mind-expanding academic inquiry in blog post form, and present instead a newsy update of life and times in massage therapy and bodywork.

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In the beginning of November, I joined Dr. Damien Rodulfo’s sports chiropractic practice, Healing Hands Chiropractic. Just around the corner from my old digs, this office houses two chiropractors with advanced specialized training — Dr. Rodulfo and Dr. Herman — a physical therapy assistant, an acupuncturist specializing in dry needling and neuromuscular therapy, and me — sports massage therapist and science nerd extraordinaire. It is truly a dream team of allied practitioners and I am tremendously excited to be settling in and finding my niche in the practice.

download (1)This past week was my first week of class back at the Body Therapy Institute, where I attended massage school in 2009, this time taking the Advanced Myofascial Massage Certification course. This approach to bodywork more closely resembles Structural Integration or Rolfing while applying the principles of deep tissue massage to treat fascial restrictions. The concept is based on Tom Myers’ groundbreaking theory, presented in Anatomy Trains, wherein the connective tissue web that encapsulates every bone, muscle fiber, bundle of muscle tissue, and organ in the body is treated as a single unit — thus, a restriction in one extremity can affect movement and postural patterns in a completely different part of the body through the kinetic chain. The first week of class was an eye-opening and invigorating shift that turned my approach to massage on its ear (sometimes literally!), and it has really gotten me excited about the possibilities for applying this work in a sports and physical activity capacity.

As such, a unapologetic plug for my business: To complete the certification requirements, I must log several sessions of massage using these techniques between now and February, including a case study. This is your chance to get some awesome bodywork at a substantial discount. Myofascial structural massage is most effective if performed in a series with one session every week. If you book a 3-week massage series between now and February, you will receive 3 90-minute massages for just $50 each — a $120 savings. Payment in full is due at the time of the first appointment. These sessions are non-refundable for cancellation and non-transferable (re-scheduling accommodations within reason can be made). To book your myofascial structural massage series, you can call me at 336.253.4263 or book online at www.saraclawson.com (put “myofascial series” in the notes section to receive the discount). Myofascial massage is perfect for anyone — you will be able to remain clothed, move around, and notice immediate changes to posture and movement patterns. I really believe my existing and new clients alike will be impressed with the effectiveness of this approach!

2015 is shaping up to be a year of education for me: not only will I be completing my Advanced Myofascial Massage certification, but I am stepping over to the other side of the classroom as a science educator in several different venues.

post-greensboro-college-304I’m excited to be joining Greensboro College’s kinesiology department as an adjunct professor of biomechanics in January, offering a course and lab both spring and fall semesters. This is my first foray into higher education as a professor teaching a complete course, so I’m really nervous about doing a good job and getting my class excited about physics, math, and the elegantly intricate body in motion. Do you have any memories of great professors (or terrible ones) whose teaching methods have impacted your life? Let me know in the comments — I need all the help I can get!

I am also joining the faculty of Kneaded Energy School of Massage in January as the anatomy, physiology, and pathology teacher for the night program. We’ll be starting out with musculoskeletal anatomy until April, at which point I get to dive into physiology, chemistry, and pathology. This is a great step for me to bridge the gap between education and massage therapy, and I can’t wait to see the next generation of massage therapists in action as they enter the career at a time of wonderful growth and development. If you’ve ever been interested in pursuing massage as a career, KESM is a great place to start.

Also on the massage front, I am extremely excited to be offering a continuing education class of my own at the Body Therapy Institute in April: Sports and Performance Massage. If you are a massage therapist, physical therapist, or athletic trainer, this course is for you! We will be drawing from biomechanics, sports medicine, and evidence-based practice methods for therapeutic manual bodywork in an athletic setting. This is going to be a major on-your-feet, get-up-and-move class, and in the course of 3 days we’ll cover the body in motion, practical approaches to sports injuries, and coaching rehabilitative exercise to maximize performance (and save your hands). It’s a 21-hour course, which (combined with 3 hours of mandatory ethics training) satisfies the North Carolina requirement for massage therapy license renewal. We are going to have so much fun!

That’s all for now — gosh, I’m tired already just from proofreading this list, and it’s not even January! I hope the coming weeks and months hold winter wonderment for you and your family, and a special thank-you goes out to all the friends, family, clients, and mentors who have supported me on what has been a wild and amazing journey in sports medicine this year. Here’s wishing holiday cheer to all you happy runners, determined triathletes, crazy cyclists, and everyone else this year and 2015!


Relentless Curiousity

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It’s autumn in North Carolina, which can only mean three things: spectacular sunlit leaf color, a distinct uptick in latte consumption, and NCAA college sports in full swing.

I get the privilege of working with several Division I college sports programs, most notably my graduate school alma mater: the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I’ve been feeling the Spartan love this week with lots of outcall sports massages in the athletic training room, and working with these talented young people never fails to keep me on my toes.

The Internet Age has given athletic people vast resources to learn more about sports, nutrition, physiology, training, and therapies. On the whole, I am impressed that the availability of knowledge seems to help my massage clients to be well-informed and discriminating consumers of information. People who participate in sports at a high level view their bodies as tools — their vehicles for recreation and competition. This insight frequently leads them to constantly seek and evaluate information that will improve their performance, health, and experience. It also means they ask practitioners a lot of questions.

It’s easy to view “why?” as a challenge: a threat to authority and credibility. But forcing myself to dig deep into the body of knowledge through the incredibly effective (and sometimes incredibly annoying) Socratic method makes me a better practitioner and helps me build a reputation among my clients that I am a trustworthy source of information. The college students I work with ask questions that often catch me off guard, and the exercise of thinking analytically and critically to construct a thoughtful answer is often a missing ingredient in massage education.

Let’s apply it to a common instruction massage therapists give to clients following a bodywork session: “Be sure to drink plenty of water after your massage.”

But why?

The pat answer many of us learn in massage school is “to help flush out metabolic waste.” But what does that mean, and most importantly, is it a rigorous and factual response to the physiologic processes at work?

To be thorough and deductive in crafting an answer, consider all the pertinent facts. Massage therapy has a demonstrable effect on blood and lymphatic circulation, because the mechanical manipulation of soft tissues introduces heat and pressure, which creates a mild inflammatory response. The body’s response to topical heat is rapid dispersal by dilating capillaries in the tissue, which decreases blood pressure because of decreased vascular resistance. To maintain homeostasis, the body responds to the drop in blood pressure by adjusting fluid uptake in the blood stream and changing heart rate to stabilize blood pressure. One important role the circulatory system performs is transportation of the surplus substances of metabolism and energy production and expenditure to the kidneys to be excreted from the body. An example is the process of converting protein into energy: the leftover substances include ammonia, urea, and uric acid, which are toxic if they remain in the body. Massage is not directly shown to release metabolic waste from soft tissues under study conditions, but in consideration of the peripheral responses to massage, appropriate hydration supports homeostatic processes to promote optimal muscle function and recovery. Most importantly: with the exception of a few conditions such as hyponatremia (abnormally low electrolyte dilution), drinking water is an appropriate recommendation for overall health an wellness; the risks are vanishingly small, and the potential benefits are great.

For many clients, this explanation goes in to way too much physiology detail. However, I think as a therapist, it is important to understand the complete picture and to be able to articulate it accessibly and intelligently. It establishes credibility and develops the ability to think critically and scientifically about the therapeutic intention of our work. It also helps me to be better able to talk about the effects and benefits of massage to other medical providers, which has made a huge impact on building my client base and becoming regarded as a skilled practitioner, able to get into a variety of unique opportunities as a massage therapist. For me, it’s simply not enough to regurgitate pat answers; I am voraciously curious and keeping current on research helps me to continuously refine my methods and understanding.

If you are a consumer of massage therapy, I encourage you to ask your therapist questions about what he or she is doing and effects on the body. I think most therapists are like me — we get really excited when clients show an interest in our specialty and we want to share with you information that can positively impact your health, wellness, and understanding of your body. Learning about physiology and anatomy in school was like getting an owner’s manual to my body and I love sharing that feeling of empowerment through knowledge with my clients. I don’t think it’s appropriate to try to test therapists’ knowledge with “trap” questions, but to approach your therapist as a resource to broaden your understanding of health, wellness, and activity. Additionally, most massage therapists maintain an extensive referral network of other allied healthcare professionals, so even if we can’t directly answer your questions, we can almost certainly direct you to another expert who can.

Do you have a burning question about massage therapy, or are you a practitioner who has encountered great questions from your clients? Shout out below!


I’m a rookie soigneur — ask me anything!

How can you possibly top a crew like this?

A while ago, a user on the Bicycling forum of Reddit posted a request for an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) interview with someone working in elite or pro cycling. I thought it would be a fun opportunity to get a little more involved in the Reddit community, and to talk some about my experiences as a rookie soigneur this year with USA Cycling. If you aren’t familiar with Reddit, it is a vast website where users post links, pictures, questions, and information, which other users can then comment and up-vote or down-vote to determine its page rank and impact. It’s actually a fairly useful way of getting a pulse of the Internet and current affairs. It’s also a great vehicle for the dissemination of cat pictures, so there you go.

The following is a slightly edited transcript (only for syntax, not for content) of the questions and comments I received in my AMA. It was a really low-key, fun experience and I was pleased with the reception. Most of the questions were more about training and recovery, and how regular recreational cyclists can benefit from the concepts used in elite cycling. I was impressed with the questions (plus, this saves me actually having to write an original blog entry). Without further delay, my AMA:

 

User JurreNawijn asks:
Which races did you visit in my beautiful country, the Netherlands?

SwannySara:
USA Cycling is based out of Sittard, in Limburg. I really fell in love with the area and all of the Netherlands. My favorite race we did was the Koga Ronde van Zuid-Oost Friesland in May with the juniors team, where three of our riders went off the front of the breakaway for a spectacular 1-2-3 podium sweep finish.

I’ve also had the pleasure of working Three Days of Axel in Zeeland, the Bavaria Ronde van Lieshout, Math Salden and Heerlen Klimcriteriums with the juniors teams, and Ronde van Gelderland with the elite women. I was lucky to take in (as a spectator and cycling fan only) the Ridder Ronde post-tour criterium in Maastricht, and the final stage and finish of the Eneco Tour in Sittard.

User velohead2012 asks:
What are some things that athletes could do on their own to better help with recovery in regards to stretching and body work?

Anything you see people neglect that should also be addressed?

What are good resources and tools that every cyclist should have or know to get the most out of their recovery?

SwannySara:
I find the contrast between the elite riders I work with as a soigneur and the athletes I see in my private practice back home to be very telling in terms of attention to recovery. Cycling at the elite level is a sport of marginal gains, where the best riders emphasize everything they do from the very moment they wake up to make them faster on the bike.

The biggest aspects of recovery that the USAC program emphasizes are nutrition and hydration, muscle tissue recovery, and periodized training. The moment a rider finishes a race, their soigneur will typically hand them a tiny can of Fanta (the tasty little shot of sugar seems to improve glycogen deprivation and aid rehydration), a fresh bottle of cool water, and a bottle of recovery shake. My guys love OSMO Nutrition recovery mix with chocolate almond milk. The first 30 minutes following intense riding are critical for replenishing glycogen and protein. One of the the directors is fond of saying “race for today, recover for tomorrow.”

The muscle tissue recovery component includes massages, Podium Legs pneumatic boots, compression clothing, stretching/foam rolling, and appropriate rest. Riders get a massage every day during stage races, and usually every other day during training. When athletes get massage that often, I find that they acclimate to the bodywork really quickly and 30-45 minutes is generally ample time to accomplish my goals. The pneumatic boots are big favorites in the rider’s lounge while they are hanging out; these are medical-grade compression boots that strap up the entire leg and use air pockets to gently massage the tissue. Compression clothing is not used during training but socks and leggings are useful at rest and especially while traveling to promote circulation. Stretching is huge, and a lot of the young riders who come over to the program are not familiar with it. Prior to riding, shorter ballistic stretches that prime the muscle tissue for warming up are commonly overlooked but a great tool to speed up the warm-up process and prepare for activity. After riding, riders spend a long time doing deep static stretches and yoga poses with therabands and foam rollers. They often integrate some core exercises in with this. For regular recreational riders, a big stretching routine isn’t always practical or possible, so in my private practice I like to tell people to think like a cat: every time they get up, sit down, jump, run around, they are constantly stopping to stretch for a few seconds. If you make stretching a habit throughout the day instead of a huge production, it’s more likely to get done and also helps to combat the physical stresses incurred with everyday things like driving and sitting at a desk.

The last component is integrating recovery into the training schedule. Total rest days with no riding are very rare, and a recovery ride usually consists of an hour to 90 minutes of high-cadence, low-power output spinning. Recovery days sometimes include a few very small jumps or efforts with the goal of activating sore tissue and promoting circulation. Mostly, it’s important to keep everything moving with active recovery. It’s a misnomer that the day before a big ride or race has to be a recovery day; it really depends on the type of riding and the entire mesocycle of training period. Each coach approaches it a little differently, but the goal is the same: to integrate high-demand days with low-demand days to keep riders fit and fresh when it counts.

User kytap22011 asks:
are there any massage techniques you can do yourself after or before a ride?

SwannySara:
Before riding, a lot of elite riders like to use a light leg oil or embrocation (even on relatively warm days) to work into the muscle and wake up their legs a bit. It has more of a sensory effect than anything, but it feels nice and makes your legs really shiny!

After riding, I am a big advocate of foam rollers. These large, dense cylinders come in a variety of shapes and sizes but the basic inexpensive ones work great. They are particularly effective for lateral hip, glutes, quads, and hamstrings and you can find lots of Youtube tutorials that give good techniques for use. There are a number of commercially available products like TheraCanes and trigger point balls that work very effectively, but I’m a fan of inexpensive or free alternatives like tennis balls (great for getting hard-to-reach knots) and frozen water bottles. Probably one of the best things you can do is to lay with your legs straight up a wall so your back is on the floor and your legs are straight up (putting a pillow under your hips can ease back tension). This is a great method to help restore circulation, ease local inflammation, and bring tissues to a healthy resting length.

User sjg91 asks:
In your opinion, do foam rollers make any difference?

SwannySara:
I worked on a study when I was in grad school on self myofascial release using foam rolling. There is a paucity of research on the subject, so most of it is inferred from normal sports massage and deep tissue research study methods. The study was small-scale but one thing we noticed was that people seemed to have more appreciable lasting results when foam rolling was performed a bit longer — about 10 minutes per leg was the sweet spot. I think that’s the biggest mistake people make; they lay on the foam roller, it does its searing agony work, and they let up too quickly. It’s more effective to ease into it gradually over a long period of time.

Another mistake I think people make is when rolling the IT band. The illiotibial band itself doesn’t have a lot of vascularization or contractility on its own; it is simply the long tendon tail of the tensor fascia latae muscle located on the side of the hip. Rolling the IT band doesn’t really do much to relieve IT band tightness or attachment point pain, but gentle, progressive rolling on the TFL muscle is quite effective.

AlvaSt-SnowGiant comments:
Thanks for the insight. I’m going to try rolling the TFL: I have hip pain on the right side during my rides – the kind that makes me stand up and pound my fist on my hip while cycling. Maybe this will help.

SwannySara:
One thing that I think cyclists are really notorious for neglecting is deep lateral rotator strength and balance. I did my master’s practicum on motion-capture bike fitting as a diagnostic tool for unexplained lower extremity pain, and we found that the vast majority of it can be traced back to insufficiency of the piriformis, gluteus medius, and deep six to stabilize hip balance and knee tracking. This frequently precipitates IT band pathologies because failure of the piriformis to support hip stability throughout the pedal stroke recruits the TFL and lateral hip to compensate. In addition to foam rolling, you may want to try incorporating clam shell exercises, glute bridges, and tri-planar hip mobility in the quadruped position (good explanations of all these exercises are a Google search away). Good luck!

User AlvaSt-Snow comments:
That may explain it: I’ve had problems with weak piriformis … I thought I had nailed that issue; I will look up those exercises (I know clam shell already…)

User 1138311 asks:
How does one become a professional soigneur? My girlfriend is an LMT who would love to start working with/building her business with local teams in our area but so far while people express interest she’s been having trouble helping people follow through on their interest – any advice?

SwannySara:
I found my way into it partly by chance, and partly by doggedly pursuing every avenue I could. I really wish there were more training available, but it’s still very much a “who you know” kind of ordeal. My best advice would be to try to get into a volunteer opportunity, which was what I did my first year of working the Tour de l’Abitibi. It’s the most work you’ll ever do for free, but it’s an excellent way to make connections and start to learn the expectations and nuances of the job. Another suggestion is to look for races in your area with elite/continental pro teams competing, and see if their soigneur will allow you to shadow him or her.
I actually lucked into my involvement with USA Cycling; I had applied to a soigneur training program offered by the Union Cycliste Internationale that was unfortunately cancelled due to lack of applicants. I had already taken the time off work and started sending emails to anyone I could think of pleading my case. My resume eventually got in front of the VP of Athletics at USA Cycling, who forwarded it on to their European operations manager.

The bulk of soigneurs are basically freelancers who find the work when they can, which is kind of where I am in my career right now. It has the advantage that I can keep my home base here in the states and my private practice, but I am interested in moving more toward a steady gig with an elite, continental pro, or world tour team (every soigneur’s dream). I’ll keep you posted!

I think the main thing that I didn’t know going into the job was that massage is pretty much the easiest part of it, and not necessarily the biggest or always the most important aspect. Big teams expect soigneurs to have a lot of experience with food prep, knowledge of sports nutrition, navigating race courses, driving team vehicles (including large vans), and to work in Europe it is almost compulsory that you speak at least one other language apart from English (I’m working hard on improving my French and German). I really didn’t know what I was getting into and there were a lot of parts that came as a bit of a shock! I’ve found other soigneurs to be wonderful and open about explaining their methods and expertise though, so I would really encourage her to get a taste of it.

User deaconwillis asks:
How do the elite cyclists you work with treat the off season differently than the race calendar? Any running, swimming, etc. to mix things up?

SwannySara:
Several of the U-23 and juniors riders also participate in cyclocross during the off-season, which has the benefits of high-intensity anaerobic demand and improving handling skills in tough conditions. One of the U-23 riders, who was a junior last year, won the cobblestone jersey at Three Days of Axel and credited his success to his cyclocross racing. It was a huge deal to post the fasted times on the gnarly pave amid a field of the finest Dutch and Belgian riders!

Most will incorporate more strength training during the off-season and I know several who ski (both Nordic and Alpine) for fun and fitness. Some of the Southern California guys love to surf, which I think contributes to their core strength and fantastic laid-back racing attitudes. Not a whole lot of swimming (unless a coach prescribes deep-water running for fitness or injury rehab, which is awesome exercise that everyone hates), but a few have said they like to run because it’s such an efficient way to keep off weight, and many came from cross country running backgrounds before they became cyclists. Everyone rides through the winter, but they back the intensity way off for several weeks before starting to add in the top-end fitness fine-tuning just prior to the start of the season. I think with the juniors, it’s more important to have other activities in the off-season just to keep them mentally fresh and motivated. With the U-23 riders, they have gotten to the point of cycling being their vocation, not their avocation, and they become much more serious about only pursuing other forms of activity that directly benefit their riding.

User AlvaSt-Snow asks:
Any advice for sore feet? The balls of my feet start to ache during my rides. I’ve swapped out the cheap foam liners in my shoes and put in stiffer ‘superfeet’ insoles (the green ones) and it helped a bit… but can foot strengthening exercises help? Some kind of foot massage?

SwannySara:
Several of the elite riders I’ve worked with have trouble with foot pain. Massage seems to help stretch the plantar fascia — the connective tissue and ligamentous tissue bundles that run lengthwise along the sole. I’ve had issues with foot pain while riding off an on through my own cycling career and stretching the sole surface out by rolling on tennis balls and frozen water bottles does seem to help.

Shoes and pedals make a big difference, and using Superfeet insoles was a great idea. Very stiff soles help, but make sure that the shoe actually fits your foot and doesn’t cause pressure points itself. I’ve cut up foam makeup wedges to help with shoe fit in the past; it’s tedious but actually works pretty well. Be sure your shoes are the right size — cycling shoes should not allow much movement of the foot within the shoe and your toes should be pretty close to the end of the toe box. A deep heel cup will help with foot stability.
One of the U-23 riders this spring was having a lot of issues with pain right on the ball of his foot; his trade team rode Speedplay pedals and he had just switched over from using larger platform Look pedals. The smaller pedal platform and “free float” skating action of the cleat/pedal interface didn’t distribute the pressure across his footbed as well, resulting in hot spots. He vowed to write his own choice of pedals into his contract for next season. Making sure that your cleat is positioned in line with your foot, not with the line markings printed on the bottom of the shoe (these are usually bogus and arbitrary), and moving your cleat back so the center is right below the widest part of the ball of your foot will help.

I think the biggest thing to look at with any pain on the bike is your fit. Foot pain often comes from exerting uneven force laterally across the foot, and poor knee tracking caused by improper saddle height or fore/aft can impact the angle of contact. Sometimes people with musculoskeletal abnormalities (such as internal tibial rotation) have a lot of trouble with foot rotation, and in this case shims beneath the cleat can be useful. You can do some exercises with light ankle weights and flexing the foot to either side (pronation/supination), which will help activate the peroneals to support your lower leg stability. Good luck!

That wraps up the AMA. Do you have a question to ask? Post it below and I’ll continue to add!


Striving for a Beginner’s Mind

First, a disclaimer: this post is going to be a self-congratulatory/self-flagellating exercise in navel gazing, although I hope not entirely devoid of insights. If that’s not your thing (and it’s totally cool if it isn’t!), it’s probably best to skip over this one. I promise to get back to bicycle racing soon. Without further delay, I present my latest Soigneur’s Diary entry.

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This is a really flippant, privileged, entitled-white-girl-from-the-suburbs thing to say, but rings true: I’m not used to not being good at things.

I’m a little bit on the type-A side in that respect. I tend to pick up new things pretty easily — new sports (with the notable exception of inline skating), artistic pursuits, academic skills, clinical skills, using technology, and so forth. I try to embrace the “see one, do one, teach one” approach to learning and it generally serves me well. I take pride in mastery of processes and making meaningful contributions through my work. I learn best when I can take a methodical approach and clearly see how all the moving pieces fit together.

So it’s absolutely driving me crazy that I’m not a great soigneur already. I feel like I have about 1 out of every 10 days of total competence versus completely screwing up and getting in the way. There are a few things I’m doing very well, like therapeutic massage and first aid management, but it seems like such a small percentage of the job. It’s the part that the director rarely sees, which really shouldn’t matter — performing my job expertly is its own reward and if I’m doing it right, my part should be relatively invisible as athletes recover from racing and heal from injury easily and rapidly. I would never presume to take credit for their achievements, but I am keenly aware that poor clinical reasoning on my part will inevitably impact them negatively.

But that’s the tip of the iceberg; the other 90% of unseen lurking mass is the part that consistently trips me up and makes me feel foolish at best and incompetently negligent at worst. Part of the challenge is the rest of the job should be more or less invisible too: the best soigneurs get noticed by going unnoticed. Everything is immaculately prepared and arranged when it needs to happen without question or hesitation. All the details are managed to make a perfectly smooth big picture. All this is done without the expectation of thanks; at the end of the day, the things that matter are that the riders are cared for, and the rest of the staff is happy and never inconvenienced by a task left incomplete.

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I am working so hard to get to that point. I had a long phone conversation with my mentor yesterday, who likened my situation to being thrown into battle on the front lines without basic training. (I have a hard enough time justifying a career in something as “trivial” as sports to my Quaker Meeting; the military metaphor might be enough to get my Friend card revoked!) It does feel a bit like that sometimes, but I think of it more like a counter-terrorism squad: people only notice the superb work they do when they let that one-in-a-million slip through the cracks and horrors ensue. (I’ve been watching Homeland in my spare time before bed; ugh, my Quaker card is definitely in serious jeopardy now). Obviously, forgetting a chair or mislabeling a supply box doesn’t have quite as serious repercussions, but it shows that I’m not performing at the high standards to which I hold myself. I feel like 5 months of doing this job should be enough time to achieve proficiency; I mean, seriously, sure there’s the sports medicine bit, but mostly I wash vans and fill bottles and make sandwiches. How hard can it be?

Screen-Shot-2013-04-25-at-17.35.34

I’m not a dumb person. I’m comfortable solving calculus-based biomechanics problems, I know all the bones in the human hand and nerves in the brachial plexus, I play half a dozen musical instruments, I got a perfect score on a section of the GRE, I can still recite the first canto of Dante’s Inferno in Italian that I memorized in college (which is probably why I have trouble remembering phone numbers). I’m a serial enthusiast and when I get really excited and into a particular topic, I read everything I can get my hands on to amass a near-encyclopedic knowledge about it (my mom sometimes calls me Cliff Clavin and I don’t think it’s a compliment). Emotional and social intelligence…maybe not so much. I have a hard time fitting in and perceiving social cues. I get so excited about successfully navigating a social interaction when I meet a new person that I invariably immediately forget their name. I don’t have a strong personality, and I think that causes me to come off as aloof, shy, and boring. In reality, I usually just have no idea what to say. I don’t think of myself as particularly cute, funny, or interesting, so I tend to discount and discredit the qualities and contributions I bring to the table. I am less shy than just painfully introverted, and I recharge with alone time and spending one-on-one time with close friends. I expend so much energy trying to be liked that I make myself wholly unlikeable. I’ve come to grips with the realization that I’m kind of weird and have weird interests, but I lack the confidence to fully own my weirdness and instead fall firmly into the awkward zone. I haven’t really found my people, so I make up for my difficulty forming friendships by throwing myself into work and dramatically overthinking everything. It’s pretty exhausting, actually.

Brain

I’m a worrier. I was in therapy specifically for aviophobia last year, and I realized that air travel was hardly the only time I experienced overwhelming anxiety. The psychologist I worked with appealed to my academic tendencies and gave me an array of articles and chapters to read about how the brain processes threat. Fear is hardwired into the prefrontal cortex “lizard brain” as an important survival tactic. When we receive a sensory stimulus like a sabertooth tiger crouching in the grass, an ancient programmed circuitry fires into action, engaging the sympathetic nervous system to divert all energy to escaping the danger. It is an evolutionary advantage for the brain to perceive a threat where none exists — if we assume that every rustle in the grass is a tiger, we are more likely to survive rather than if we incorrectly identify the rustle in the grass as just the wind when a tiger is ready to pounce. This tendency toward hypervigilance is the reason our species has been able to survive, proliferate, and evolve. It also causes an awful lot of problems in the modern world. When the amygdala receives signals that a threat is present, it floods the blood stream with stress hormones that activate the sympathetic nervous system, stopping metabolic processes and heightening sensory input to prepare the body to face or flee from danger. When a specific, discernable threat is present in the environment (the tiger, to continue the example), the system functions as designed. When there is not a threat readily identifiable, the amygdala looks for other environmental cues that could signal danger, and even cues within the body such as elevated heart rate and respiration. A panic attack is, in essence, crippling fear of fear itself. We then spin “what if” stories that have no actual basis in reality, taking us out of the moment to exist in an imaginary realm of fear and dread. Even though the conscious mind knows it isn’t real, the prefrontal cortex has no way of differentiating and responds to the imagined fear stimulus just as if it were a tangible threat.

My biggest fear is shame, and I am tremendously good at inducing it in a variety of situations. I think this is true for most people, and definitely for me: if I’m given a list of a hundred things I do well and one area in need of improvement, I obsess about the shortcoming and discount all the proficiencies. I dwell on my goof-ups and allow them to overshadow my talents. I walk around like a puppy that’s just been beaten with a newspaper, afraid that my coworkers are going to yell at me the way I am mentally berating myself (usually they don’t, but I live in terror of their disapproval). I parked a van in the wrong place yesterday and I spent the rest of the day in a funk when one of the other staff pointed out my error in an effort to help. It’s an attractive quality, no?

It’s also absurdly unproductive, and I know it is. My guilt and fear that I will never measure up is probably my biggest obstacle to competence. How do I possibly ask others to put their confidence in me, when I lack confidence in my own abilities?

While I was bemoaning my plight to my endlessly indulgent mentor, my mother sent me a TED talk that spoke to the heart of the matter.

In the video, researcher-storyteller Brené Brown explores the link between vulnerability, authenticity, shame, and courage — spoiler alert: she finds that the ability to embrace imperfection and celebrate shortfalls with successes alike is at the core of successfully finding fulfillment in all our relationships and endeavors. Yikes. The very idea makes my throat tight with the first inklings of panic. Wouldn’t putting my vulnerability on display counteract all the effort and energy I put into appearing like a pillar of confidence and strength?

Writing this post to go in the public sphere is my first step toward a healthier exploration of vulnerability. I don’t have to turn into a scared child to accept the fact that I will fail in life, sometimes often, hopefully not too spectacularly, and that’s ok.

My mentor had some great advice that is already helping me to feel more secure about my abilities. His first piece was to stop assuming logical leaps and to be more pedantic about questioning each procedural step. I love this approach; I learn best when I read the directions completely before assembling an appliance, so I have a thorough understanding of the process timeline from start to finish, and a discernable checklist of items that assure the task has been completed correctly. He told me to let go of my concern that people will judge me for insisting on a detailed explanation of mundane things, because an excellent end product at the expense of taking a little more time with the process is better than struggling as I go without a clear vision. The same concept applies to the challenge of dealing with cultural differences that I face with working in Europe — it is always preferable to spend more time hammering out details ahead of time than to assume we’re all on the same page because I don’t want to take up anybody’s time.

He implored me to do one thing at a time. Multitasking is the enemy of process. In science, the most important part of experimentation is the ability to repeat the exact conditions that will achieve a specific end result. Adding too many variables invites error. Accomplish each task completely before moving on to the next, and focus on the task at hand instead of allowing my attention to wander to the next one. Keeping a physical checklist is helpful for me in this area, because it’s one fewer thing to juggle in my mind as I learn a new skill. A slightly slower, more deliberate process is always preferable to hurried neglect.

As I establish processes that achieve satisfactory results, he encouraged me to allow those to become as instinctive as my sports medicine practice has become. He is the only director I have worked with who has actually seen me in action doing sports massage and first aid, and he commented that I am so comfortable in my element that a complex maneuver looks as intuitive and natural as getting out of a chair and walking across a room. I find it a little ironic that I am struggling to make setting out chairs and mixing sports drink as easy a task as performing a physical evaluation for knee pathologies. On the other hand, it’s good to remember that the hard medical part that many soigneurs spend years mastering is already more or less second nature for me.

One piece of advice that struck me at first as a little counter-intuitive was to apologize less. I have always tended to show profuse contrition over even relatively minor offenses, or those that are not even really my fault but I appeared in the wrong place at the wrong time. He told me to quit taking ownership and responsibility for things that are out of my control — not to be an excuse-maker, but also not to saddle myself with the burden of every mishap. Sincerity comes less from expression guilt and more from the actions taken to not let the same mistake happen again, and that’s what’s really meaningful to other people.

He instructed me to let mistakes go immediately. Every time I allow some part of my mind to linger in the past and obsess about a mistake, I am diverting attention from the task at hand and making another mistake more likely. It is always more productive, and often safer, to take a lesson and whisk away the rest. Mistakes in and of themselves have no value — the value comes from learning to approach the situation differently next time for a successful outcome.

Finally, he cautioned me against comparing myself to others. This is a pretty tall order, as I tend to evaluate the world around me through judgment rather than perception. There was a beautiful blonde Australian soigneur here this spring who was also a first-timer, and I was in awe of her skill. She was such a natural at every part of the job, and her extroverted effervescence and gregarious personality endeared her to the rest of the staff quickly in a way I admired and even envied. I have come to realize that she made just as many mistakes as me, but the biggest difference in her approach was her ability to laugh it off and hop right back on the horse. She seemed a lot less stressed than I feel most of the time, and I think her resilience was a huge part of that. I have been racking my brain for ways to develop the same resilience myself; it hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps it already exists within me and was waiting to be tapped.

I cash in another night feeling just a little better about my work today than I did yesterday. I gave a director a bad driving direction today, and I forgot that I had promised a rider to change his wound dressing when another director asked me to make a gas station run for diesel in the van. I didn’t let go quite soon enough on a water bottle feed and the rider knocked it out of my hand. But nobody died. We even won our race. And I am coming to realize that today was a job well done, even if it wasn’t a job done perfectly. And that’s ok.


Another Year of Abitibi

photo by Kathleen Dreier

photo by Kathleen Dreier

For a second year in a row, I woke up the morning after arriving home from the Tour de l’Abitibi nursing a raging head cold and a spinning mind. These are pretty much the only two similarities between my 2013 and 2014 Abitibi experiences — it was an entirely difference race, both for me and for my team.

I am confining my reflections on the 2014 Tour de l’Abitibi to solely detail my involvement in the tour as a soigneur for the USA Cycling National Team and how it differed from my first year at Abitibi with the Selection A & B teams, with recollections of the race stages themselves as they directly pertain to the role I played at the Tour. As this story unfolds, you will understand why I feel that it is important to provide as impartial an account as possible. I view it as my responsibility to document the events of Abitibi 2014, but also to present a sensitive account that respects the ongoing privacy of everyone who was involved in the race, and to avoid projecting my own impressions or repeating unsubstantiated hearsay. Race reports have already been written and published as a part of the public record, widely available through the official race results and blog.

I was blissfully unaware that I would ever be composing any such disclaimer as I set out in my sardine can-esque packed car headed north for Quebec. I made the drive up in 3 days and met up with my friend and former director sportif, Mark Fasczewski, and his mechanic Mark Bush in North Bay, Ontario. We formed a two-car caravan and made the rest of the journey to Amos, Quebec, the oldest town (celebrating its centennial this year) in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region. I hit the ground running, as most of the team had already arrived and needed some food to tide them over until dinner after their early afternoon training ride. After a trip to explore the local Canadian Tire (the world’s most claustrophobic store) and a grocery, I set to preparing sandwiches and some of the equipment and items I had brought, such as a spare bike, trainers, bottles and my world-famous Sarabars. I arrived on Sunday afternoon and the first stage of the race wasn’t until Tuesday, so I had a little bit of spare time I spent on a bike ride with Mark Fasczewski. It was spectacular to enjoy the open road and fresh air, but three days in the car had wreaked havoc on my legs and I developed painful calf cramps that would plague me all week.

People don’t believe me when I talk about the Tour de l’Abitibi rider and staff accommodations. I didn’t believe Mark Fasczewski when he originally told me what to expect, and his account absolutely could not have been more factual. The Abitibi-Témiscamingue region is relatively recently-settled by French Canadians, with a population of First Nation natives who have been there much longer, and comprised of a handful of small towns spread across a vast expanse of remote Canadian taiga hills and forest, 11 hours of driving north of the Canadian-US border at Niagara. The Tour moves around to different host towns but is always housed in a school — this year, the École Polyvalente de la Forêt secondary school on the edge of the town. I have good reason to believe that the same foam sleeping mats provided for staff and riders have been used since the first edition of the Tour de l’Abitibi 46 years ago. The school classrooms are converted into dormitories with mats on the floor, a fitted sheet, and a pillow (there was a mix-up at the hospital providing the sheets this year, so no top sheets materialized). A bit of plastic sheeting is duct taped to the floor to prevent dirty bikes from soiling the classrooms, and desks and chairs are piled high and shoved to one wall. The Tour mercifully provides a separate room for female staff members, but the sleeping situation is the same (minus the herd of juniors, director, and mechanic). Meals are served in the school cafeteria and consist of nutritionally satisfactory but culinarily dubious fare. My director famously described it as “an epicurean journey through purgatory.” Mechanic and soigneur stations are set up outside in the school parking lot, with a spiderweb of hoses linked together resembling a Griswold family electrical network. Having worked at a healthy amount of UCI juniors races now, I can safely say there was a not inconsequential degree of roughing it.

The team was comprised of six riders. Three were second-year Abitibi veterans, all of whom I had been working with this spring in Europe: Will Barta, Diego Binatena, and Austin Vincent. The other three were juniors doing Abitibi for the first time: first-year juniors Adrien Costa (who was coming off a stunning tour in Europe with a big win at Tour du Pays de Vaud) and Gavin Hoover, and second-year junior and 2013 World Championship time trial bronze medalist Zeke Mostov. On paper, this team had one of the best racing pedigrees in USA National Team Abitibi history and I was eager to see how they would perform on the chip-sealed roads of northeastern Quebec. Our director, Barney King, is the winningest team director in Abitibi history, and mechanic Jost Zevnik has been working bike races since he was younger than the juniors we were supporting. Our staff was reuniting from European racing earlier this spring, including the Course de la Paix in the Czech Republic, another prestigious Nations Cup race.

We spent all of Monday morning doing time trial course previews and I began massages for all six riders after lunch. Monday afternoon held a reception for the team staff, team presentation and photographs, and a challenge sprint prologue in which heats of four riders compete on an 800-meter out and back drag race to award the fastest sprinter. Austin Vincent was selected to represent the USA National Team, and he made it out of the first heat with a blaze of power. In the next heat, he got bumped by another rider who clipped him out of his pedal, and he made the tactical decision to sit up to save his energy for racing later on.

 

Tuesday brought the first stage of the Tour, a 118-km race from Rouyn-Noranda (last year’s race headquarters) back to Amos.  Because the stages this year were especially long and had limited possibilities for feeding from the team car, our director asked me to establish feed zones on the road as soon as possible after the 50-km mark using my personal car. We arrived well before the riders, who take shuttles provided by the race to the start, and I realized I was low on gas. I went to the gas station down the street, hopped out of the car, puzzled momentarily at the process required to get gas (my gas-station-French is particularly useless), and accidentally bumped the door closed with my hip — with the keys locked inside. Crap! I looked for the magnetic key hider under the wheel well, but it too was gone; probably jostled loose on the drive to Canada. I ran back up the street to get help and a cell phone so I could call AAA, and our team sponsor and great friend Nathalie Bélanger helped me translate and get a tow driver out to pop open the lock. The efficient and friendly driver saved the day, and just in time to get all the necessary nutrition locked inside to the riders before they started the stage.  I then picked up my feed zone buddy, Thomas Kristiansen from the Denmark National Team, who was also a first-year rookie soigneur and had worked the Course de la Paix, although we never really crossed paths in the Czech Republic this spring. Without further ado we were off to the hills.

Despite the steep grade, the feeding zone was fast and difficult. I managed to feed 3 riders, but they were spaced out through the front third of the pack and not in ideal position to accept bottles or to control the race. The rest of the stage was a sustained exercise in frustration from the swanny side of things — we were denied entry into the caravan because my car lacked team stickers (which was proper procedure but the way they did it was pretty confusing) and we were not permitted to follow the diversion that would have taken us to the race finish, so no soigneurs who were on the road were able to make it to the finish. Even the soigneurs who backtracked on the race route to take a different road into Amos were stopped at the barricades and didn’t make it through — the only soigneur who made it was Sebastian from the Quebec Regional Team, and that was out of luck; the volunteer at the barricade happened to be the father of one of the riders on his team.

I was in constant text message contact with Nathalie while I was stuck in race traffic and asked her how the finish had played out. She said simply, “very badly.” It wasn’t until later that night I found out what she meant: we didn’t even have a rider on the first page of results, and our team rank had fallen to 13th. Barring a crash, it was the worst possible outcome for the stage. Still, my job remains the same whether we’re winning or losing: I got to work administering massages to our six riders, washing bottles, and preparing laundry for the morning.

Wednesday morning I got to enjoy all that the Amos laundromat had to offer: namely, plenty of washing machines and a dearth of working dryers (that would gladly steal all your coins nonetheless). I returned with mostly-dry laundry for the team and staff and dived head-first into bottle duty.

Soigneurs in their natural habitat

Soigneurs in their natural habitat

Preparing bottles for a cycling team is a unique paradox: no matter how many I prepare, they will invariably use them all. If I make 6 per rider (which is pretty standard: 2 to start on the bikes, 2 for each rider in the team car, 1 for each for the feed zone, and 1 for the finish), I’ll be left with a cooler of empty bottles at the end of the day. Filling both team car and soigneur car coolers to the brim (7-9 per rider) yields incomprehensibly similar results. It doesn’t even seem to matter the distance they are racing — a 112 km stage with open feeding from the team car and a stationary feed zone on the road uses up just as many bottles as a 55 km stage with no open feeding. Perhaps this is one of the great mysteries of the universe, along with socks disappearing from the dryer and how many licks it really takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop.

Wednesday afternoon featured one of my favorite stage starts in the small town of La Sarre. The mood was good as we assembled for the start, and Canadian National Team director Pat Gauthier joked Barney that he had some binoculars we could borrow to see the race from our position midway back in the caravan. The course featured two large sections of pavement construction with dirt surface, which thankfully caused no problems during the race. Despite the pancake-flat elevation profile, Thomas and I situated ourselves on a small rise around 62 km into the route and waited for the bunch. Their arrival brought great news: both of our teams had a rider in the breakaway, over two minutes ahead of the field. Team USA were redeeming themselves from their Stage 1 performance, and in dramatic fashion. This time we were permitted to pass the police vans and enter the very end of the caravan, just behind the ambulance and neutral support vehicle, which allowed us easy and expedient entry into the finishing circuits. The break stayed away, with Will Barta taking 2nd in the sprint and 2nd overall in the general classification.

The Stage 2 results put us in excellent position going into Stage 3, the individual time trial. Of the six riders on our team, five of them finished in the top 10 spots in the time trial national championship earlier in the month, and we knew a good race would help propel everyone back into GC contention. The race was divided into six waves for the six riders on each team going from lowest in GC to highest, which permitted the team car to follow every rider’s time trial. The course was a straightforward out-and-back 10 km course with a headwind on the way back in and a small hill up to the finish. Time trial national champion Adrien Costa was first off and set what would become an unbeatable time of 12:14 — just shy of 50 kph average. As each rider crossed the finish, it became clear that our team was delivering an unprecedented dominant performance. By the time Will Barta went off for his race, we held the top three spots; Will’s ride came in just ahead of Zeke Mostov for 2nd place and a secure spot in the leader’s jersey. Diego Binatena rounded out the top 4 for an Abitibi first — not only did the USA National Team sweep the podium, but took all 4 of the top spots in the race. This is the first time a team went 1-4 in the 46-year history of the Tour de l’Abitibi in any stage. It was also the second time this season that Barney, Jost, and I had witnessed an all-USA podium, which to my knowledge is a USA Cycling juniors first.

As with many juniors races, the time trial was succeeded by a brief evening road race stage. Our director sent me on a mission to procure binoculars to remind Pat Gauthier of his little jibe, which went over with uproarious laughter. One of the things I enjoy most about Canadians is their great capacity for humor. Since the 55 km race was too short to permit feeding, I got to enjoy the race from the team car. I have ridden in a team car many times during races but never in the #1 position and it made for a tremendously exciting front row seat to a stage that was both scenic and full of nail-biting excitement. About 10k into the race, a massive crash swept through the tightly-bunched peloton like cascading dominoes. Over 50 riders were caught up in the crash, and it took some expert driving on Barney’s behalf to get us through the carnage of broken bikes and downed riders. The pack swept through the plain country of Malartic with astonishing speed and negotiated the hairpin turns like a vast, undulating multicolored snake. The unbridled beauty of a peloton streaking through the sunlit countryside will never grow old for me. Around 10k from the finish another crash occurred — this one smaller than the first, but much more energetic with bikes ejected high overhead at great velocity. This crash did unfortunately result in several race-ending injuries, but our six riders kept out of the fray in the safety of the front of the pack. The run-in to the finish was fast and technical, and the USA National Team riders wisely conceded to contesting the sprint, keeping out of harm’s way and staying in control of the leader’s jersey and best young rider, worn by 2nd in GC Adrien Costa.

After the stage, we had to wait a particularly long time for anti-doping protocol for Will Barta (overall race leader) and Adrien Costa (stage winner from the morning time trial). Mark Bush, the Flagstaff Selection Team’s mechanic, pulled me aside to ask a special favor for a rider. Tommy Lucas got caught up in the first crash and although he only had a couple bumps and scrapes, his derailleur hanger had snapped off, rendering his bike unrideable. Tommy thought his race was over, but Mark pulled off a MacGyveresque feat of roadside mechanic work, removing the derailleur, breaking the chain, resizing it with a new link, and forcing it onto the 52×15 gearing (which I don’t know how he did without losing a finger) thus rendering Tommy’s bike into a singlespeed — on the second to hardest possible gear. Team director Mark Fasczewski told Tommy they would accept any penalties they might incur for sheltering a rider in the slipstream (normally a 100 Swiss Franc fine) and they were off — six minutes behind the peloton. Tommy gave it his all, delivering a stunning ride; the team car’s white bumper had the tire marks to prove it. Tommy made it all the way back to the caravan, at points exceeding 70 kph on a singlespeed, and was a hair’s breadth away from making it back into the bunch when the second crash happened, causing the team cars ahead of him in the caravan to brake. Tommy had to hit his brakes and didn’t have the power to get back up to speed in his huge gear. Mark Fasczewski and Mark Bush found Tommy after the race finish collapsed in the grass in tears — lamenting that he had let the team down. This was the part of the story that made me tear up too; after giving the most amazing, dedicated ride of the Tour, Tommy was worried that he had let the team down with the few seconds he lost behind the main field. I said that of course I would do anything I could to help him recover from the effort. Tommy’s recovery had to wait, as the team staff of several American teams’ staff kept up with tradition by going out to dinner after the double day. By the time I made it back to the school it was 11 at night and I thought they might be asleep, but when I checked in the Flagstaff Selection team room, they had already made a makeshift massage table out of teacher’s desks and a foam pad. I pulled out all the stops with elbows, thumbs, and stretches that would make most people beg for mercy, but Tommy was grateful for the relief. I knew he responded well to deep tissue massage from the spring racing block I worked with him in Europe. When I asked him why he didn’t throw in the towel during the stage, he said that he couldn’t stop thinking about a conversation that he and I had in the Czech Republic. Tommy had been dropped from the main group on the first stage of the Peace Race and didn’t make the time cut, so he spent the remainder of the week as a soigneur-in-training helping me with bottles, feed zones, and all of the behind-the-scenes minutiae of stage racing. After a particularly long day, I told him that if he took anything away from the experience, it would be to never give up in a race because he now had firsthand experience of how awful it was to have to sit on the sidelines. It was extremely gratifying to know that I made even a little bit of impact that helped him suffer through 40 km of motorpacing torture — and an important reminder that everything I say to juniors might come back around, for better or for worse!

After another morning of laundry and shopping runs, we assembled to make our way to the next stage. Team morale was high going into Stage 5, a windy run-in from Val d’Or to Amos. At the feed zone, the team looked excellent, decisively controlling the peloton with a quick pace to discourage breakaways. I proceeded back to the finish, got on the course for the circuits, and saw the pack come through the first two passes under the finish banner. Things were still looking good. Then the words that made my heart stop: “The brown jersey is down.” The announcer gave no further information and I scrambled for my phone to see if I had any messages. Nathalie wrote: “Will crashed. Getting back. Try to take time.” I got ready for the finish and hit the plunger on my stopwatch; I didn’t see Will for nearly 40 seconds until he finally rolled across, scraped and bleeding.

In the minutes, hours, and days that followed, a lot of accounts emerged of the crash and the circumstances surrounding it. All that I can really say is that crashes happen in bike racing, particularly at big races like Nations Cup events where many teams have a lot at stake and everyone is a little more on edge than usual. This year’s Tour de l’Abitibi had already been heavily marked by crashes (Tour commentator Olivier Grondin called pavement “the most visited tourist attraction in Abitibi”) and with so many riders on rough roads, crashes are hardly surprising, if not inevitable, and it’s nearly impossible to assign blame to any one specific precipitating factor. The crash involved riders from the lead GC group, who were lining up to maintain their position and contend for the time bonuses that come with a stage win. One of the highly-ranked Danish riders broke his nose, and a Canadian rider severely fractured his clavicle. Will Barta and Adrien Costa both went down, with Adrien getting the worse end with road rash on his arm and hip and hyperextended knees from being stuck in the pedals as he was launched forward. Will, for his part, had seen the lead group beginning to get twitchy and unpredictable and sat up to stay out of the fray; he very nearly avoided the crash and got through unscathed until someone fell across his back wheel and pulled him down. The toughest part was that the crash occurred with just 4.6 km to go — the UCI rule dictates that crashed riders in the final 3 km receive the same finish time as the lead group, but crashes outside of 3 km must chase to catch up and do not get the luxury of any extra time.

The team meeting that night was an intense experience, with a sense of determination slowly but surely supplanting the attitude of frustration and despair. Being a fly on the wall when great coaches discuss tactics is one of the benefits to my job, and I find it as deeply fascinating as a beginner coach and student of sport psychology myself. Being a part of the team staff makes these meetings even more engrossing and inspiring, and I noticed a palpable change in attitude. Riders who are on top of the world with positive race results makes for a great, energetic atmosphere, but it is often when teams encounter adversity that a real sense of community begins to develop.

The mood was grim going into Stage 6, which featured 10 circuits in the city of Amos. The USA National Team, Canadian National Team, and Danish National Team all had profound reason to blow apart the race and launch attack after attack, which very nearly materialized. Unfortunately Mother Nature had other plans; just as a break was starting to get away, the first few fat drops of rain fell and unleashed a torrential downpour, rendering the course into a veritable skating rink and demolishing any chances of a fast-paced getaway. The pace slowed as the riders negotiated the course’s many turns. The circuit stage at Abitibi always establishes a feed zone on a hill, and the feed zone in this year’s edition was so short, crowded, and populated with novices who fanned way too far out into the road that I only managed to get one bottle to one rider in 4 laps of open feeding, which happened to coincide with the heaviest part of the rain storm. With feeding over, I headed for the finish, hoping for a breakaway that never came. We finished the stage with Zeke Mostov holding onto 2nd in GC, but unable to gain the time needed to reclaim the leader’s jersey.

That evening at dinner I got a serious life lesson in international relations. The French soigneur, Denis Villemagne, was heading to the cafeteria at the same time as me, and smiled and exclaimed, “Our race, now it is won!” I was abashed and thought it was a strange comment to make, particularly considering the well-documented controversy surrounding the French taking control of the leader’s jersey. I kept thinking about it and how out of place it seemed, until I finally asked the Canadian soigneur, Delphine Leray, if I had misheard or misinterpreted what he said. She quickly cleared it up — Denis’ English skills were limited and he had meant to say, or had said and I misheard, “Our race, now it is run,” referring to the fact that although the stage was over, the soigneurs’ day was just beginning. I immediately felt terrible and asked for Delphine’s help as a go-between to smooth over my misunderstanding. It was an important and much-needed reminder to approach every situation with an open mind and without preconceptions, especially when tensions are running high.

It was about time for a serious staff kick-back. Tour de l’Abitibi is a bit of a unique race on the UCI calendar for many reasons, not the least of which is its feature of an official “VIP Room” in the school where race lodging and permanence is housed. This is generally a teacher’s lounge transformed into an ’80s dance club using a combination of dim lighting, decorations purloined from the art teacher’s private stash, and generous libations priced to sell. The VIP Room is open to all staff over the age of 21 and provides a unique opportunity to mingle and get to know other teams’ staff in a relaxed and fun atmosphere. The old Las Vegas ad campaign proclaiming “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” can be equally applied to the VIP Room, so I will leave readers only with this: you can sure bet the promoter and chief commisaire of the Peace Race would not be found in white hazmat suits and aluminum foil covered motorcycle helmets dancing by the light of many disco balls singing karaoke to Daft Punk. Many a happy (wee) hour has been spent in the comfort of the VIP Room. Of course, I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Stage 7 dawned cloudy and cool, and after an early-morning run I prepped the last round of bottles and race food for the afternoon. I made another store run to pick up ice for our team and several others, and to gas up cars. I did as much packing as possible to streamline the process for the next morning, as time would be at a premium after the end of the stage. Adrien Costa was still experiencing knee pain from his crash, and I applied kinesio tape to give him some joint support and pain mitigation; as is usually the case when I break out the tape, I ended up taping various body parts for most of the team and for a couple riders on other teams too. I picked up boxed lunches for the riders and staff, and we headed out to the stage start under ominous clouds and gusty crosswinds. I puzzled over the course profile; the only hill on the course after 50 km was the King of the Mountains points competition, and usually race organizers don’t permit feeding on KOM slopes. We decided to chance it since it was the only show in town, and it turned out that so many other teams made the same decision that the point was moot. On this stage I had a second guest passenger: Kathleen Dreier, professional photographer and mother of El Grupo Selection team rider Logan Boyd, who had gained press credentials to document the Tour through her many exquisite lenses. The extra company made the drive and the wait at the feed zone go by quickly and happily. The KOM was situated on a long straightaway, and flashing blue police lights were visible several minutes before the caravan passed. Those are some of my favorite kinds of feed zones — when the peloton is visible miles away in a valley or plain; they offer lots of visibility and preparation from a logistical standpoint, as well as an arresting and dramatic visual effect.

Kathleen’s images are an extraordinary photojournal of the Tour de l’Abitibi and I encourage everyone to look through them all here! (While you’re at it, follow her on Facebook at Kathleen Dreier Photography too, because awesome people deserve awesome support.) Cycling race photography can easily turn into monotonous montages of the peloton sweeping by, filling the entire frame; Kathleen did an excellent job capturing the spirit of the race in a unique and engaging way, showing a lot of behind-the-scenes aspects that spectators rarely get to witness. The album is a real treat and helps bring the race reports to life.

With riders fed, we entered the very end of the caravan and proceeded back into Amos for the finishing circuits. Zeke managed to take a few seconds’ worth of time bonuses, but not enough to overtake the GC lead, ending the Tour with Zeke Mostov in 2nd, Will Barta in 4th, Adrien Costa in 7th, and Austin Vincent, Diego Binatena, and Gavin Hoover rounding it out in 21st, 43rd, and 63rd. The French maintained control of the leader’s and sprinter’s jerseys, the Danes took Best Young Rider, and the Moroccans gave an untouchable performance in the King of the Mountains competition. Most gratifying, the USA National Team won the Team General Classification competition for having the most riders at the top of individual GC — a sometimes overlooked award that shows tremendous commitment to teamwork and all around excellent riding.

It was time for the awards ceremony, which was significantly longer and less comfortable seating than last year, but nevertheless a worthwhile event to honor achievements of the week. Particular highlights were the awards for best director, bestowed upon the Danish National Team’s Henrik Simper, and the most courageous rider award. We thought Tommy Lucas would be a shoe-in until Arizona Selection Team’s Daniel Yakushevich had an unfortunate high-speed encounter with the back of the ambulance, but soldiered on to finish the Tour despite the considerable pain he must have been in. When Daniel went on stage to accept his award, he turned around to shake the promoter’s hand and back the other direction to accept the award, giving the audience a 360-degree view, and I realized there was literally no angle from which several bandages were not visible. I would have felt really bad for him, except his great attitude and sense of humor lightened the mood, not to mention the cacophony of his teammates cheering him on — it was quite possibly the biggest response for anyone recognized at the ceremony.

I scrambled to clean as many bottles as I could to be left at our Canadian “service course” (in Nathalie’s garage) for next year, and packed up most of my gear to begin the drive home early the next morning. Now it was time to hit the VIP one last time, saying goodbye until we meet again to friends new and old. A few hours later, I was back on the road, and in 21 hours of driving over 2 days flopped into the comfort of my own bed.

My first few days of working with the USA National Team riders, I found myself missing the attitude of novelty that the Selection Team riders had last year, most of whom had never had a soigneur or a massage before, whereas the National Team were veteran European racers for whom cycling is beginning to come less avocation and more vocation. I also found myself second-guessing their requests, unsure of whether I was failing to do things that are expected of soigneurs, or if they felt a degree of entitlement that wasn’t realistic given the length of my work days, the dearth of facilities in the small town (laundry, for example), and the potential benefit to their racing experience. Pro riders expect to be waited on hand and foot by their soigneurs, but I don’t think that level of attention is necessarily beneficial to the development of juniors racers or to their efforts. As I become more experienced as a soigneur, I hope to have a better sense of my role as well as authority in my assertions of what is and is not necessary. I also found it a little tougher and that it took a little longer this year to form a rapport with the riders, but that was probably partly from being used to spending a very long period of time with the group I had been working with in the spring, and a week seemed incredibly brief by comparison. The dynamic of working for a team that was contending for the GC win created a very different environment than the teams last year who were racing largely for the experience of doing the race and to get a smattering of good results in stages — it created much greater intensity and focus among the staff. I found that I worked much harder this year and was given a huge amount of responsibility, especially since I had my own car instead of relying on rides from everyone else. That said, I really enjoyed the greater degree of involvement (pretty much identical to my soigneur work in Europe, minus the rider transfer in a van), and I actually found that even though I had more work, I was less busy this year because I am starting to amass the experience necessary to be efficient at many aspects of the soigneur’s job. I hope that Abitibi is a Nation’s Cup for many years to come and that I get to go back with the USA National Team; if not, I will certainly find work with someone else, as this is a can’t-miss event on my swanny calendar.

How can you possibly top a crew like this?

How can you possibly top a crew like this?

Cheers to everyone for another Tour de l’Abitibi on the books and all your hard work — riders, staff, volunteers, parents, and everyone involved. After a couple days at home, I’m back in Sittard, Netherlands at the USA house until September working with yet another crop of juniors; look for more dispatches to follow.


Aside

Peace Race Triumphs and Tribulations

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We’re back home in Sittard after a whirlwind tour of Bohemia with another race on the books, this time the Course de la Paix, or Juniors Peace Race. Litoměřice, where we stayed, was a rather beautiful old town with a definite feel of old-world European grandeur reemerging from the Soviet era drabness. The area has a rich history as one of the oldest Czech towns dating to the 2nd century and served as a major trading capital of the region in medieval times. More recently, the whole region underwent German occupation during WWII and the nearby walled city of Terezín, where the race was headquartered, was used as a Nazi concentration camp, crematorium, and Gestapo prison. The Peace Race was originally established after WWII as a symbol of international goodwill and sportsmanship.

We were housed in the hockey training center, which was a perfectly convenient and serviceable facility with dormitory-style living arrangements and an eating area for meal, bottle, and race food prep. The hockey facility housed our team as well as the British, French, and Russians. A total of 23 national teams competed from Europe, North America, and the Middle East. The Peace Race is part of the Juniors Nations’ Cup races, a series of events all around Europe, one in Kazakhstan, and one in Canada in which national teams of 17- and 18-year-olds compete among the highest-level junior road cyclists to earn Union Cycliste Internationale points for World Championships entries. Of the 11 races in this year’s Nations’ Cup, the Peace Race is considered by many to be the most challenging.

This year’s edition certainly proved a challenge for everyone involved. We had mechanical issues with the team car halfway across Germany, and the mechanic and director ended up having to send me ahead with all 6 riders while they got the car towed for repairs. The one rider on the team who had been to the race the previous year alerted me to the getting an entry permit sticker for the van and helped guide me through the tortuous single-lane mountain road to Litoměřice. The director and mechanic arrived shortly thereafter and we headed to dinner in the beautiful and expansive cobbled city square.

The next day held a training day for the riders to preview the time trial course and part of the first road race stage for the team riders, and a trip back to Germany with the director to retrieve the repaired team car for me. We had hoped that my basic, broken German would be somewhat helpful in negotiating the transaction; it turns out “diesel filter” in German is “dieselfilter,” so no obstacles there. We headed back to Czech where I cooked one of my many variations of rice for the team (I think it was red curry rice that night?) and did sports massages for each rider.

It’s no surprise that the United States national team selects only the best of the best junior riders, but I am constantly impressed with the young people I have encountered in my involvement with juniors cycling. Their unbridled passion for the sport transfers into a conscientious approach to all aspects that will potentially benefit their racing. They are a kaleidoscope of personalities, from boundless effervescence to the strong, quiet, old-soul countenance. Watching them interact with one another was fascinating to see the mutual respect and recognition of strengths develop among the team, and they began to strongly identify with their established roles as the race progressed. Their reverential respect for their director reflected their confidence in his unparalleled expertise as a coach of champions. These are the kind of young people who will lead future generations to thrive and flourish, whether they continue to pursue sports as a career or take the lessons in leadership and teamwork they are learning into other avenues of life.

My role with the team was similar to the work I did in Bretagne, except for being their only soigneur and also responsible for preparing all their meals and race food. The Peace Race is notorious for providing borderline inedible meals for riders and staff, and having meals on site instead of having to travel to the primary school in Terezín made for a much logistically smoother experience for the riders and staff. All I had to work with was a rice cooker and an electric kettle, so I drew largely from my camping cooking repertoire. I figured out how to hard-boil eggs on the first day, but dumped half the pot of boiling water on my foot and developed a nice collection of painful blisters. Other dishes included Mexican, Thai, Persian, Asian, and Italian-inspired incarnations of rice and quinoa. To say that young cyclists eat like horses is to seriously overestimate the amount that horses consume — next time I have to cook for a team and staff, I will have a more realistic expectation of the quantity. If it’s enough to feed an army, you should probably add at least 3 servings to be safe.

peace race 2

Stage 1 was an exercise in persistence for everyone involved, with pitted pavement, steep skyward climbs, narrow roads, dangerous descents, buffeting cross-winds, and energy-sapping cobbles. When they passed through the feed zone, 5 riders were with the main group and the mechanic in the team car alerted me to wait for one rider who had been dropped. Nearly 15 minutes after the peloton had passed, he came heaving up the hill alone. I passed him a bottle and yelled at him to keep fighting it, knowing that he still had another mountaintop climb ahead of him. The race organizers establish a time cut of 20% of the winning time and I was concerned that he wouldn’t make it. The best case scenario at that point would be that he would be the “lanterne rouge,” the last rider in the race (named for the red light at the end of a train caboose) and he could serve as a domestique for the others, fetching bottles and using his position to advance the race for his teammates.

The team made it back to the finish with 3 in the main pack, one trailing behind after a poorly-timed flat tire on an inaccessible stretch of road where the team car couldn’t execute a proper wheel exchange, a third limping in after a crash (no broken skin but a very sore and battered body) and the dropped rider far behind crossing the line last. I forgot to start my stopwatch at the leader’s time and didn’t find out until the next morning that he had failed to make the time cut and was out of the race. The rider who crashed was also randomly selected for anti-doping control and had to be ushered off for testing.

The second day consisted of a double stage, which is common in major juniors stage races. A short but difficult morning time trial ended in triumph when the team captain posted the 2nd fasted time of the day, securing a spot on the podium and 2nd place in overall general classification for the race. The afternoon road race was too short to permit feeding, so a challenging day for the riders was actually the easiest day for me.

The third day was a queen stage: the most demanding mountain stage of the race featuring long, steep climbs and a mountaintop finish. This type of stage is intended to separate the strongest riders and provide opportunities to make up significant time and open gaps — or to lose time if disaster strikes. I set up the feed zone at a small, gently uphill section in a huge mountain meadow just past the major climb, and it was one of the fastest and best feeds I have done. They were easily exceeding 45 kph even on the incline. All the riders spotted the van and my wind vest, and spaced just far enough apart that I was able to get a bottle to every rider. That kind of thrill just doesn’t get old.

Coming up to the mountaintop finish at a ski resort just over the German border, four riders managed to sneak away ahead of our team leader and took out just enough time to bump him down into 3rd general classification position. I have been going to bike races for a decade, and I have seldom seen a rider bury themselves that deeply. Rarely do most people have the opportunity to witness that kind of dedication to anything, and it is extraordinary to see.

The fourth and final day featured a course similar to the first day, but with three laps of a smaller but by no means easy mountain climb before the run-in to the finish. I staked out my position on the climb for the feed zone early enough to see the pack come through the first lap before feeding was allowed, and I was delighted to see all five riders hanging in there with the group and looking strong. On the second lap I passed a couple of bottles and everyone was still with the group, so I packed up the van and drove directly to the finish. Minutes later, one rider crashed hard on the descent when the Hungarian in front of him slipped out on a wet patch of pavement and he plowed into the fallen rider at high speed. The director and mechanic put him into the team car battered and bloody with the intent of handing him off to me on the next lap but I had already left. Four riders remained with the pack as it roared through a curve and into the finishing straight, but another rider hydroplaned on a puddle and crashed out to come limping across the finish line. He was lucky — his shorts were shredded and he had patches of road rash on his hip and arm, and a small cut on his leg that bled profusely and looked much worse than it was. His heart rate monitor saved his chest; his jersey was completely torn away but the protruding heart rate monitor sensor on his sternum took the impact and was ground down on the pavement like a rough belt sander. I was patching him up when the race medic came over and said the other crashed rider would need a team staff member to accompany him to the hospital to treat his injuries. I grabbed his passport, ran to tell the director, and hopped in the ambulance with my rider.

They say that mothers, in extenuating circumstances when their children are in harm’s way, can pull off superhuman feats to protect their babies. The closest thing I have to a child has four legs, a tail, and fur, but after that ambulance ride I can understand the impulse. He had suffered a nasty scrape and gouge to his hip, cuts and road rash on his arm, a skinned knee, and a blunt impact to his thumb which was swelling up like a water balloon. The race medic had already taped over the majority of broken skin so I couldn’t see the extent of his injuries, but they were clearly more than a minor crash and he was in a lot of pain. The first thing he asked me was if his teammate still got third — what a true competitor.

The Czech ambulance was a Soviet-era minivan with peeling exterior paint, a backboard on a gurney, and a couple bucket seats with split upholstery and no seat belts. I crouched next to the gurney and held onto the rider’s seat, who in turn held onto a door handle with his uninjured hand. The driver put on the siren and we whizzed by a long line of stopped cars stuck in race traffic into the lane of oncoming vehicles. I briefly considered the irony of meeting my final reward in an ambulance crash.

We arrived at the hospital and he limped into the ambulance intake waiting room, a naked cinder block structure with concrete floor and a few plastic chairs. It was absolutely surreal, like something out of a movie. An orderly ushered us into the intake room and instructed me to wait while the rider proceeded to the treatment room to have his wounds cleaned and dressed, and I once again experienced that feeling of a mama bear wanting to rush in and take care of him. Despite the eerily institutional feel and padded doors, the nurse’s methods were thorough and modern as she irrigated and dressed his cuts and scrapes. Another hospital staff told me in broken English that I would need to produce his insurance card, or pay at the time of treatment. I explained that I had the USA Cycling credit card and was good for any charges he would incur, and that seemed to satisfy them. Once he was bandaged up, he was wheeled into radiology for x-rays and while we waited in the dimly lit waiting room, he seemed to perk up and joke about the whole experience. He had turned 17 the day before and was glad not to have crashed on his birthday, and he mused that on the bright side, his injured right hand might get him out of doing homework for a while. Once the x-rays were read and he was cleared of any fractures, the staff released him and sent me to pay his bill — at the same moment, the mechanic and team captain arrived and greeted us. The mechanic accompanied me to the front desk and we viewed the final tallied bill: 302 Czech koruna, or about 11€. The fine he had incurred the previous day for riding on a sidewalk during the race was more than 10 times his bill for an ambulance ride, triage, and x-rays. Say what you will about second-world medicine; if I need a minor medical procedure, Czech hospitals are looking pretty appealing.

With everyone taped back together in mostly one piece, we proceeded to lunch at the primary school in Terezín, which was every bit as appalling as I had been told. I found the only products that didn’t contain some form of unrecognizable meat: stale bread and a cup of weirdly brown but fairly tasty applesauce and a glass of incredibly weak Tang.

With lunch accomplished, we loaded up and drove halfway home to Kassel, Germany, about 4 hours away. The lodging and food experience was a night and day stark contrast, almost shocking to the system. I had an excellent dinner of herb crepes stuffed with locally grown white and green asparagus, new potatoes, delicately poached pearl onions, and a luscious cream sauce. I can only describe it as euphoric. Breakfast was a similarly enticing buffet of homemade fruit jams, artisan breads, exotic juices and delicate smoked salmon and speck. It was definitely in my top 10 breakfasts of all time.

I set about changing bandages and Tegaderm, loaded everyone up, and we made it back to Sittard in the early afternoon. By 5 I had finished cleaning up the van, restocking supplies, and doing laundry. And that brings us up to now — the first time in a week I’ve had time for a blog entry!

The juniors have a few training days this week until we leave again on Friday for a couple of one-day races in Belgium, and Three Days of Axel in two weeks. I may actually get some time for a bike ride, and lots of time for recovery massages and continued treatment of healing scrapes and bruises. I’m grateful for a few days of slower pace, but I am surprised and delighted at how much I find I thrive in the hectic heat of a stage race. I am learning quickly to keep a mental checklist of every responsibility and getting much better at thinking on my feet with the situation calls for improvisation. I got a great taste of minor crisis management and as much as I hate that any of my riders were injured, I’m glad that their injuries were relatively minor and I was able to get a good look inside the drama of cleaning up a crash. I am sure that I am getting a much more thorough, educational experience in soigneurdom than I would have at the UCI soigneur training program.

This is truly an outrageous career and the people who are exceptional at the job, I think, must have a little bit of loose screws to handle the absurd amount and type of work all for the love of bike racers. But maybe I have that tiny touch of crazy myself?


Bretagne wrap-up

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Sometimes in life, I have found that intense, completely immersive experiences often need time to be processed before I can appreciate the content with a more objective, analytical attitude without the haze of emotional exhaustion. A slower Saturday morning today has given me that valuable time for reflection and organizing my thoughts.

Working a major race as elite cycling team staff is not for the faint of heart, and I am coming to understand why the turnover in the industry is comparatively low: people who aren’t up to the rigors of the work for whatever reason burn out quickly, and the few who make the cut tend to become career team staff. I’m not sure who works harder: mechanics or soigneurs — both jobs require long hours of exhausting work.

The Tour de Bretagne was a UCI 2.2 stage race, which means a limited number of national teams were invited (in this case, 2: the USA team, and the Australian national team) along with European continental teams, pro development teams, and pro tour teams. It’s a very high-level race in which stage winners and riders high in the overall finish ranks have historically continued on to successful professional careers. The race consisted of 7 stages between 145 and 200 kilometers long over challenging terrain and road surfaces in the rural northern coastal country of France. The six USA national team riders selected for the race were charged with two major tasks: to ride hard and return some good results, but perhaps even more importantly to learn the skills needed to race at that level which professional teams look for in prospective riders. To paraphrase their director, former pro rider Michael Sayers, racing at events like these presents a goal that isn’t necessarily meant to be attained, but for learning to occur in the process of striving toward that goal. Bringing away a couple good results and a wealth of experience constitutes success, and in that respect the Under-23 riders of the USA national team were very successful.

As for my part, my role was to serve as an apprentice soigneur to Robert Grabowski, another alumnus of the pro leagues who worked for Liquigas-Cannondale and BMC world tour teams. We arrived at the first host hotel in the evening 2 days before the race began, which gave me a day to prepare and learn the ropes a bit.

My first task the next morning was bottle prep. The general policy is to distrust drinking tapwater in many parts of Europe, so I had to make a grocery store run to purchase bottled water for drinking and food supplies for the next few days. Every part of the process involved some unforeseen complication; nothing was easy. I drove the van, an enormous Fiat Ducato, down winding narrow French roads (having to turn back twice because the GPS wanted to take me under bridges too short for the van’s height) only to find that the grocery store had underground parking also too low for the van, so I had to parallel park it on the street. For comparison, I drive a compact hatchback Honda Fit back home — the van is roughly 1.5 Fits wide, 2.5 Fits long, and 2 Fits tall. I’m just relieved my parents insisted on me learning to drive a stick shift as a teen; that was the one part of the whole process I felt competent doing. I managed to park the van without running into anything, popped a couple of coins in the locks to retrieve shopping carts (that part I remembered!), and ascended the escalator. An hour and a half later, I had collected 250 liters of bottled water in various sizes of containers and enough groceries for a small army. It took me a long time to identify the translations of food products in an unfamiliar store layout; my basic French vocabulary got me only so far. I negotiated the transaction in my nonexistent French and haphazardly wheeled about 300 kilos’ worth of water and food back down the escalator (a feat in and of itself), drawing copious weird glares from onlookers. With water and food loaded up, I made my way back to the hotel to wrap up race food and bottle prep and begin with rider massages.

The one part of soigneur work I feel thoroughly comfortable performing is sports massage; I’ve been doing it for 7 years and have taught seminars at the graduate level for the last 3, so I feel like I have that part down. It was honestly a relief to be able to focus my energy for a couple hours on something in which I am well-versed and experienced; it’s hard work of a different kind, but work where I don’t feel like I am constantly questioning myself and I take solace in that practice. I am told that coming from a sports medicine background is surprisingly uncommon among beginner soigneurs; many come from another aspect of sport or industry and have to learn the bodywork and recovery component as they go. Having extensive training in what is ostensibly the most difficult and most important part of the job gives me time to iron out the rest of the details, which are complicated to learn but easy enough to perform once routine is more established. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but in that respect I am very fortunate.

The Tour required several hotel transfers, so the plan was for me to get the riders to the race, do the feed zone, and get to the finish to bring them back to the hotel while Robert drove the box truck to the next hotel and prepared all the details. The first stage didn’t require a hotel transfer, so I was able to shadow Robert and learn the responsibilities and layout of a race stage. I wrote this list up during the week, and it is a pretty darn accurate characterization of most of the stuff a soigneur needs to keep in his or her head at all times:

Before the race

  • Up early, shower and pack, breakfast
  • Prepare race food
    • Get baguettes from hotel
    • Make sandwiches for soigneur(s), mechanic, and director. Pack in musettes with goodies
    • Make post-race sandwiches and rice for riders. Also fill a musette with fruit. Pack condiments, tuna, oil, and utensils for the rice
    • Make 2 thermoses of coffee and one of hot water for tea. One coffee for team car, one for riders. Pack cups, sugar, creamer, and stirring things
    • Make snack sandwiches with milkbread for riders and pack in aluminum foil. Do one savory variety (ham and cheese is good) and several sweet ones (Nutella, honey, jam, etc). Make 1 per rider with some extras for musettes
    • Wrap cake or waffles in aluminum foil for riders
  • Restock race food bars and gels
  • Prepare bottles
    • At least 5-7 per rider — 2 for musettes/feeds, 2 for the bike, and 1 for every half hour of racing. More is better and topping off the coolers is recommended
    • Pack water and fresh mix in the cooler for the team car. Include some mini Cokes and Fantas, some sparkling water for director and mechanic, and any other goodies they request
    • Rotate the previous day’s mix from the car cooler to the van cooler and put it on the top row to go on the bikes and in musettes first. Put fresh mix as needed on the bottom row.
    • Dump mix after day 2; it’s no longer good
    • Pack mini soda in the gaps and include a bottle of ice if necessary
    • Make sure the van is stocked with water, empty clean bottles, chocolate milk, and plenty of mix for hydration, preload, and recovery mixes
    • Mark mix with an X and recovery with an R
    • Bring a large bag of clean empty bottles to fill during the race
  • Fill empty 1.5 L bottle with tap water and put in the freezer to use for ice
  • Pack gels and bars in the team car as per director preference. Some use a box, others just stuff them in the door pockets
  • Clean and stock the van
    • Vacuum and sweep floors, wheel wells, bike area, etc
    • Wash the exterior and Windex on mirrors and windows (this can also be done the night before)
  • Program start parking into the GPS
  • Pack the following race items in the main compartment:
    • Towels and washcloths for each rider plus spares
    • Podium bag with bottle for recovery
    • Race food — bars and gels
    • Spare clothing bag
    • Supply box with chamois cream, massage creams and oils, baby wipes, sports wash, embrocation, sunscreen
    • Medical box
    • Finish cooler bag with bottled water and Fanta for each rider
    • Spare musettes
    • Food box of snacks, coffee, race rice, tuna, bowls, utensils, condiments, etc
    • Folding chairs for each rider
    • Wind vest for the feed zone
    • 2 helmets (small and medium) in the van, 2 in the team car
  • Pack in the bike compartment:
    • Cooler
    • Trash bags
    • Spare bottles
    • Aluminum foil
    • Mixes and hydration supplies
    • Extra water
    • Extra soda and juice
    • Milk/soy milk/whatever they want for recovery that day
  • Black and white permanent markers

At the start

  • Drive riders to the race start and park so as to make a nice area for them
  • Put out folding chairs (under the awning, if necessary)
  • Put out cooler, race food, regular food box, supply box
  • Offer pre-load and put 2 bottles on each bike of whatever the riders want to start
  • Massage legs/apply embrocation as needed
  • Program feed zone location into the GPS
  • If time permits, go to start line with riders to top off bottles and take extra clothing

Feed zone

  • Drive to the feed zone
  • Stop for gas on the way if necessary and time permits
  • Find a good, visible parking place near the end of the feed zone
  • Program the finish line into the GPS
  • Prepare musettes for each rider
    • 1 bottle each of water and mix on opposite sides
    • 1 bar
    • 1 gel
    • 1 bit of cake or Nutella sandwich in aluminum foil
  • Tie a knot at the top of the strap
  • Prepare recovery, mark bottles, and place in the cooler
  • Prepare 1-2 dishes of post-race rice for riders taking the team car instead of the van
  • Fill bottles for the next day if needed
  • Pass musettes to riders on the right side of the road
    • Step into the road no more than 1 meter and face riders fully. Hold the tab straight up so it presents the bag at hand-level to the rider. Let go quickly and gently
    • Pass any extras to the team car
  • Jump in and proceed to the finish location post haste

At the finish

  • Park the van near the finish line in a good location for getting out after the race
  • Prepare an area for the riders
    • Folding chairs out for each rider
    • Bottle of recovery, towel, and washcloth on each chair
    • If in a safe location, put out food box and supply box
    • Riders bags out if someone is there to watch it, otherwise locked in the van
  • Program hotel address into the GPS
  • If there are multiple circuits, take a musette with bottles to feed
  • If no circuits (or time doesn’t permit), also take the finish bag and podium bag with a bottle of recovery inside
  • Set up at a visible location well past the finish line and flag down riders. Give water and Fanta, give directions to the van, and give the first rider the key
  • Check anti-doping at the finish line, and take a picture of it if possible
  • Head back to the van, do first aid if needed, and pack everything up
  • Give post-race recovery food to the director for riders going in the team car
  • Put dirty bottles in a bag or another cooler. Throw away bottles used for recovery; they will always have a weird funky sour milk smell
  • Pack everything up and head out

At the hotel

  • Unload and tidy up the van while riders are getting showered
  • Put perishables in the refrigerator
  • Start a load of riders’ laundry
  • Set up massage table and supplies, overturning furniture or using a hallway if necessary. Try to get linens and towels from the hotel, if not use stock and wash daily
  • Massages for all riders, ~30 minutes each
  • Put riders’ laundry in the dryer or on drying racks
  • Go eat dinner
  • Leave dry clothes in the hall with bottled water for the riders
  • Wash van and team car if weather/time permits
  • Wash dirty bottles if needed
  • Go for a run or straight to bed. Or beer, this is a good time for beer too.

So that’s it, in a nutshell. In addition, hotel transfers require all kinds of tedious minutiae, like getting room keys and wifi passwords, so those responsibilities are added in with a bare-bones staff.

Murphy’s Law hung like a shadowy specter nearby all week — if something could go wrong, it invariably did. One rider crashed in the last few kilometers of the first stage, a face-first header that left him bloodied and concussed, forcing him to withdraw from the competition. Another rider succumbed to a nasty illness during stage 4 and abandoned the race. On stage 5 I had a fender-bender with the team van when another car tried to pass and cut me off in a one-lane roundabout, and the French police refused to help with the paperwork so I did the best I could with the chasm of language barrier. I fumbled musette feeds and completely forgot to check anti-doping on one stage, delaying the whole team’s departure from the finish site. The sky poured rain and blew gale force winds and baked the slimy, muddy roads and cobbles with searing sunlight. I chastised entitled French sports fans trying to steal bottles right out of my musette for circuit feeds (seriously, guys?). I forced back tears on more than one occasion and struggled with the language barrier and shame over my beginner’s pitfalls with Robert, and his frustration with having to take the time to train a novice when time itself is at a premium. It had its tense and terrible moments, and I found myself wondering what I had gotten myself into frequently.

But it also had its moments of beauty and levity; I made it through the week, and I came back to Sittard visibly changed: more confidence in my abilities, more relaxed around the riders and other staff, with better strategies to ask the right questions and keep track of the answers, and a wealth of notable information in my brain and in detailed notes on my iPad. Serving as an apprentice soigneur helped me understand the structure of an elite cycling race and with the basics established, I can focus more of my attention on helping the riders and the other team staff to have a great race.

Bretagne feels like a distant memory now that I’m packing up and preparing to head to the Czech Republic for the Course de la Paix (“Peace Race”) the day after tomorrow. I’ve graduated from second-string soigneur to having my very own program in my charge: the USA national juniors team, a group of six outstanding 17-18 year old racers, some of whom are on their very first trip to Europe. I’m starting to get beyond my new-job anxiety and excited about what I can teach them and learn from them. Putting oneself wholly in the service of others is a humbling and enriching experience. As tough a job as this is, it really is an honor to be a part of the journey for riders on their way to achieving great things.

Tomorrow we make all the necessary preparations to depart, and adventure again awaits. More dispatches from the East to follow!

 


Adventure awaits!

abitibi

The French word “soigneur” literally translates to “one who cares for the troubles of others.” On a bicycle racing team, a soigneur performs a multifaceted job of keeping the cyclists’ bodies and minds optimally primed for competition, doing everything from sports massage and minor first aid to food and bottle prep to tasks like laundry and chauffering riders.

When I was first getting into cycling as a teenager, I read a USA Today article about soigneurs that described it as one of the “10 Worst Jobs in Sports.” The article is a fun read (and to my experience thus far, quite accurate), making the soigneur’s job sound like a lot of hard, thankless work. It sounded exactly like the kind of job I wanted to make my career.

I worked at a bike shop through college and spent a month the summer after I graduated at the Barnett Bicycle Institute in Colorado Springs learning the ins and outs of bicycle mechanics. I gained a great foundation in the fundamentals of bicycle repair, but the greater interest it sparked for me was an appreciation for bicycle fitting and the nuances of changing the equipment itself to optimize the rider’s performance. I attended massage school at the Body Therapy Institute the next year and focused my studies and practicum hours on learning sports massage and the specific needs of athletes. I enjoyed working with an athletic population and approaching massage therapy as a performance and recovery tool.

After being in private practice for a few years, I pursued a master’s degree in sports medicine at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a school renowned for its top-tier kinesiology research as well as its commitment to excellence in education and exceptional classroom experience. I was delighted to find that several of my professors were also cyclists themselves and my adviser took particular interest in the biomechanics of chronic cycling injuries. He and I developed a testing and rehab protocol that became my master’s practicum to use bike fitting and motion capture as a diagnostic tool to recommend rehabilitative exercise and modifications to equipment to improve the biomechanical sustainability of cycling. It was a pretty cool project, and got some attention from the National Athletic Trainer’s Association. I still use the principles of our protocol extensively in my work with cyclists and triathletes.

Last year, one of my friends from graduate school presented me with an outstanding opportunity: her husband coaches an elite junior cycling team and invited me to accompany the team to the Tour de l’Abitibi, a prestigious international race for 17- and 18-year-old riders, in northern Quebec. I took a gamble on the hardest volunteer work of my life and it paid off — not only did I have an outstanding first experience as a soigneur at a major race, but I made some very good contacts with whom I would keep in touch. I enjoyed my experience so much that I applied to a training program at the Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body of cycling, in Switzerland to be trained as a professional soigneur. After months of preparation and submitting a veritable tome of credential documents, I got a 2-line email a month before the start date saying that the program had been cancelled due to lack of sufficient applicants. I was crushed, and I felt like I was back at square one on my mission to become a soigneur.

After a volley of last-ditch-effort emails to some other contacts in the cycling world, another opportunity arose just a week later: I was offered a soigneur position at the USA Cycling international training center in Sittard, Holland for a few weeks of the spring racing season. So with only a few emails’ worth of information, I stepped on a plane last Monday afternoon bound for Europe to try my hand at being an elite road racing soigneur.

I have a palpable sense that I’m embarking on something very special — few people get to actually follow through on a decade’s worth of dreaming. While I hope for this to be the experience of a lifetime, I also hope for it to be a powerful springboard into the next great thing in my career; I want this to be just the beginning of the story. Above all, it has been an extraordinary lesson in the power of persistence and simply asking for what I want instead of expecting things to fall in line. I’m excited to share my experiences over the next few weeks! Watch this space for an inside look at what being a soigneur on the European cycling scene entails!


The Power of the Human Hand

IMG_4707I’d like to kick off this blog by sharing some about one of my favorite things that I get to do in my job: teaching the massage lecture and lab unit for UNCG’s Master’s of Athletic Training education program treatment modalities course.

I’ve been teaching the class for the past 3 years, 2 of which while I was a Sports Medicine master’s student myself. Most people know athletic trainers from watching sports on TV, as the windbreaker-and-khakis-clad medical staff rush onto the field from the sidelines and tend to injured players. The bulk of athletic training, however, occurs behind the scenes in high school, college, professional, and industrial settings. Athletes put their health and well-being in their trainers’ hands, and these dedicated professionals address every need: the treatment, prevention, and rehabilitation of injuries, optimized fitness training to increase athletic ability, monitoring and recommending nutrition habits, and even the athletes’ psychological mindsets.

I’m not an athletic trainer — I am a licensed sports massage therapist — but I took a variety of athletic training courses in graduate school and I came to deeply appreciate athletic trainers’ unique skills and responsibilities. I’m lucky to use this nuanced understanding to help aspiring athletic trainers think differently about the fundamentals of their treatment protocols.

I  won’t deny that it’s hard to come into a classroom full of allied healthcare professionals as a massage therapist and expect them to immediately accept what I have to say, so this year I started with a video from TED. We only watched the first 2 minutes or so, but the whole thing is very worthwhile.

Dr. Verghese’s powerful argument for the role of touch and ritual in medicine is a great jumping-off point for my case for the reemerging emphasis on manual therapies in athletic training. The research on sports massage is finally catching up to the millennia-old evidence-based practice of hands-on techniques to promote recovery and treat injuries. A seminal paper from last year by Crane, et al. demonstrated physiological changes at the cellular level in tissue that received massage following an exhaustive workout that were not present in the untouched limb — the cells showed signs of hormone activity promoting cellular repair, immune changes, decreased inflammation, and formation of new healthy mitochondrial tissue. Dozens of other studies are showing promising results that echo one main point: in many cases, massage improves recovery, but in absolutely no cases have studies found that it can cause harm. Very few treatments can boast such positive results.

Mechanical manipulation of sore or damaged tissue can help tight or circulation-impaired tissue to regain its original resting length and balance. Carefully applied neuromuscular pressure can decrease pain symptoms and ease myofascial trigger points. Massage can slow the atrophy of tissue that must be immobilized due to injury, and increase lymph and blood circulation to supply nutrition to healing tissues. The science supporting sports massage makes its potential advantages abundantly clear, and sports medicine professionals of all types are increasingly expected to be familiar with its techniques and applications.

During the three hours we spent together, I felt a shift in the athletic training students’ attitudes as their preconceived notions began to erode. As they practiced a few hands-on massage techniques and carefully observed me demonstrate my methods, it was like watching gears visibly click into place and appreciation emerge. We talked about a variety of real-life conditions they had dealt with and how they could be addressed with massage or other treatment modalities, and the students came up with great ideas and questions that I hadn’t even considered. I watched with pride and admiration as 10 aspiring trainers realized the enormous potential for treatment that they already possessed and carried with them wherever they went — their own hands!

Few things get me more excited and inspired as seeing young people engage with science, medicine, and discovery in a new and innovative way. I love teaching that class so much because the students I work with give me hope for the future of my profession, of sports, and of healthcare. Through recognizing the legacy of our medical forerunners and synthesizing their methods with emerging science and technology, we can accomplish extraordinary things; sometimes, all we need is the simple power of touch.