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High Performance Sports Training: A behind the scenes look into the science-driven process with Cam Levins

Over the course of our on-going series with internationally renowned elite athlete High Performance Coach, Chris Munford, we had gained a rather overwhelming glimpse into the breaths and depths Coach Munford goes to applying a strict science-based rigor in assisting an exclusive roster of athletes in achieving peak, in-game High performance. Munford, the Director of Science and Sports Performance at the California Sports Institute, (dedicated to high performance training and sports-science research), relentlessly applies an exhaustively analytical science-based approach to creating and delivery high performance training to/for his athletes.

While Coach Munford signs strict confidentiality agreements with all the elite and pro athletes he works with we pushed Munford to give us a glimpse into the process of working with an athlete that we were allowed to name. Finally, after much hand-wringing and a call to the athlete, Coach sat down and chatted with us about Cam Levins.

Levins, who won the 2012 Bowerman award, which is essentially the Heisman for NCAA Track and Field for his double victory in the 5000m and 10,000m events at the NCAA championship meet, is now a Nike-sponsored athlete and showed extremely well in last-year’s London Olympics in both those events. Considered by many to be a bit of a distance running phenom and well known for the extreme mileage, (150+ miles per week) he puts into training, Levins was a member of Speed River Trackand Field. Headed by Dave Scott-Thomas, Speed River, a major upper-echelon player in the North American post-collegiate track club scene, is a training stable for many of Canada’s top Olympic-caliber distance runners. It was through Speed River that Coach Munford and Cam Levins connected as Munford provides the biomechanical/neurological assessment and strength-training components of the training for select Speed River’s elite runners.

Coach Munford explained; “The Head Coach at Speed River, in initiating the process, flew (on Nike’s support), Cam in so we could spend some time together and I could do a biomechanical work up on him and assess his injury-potential predispositions. Based on those findings I can recommend, for Cam, a resistance-training protocol and more significantly, a movement-strategy that he can incorporate daily into his training to addresses some of his inherent biomechanical flaws”. 

That work-up involved filming Levins using the science-based methodology of redundancy assessment and then tediously analyzing the filmed session measuring all sorts of angles, stressors and movement markers. Coach Munford allowed us to go through the whole process of that film analysis and, 8-hours later, we came away thoroughly mind-boggled and amazed at the detail that Munford says is absolutely necessary to understanding the physical side of an athlete.

 “It is indeed a lot of work and tedium but, in simple-terms, understanding how an athlete’s body parts moves or doesn’t move in relationship to each other is the foundational beginning place of High Athletic Performance training…quite frankly without doing rigorous science-based analysis, the training program is just a crap-shoot in the dark and has a limited chance of success.”

When asked to encapsulate what his detailed assessment told him about Levins, Coach Munford explained (after noting that he needed to go over the whole process again! to ensure his first run through was accurate):

“Keeping this as simple as possible, I suspect that Cam’s ankle complexes are both a bit locked and not fully loading as initiated in the calcanei resulting in the limiting of movement in the sagittal plane, which I suspect is as a result of the amount of relatively slow-paced mileage he puts in…fancy way of saying that ‘the pounding he does has frozen up his ankles a bit’. Further, his pelvis/lo-back seems to lack mobility, or is not being neurologically fed as well as it could be, his mid and upper spinal segments neither are under or hyper-mobile, which is a bit surprising considering the state of the pelvis/lo-back area; and his scapula have more range of movement than I’ve ever seen in a distance runner before…this likely indicates that his shoulders are good drivers but also have to do too much because of those lower chain issues…of course, this is all just a working theory at the moment”.

Coach Munford’s encapsulation of his analysis, of course went above our heads, so we asked him practically what does this mean in regards to Cam:

“Great question”, Munford started, “well, the first thing we have to pay mind to is that Cam is a very successful runner and whatever he has done to this point has worked. Having acknowledged that then, we are trying to find ways to assist Cam in producing even better results and to predetermine his injury potentials. Biomechanical flaws if not usefully addressed, tend to manifest in injuries at the worst, or at the very least, in Cam’s case, time gifted to the track and therefore his opponents.”

Asked to clarify what he meant by “gifting” time, Munford responded with a chuckle;

“That’s my phraseology…A biomechanical/neurological flaw, will affect every step, every stride put into a race. If part of each stride in its entirety is not directed to projecting efficiently down the track, each stride therefore is slower than it could be thus ‘gifting’ time to one’s opponent. Also, to continue to keep running fast, there must be some compensation from elsewhere to take up for the inefficiencies – and apart from compensatory injuries – compensation tends to come at the cost of energy usage. If, as maybe the case with Cam, his hips aren’t fully mobile and his shoulders become the compensatory strategy, they [shoulders] may be working too hard thus at the micro-level, requiring extra energy that should be otherwise spent on running down the track efficiently or conserved for future use. In that scenario then, Cam may also be gifting time/energy to his opponents as well.”

Moving beyond discussions of biomechanics and neurological communication success, next up, Coach Munford pulled up his Rate of Force Development (RFD) numbers for Levins, that he was able to gather using his Myotest field unit. Munford took us on the analytical process of looking at force/power/speed curves, what they meant, and how he could spot the biomechanical flaws in the texture of those curves. While Coach did not get into his analysis of Levins’ with us of his actual running which his field unit enabled him to assess, (as he said he really needed to “shut the doors and dim the lights” to fully comprehend that particular datum), he was excited and astounded at a couple particular bits of information pulled out of those RFD measurements.

“First it is important to remember that jump-type RFD testing does not correlate one-to-to-one with horizontal movements such as running but we can get a good idea of an athlete’s general physiological force-generating make-up abilities. I was shocked in the numbers he produced in relationship to his muscle stiffness – basically the way his muscles produce/reduce force to handle impact, and in his reactivity index – basically his ability to switch from foot contact-to-foot flight. The numbers Cam produced were astounding for a distance runner and were more along the lines of the numbers my high-flying ‘3’ position basketball guys produce or my pro defensive backs produce…I have to admit I was quite taken aback at that as that was the last thing I would expect of a distance guy. With a little investigation I was able to find that certain elite-class Ethiopian and Kenyan distance runners have produced comparable numbers in force-plate testing and thereby comparison, we have a bit of a look into perhaps part of the reasons why Cam, neurologically speaking is so successful a runner… the point being, one has to take the time to find, as best as is possible and using a science-based protocol, everything one can about the athlete that one intends to assist before one even thinks about creating a training strategy…now I can take all that valuable information and create a useful strength training and biomechanical assistance movement strategy to accompany the energy systems training that Cam’s running coach will provide.”

Emerging from CSI Training facilities, where we had spent an entire day watching Coach analyze (or as he would say, “start to analyze”), Cam Levins’ athletic make-up, we were once again overwhelmed as to the painstaking detail that Munford puts into executing the science of sports performance training. We really fully now understood that real high-level athletic performance training is far beyond the hand-clapping, fist pumping, generalized training that seems to permeate North American gyms and pseudo-performance training facilities and has its foundations in tedious, honest, sports-science rigor. We’ll leave off with Coach Munford’s words:

“Performance coaching is of course in the gym, on the track, on the fields, on the courts, in the pool, but it starts with crossing every T and dotting every I in doing the due-diligence that is necessary to the creation of those plans that will be brought to life in those gyms and on those fields and courts and fulfilled in the maximized performances in those sports of participation.”

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