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Get another pair of eyeballs

Nicole and Danielle both participated in the Couch to 5k program last spring. Pictures like this allowed us to work on their technique and help them run faster and not get hurt.

I frequently get asked to take a look at someone’s form or technique. Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than happy to spend a couple of minutes giving anyone pointers that will help them stay injury free or prevent a re-occurrence of an injury. And sometimes these are even folks that know what good form is supposed to look like. And that’s a good thing. These people are smart. Even if we know what good mechanics look like, we often can’t really see our own mechanics well enough to be sure they are 100% where they need to be. Sometimes our movements or body position will feel right but still be off.

Despite how annoying folks can be when they are scoping out their own biceps or abs in the mirror at the gym, this is why those mirrors are there. So you can watch your own mechanics while you are lifting, ensuring proper technique and reducing injury risk. But even in the gym, a mirror doesn’t always quite cut it. Sometimes it’s not a good idea to twist your neck to be able to actually see yourself in the mirror when you are under heavy load. Sometimes the mirror doesn’t quite get close enough to the floor to actually see what you need to look at. This is especially true for those of us who are a little shorter, as we simply can’t always see our knees, shins, ankles, and feet through the whole range of motion. But this is true for most of us when we’re doing exercises on the floor. How many times have you done a plank and couldn’t see yourself in the mirror? If the mirror doesn’t go all the way to the floor, chances are you have no idea if your back is actually flat or not. Hint: It’s probably not.

Eleanor working on her deadlift mechanics. Notice her head is in a neutral position, keeping her core engaged and her lower back flat. She also kept that straight line from her shoulders through her knees to the middle of her feet through the whole range of motion!

The other potential trap of the mirror in the gym is that we unintentionally sacrifice our mechanics so we can see ourselves through the whole range of motion. The biggest offenders for this are deadlifts and squats. I can’t count the number of time I’ve seen people hyperextend their backs because they are looking at the mirror, causing their head and neck to crank up and their lumbar spine to arch. This is why so many folks have L4-L5 compression issues. If you want to look in the mirror to check your form, great! Just make sure you’re keeping your spine in a neutral position. In order to do this, your head and neck need to be in the same position as when you’re standing up, and you’re probably going to have to look out from under your eyebrows or the corner of your eye.

Obviously this applies to running and swimming. It’s just not possible to see our own mechanics because we aren’t right in front of a mirror the whole time. Even if we’re on a treadmill, most treadmills have bits and pieces that block our line of vision. Not to mention what happens to our mechanics if we’re looking at a mirror beside us! There have been numerous times I’ve seen folks trip on the treadmill when they try to look at the mirror that’s beside them and they land with a foot half on the belt and half off. Be safe!

So what’s the solution? Get another pair of eyeballs. Having someone who knows what good technique is, and what cues can help you improve yours is great. But even if you can’t do that, having someone else film you so that you can see your own mechanics without having to twist your head around to look at a mirror or store front can be incredibly helpful. This can be done either on a treadmill or with the other person on a bike if they’re careful, but trying to get good (i.e. useful) footage of someone while running beside them is really hard to do without special equipment. This is easier to do for our lifting technique because we’re often standing in one place while we complete the whole range of motion. Swimming isn’t too bad either, as most of us don’t really swim faster than someone can walk on the pool deck beside us. The hard part about filming swim technique is again a technology issue. If we want to get footage of the pull portion of the stroke, we really need to use a waterproof camera and get it even with our plane of travel. And ideally put it just in front of us so we can see how close to our midline we’re pulling.

Improving our mechanics is one of the most important things we can do. Not only does it make us more biomechanically efficient (i.e. we finish faster), but it decreases our risk of injury. No one has perfect form, and any repetitive motion done incorrectly will result in an overuse injury if done enough times. But the better our technique is the more reps we can do before we hit that point. And while we can’t always have a good line of sight on our own mechanics, we can make use of a separate pair of eyes to get the feedback we’re looking for. Whether it’s by using a camera so we can actually see our own mechanics, or another person who knows what to look for and how to get us to improve the motion. Heck, even if we have another person looking at us, being able to see the film of what we’re doing while they’re telling us what they saw can be really useful. So get another pair of eyeballs on you from time to time. It will help improve your technique, reduce your risk of injury, and hopefully improve your finish times. Train smarter, not harder.

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