Injury Prevention, Mental Approach, and Lessons learned from Steven’s Head Track Coach Justin Wood

I was very grateful to have the opportunity to ask my good friend Justin Wood, one of the most talented collegiate coaches in the country, a few questions about the injury prevention and mental side of coaching at a high collegiate level.  Justin is in his 4th year as the Head Coach of Stevens Institute where recently his athlete Amy Regan ran the 2nd fastest indoor 5000 in Division III History.  Amy also was the Division III cross-country national champion in 2014 alongside Stevens’ Gladys Njoku, who won the high jump indoors.

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Steven’s Coaching Staff with their two National Champions

How do you set up your warmup so that your athletes can optimally perform?

On workout days we always start with 10 – 15 minutes of easy running and then go through a series of movements specific to running.   They start with simple movements like toe walks/heel walks and advance to dynamic stretches.   Next we advance to our specific sprint drills and they include A skips, B skips, high knees, heel lifts (not butt kicks),  quick short straight leg running and then straight leg bounding.   We add in side slides to make sure we are doing some lateral work and have hips and IT bands warm.  We end with a series of banana hurdles drills that reinforce good knee lift and quick heel recovery.   I have integrated these banana hurdle drills into our strides now and that has gotten the group really warm and prepared to begin the assigned workout.   
On normal distance days we will work into our pace.   We never start off fast or hard, everything is a transition into our goal paces.    
 

What things do you do after a race or workout with your athletes to help them recover?

We ALWAYS cool down.   In addition, we foam roll, partner stretch, and ice bath.   I encourage them to rehydrate and refuel as soon as possible post workout.   

I think athletes need to get into a routine of warmup, workout, cool down AND all or at least some of the things listed.   If you don’t foam roll then maybe you have IT band problems from the turns.   If you don’t partner stretch then maybe you have hamstring tightness that leads to limitations in your next workout.   Ice bath can help flush out all of the waste products and assist in  recovery.   The body can not return to a normal level without rehydration and proper nutrition so those are super important but often forgotten.  

 

Amy Regan just ran the 2nd fastest indoor 5000 time in D3 History and was also a national champion.  When structuring an athlete of this calibers training regimen, do you factor in injury prevention?

Honestly, the biggest thing in structuring training for an athlete of this caliber (or any caliber really) is in the spacing of the hard work.   At this point, I know the volume, intensity, durations that Amy is capable of doing and I know how to space the hard stuff out for her.   I rarely push the limits on that and often I’m conservative in assignments in order to stay healthy and be able to continue to do work.   It’s a long term approach to getting better.   Injury prevention is one of our top priorities.  For example, Amy raced on Friday 2/5 and hasn’t done anything hard or fast since and won’t for quite awhile until I’m confident that she is fully recovered.  

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Coach Wood with two of his athletes at NCAA Nationals

You have spoken to our athletes at St. Benedict’s in the past about the important of mental visualization and especially a the proper mental state before a race.  If you had an athlete post-injury, how would you work with him/her on the mental aspect so that they can once again compete.

I would go to the process oriented approach.   Athletes want the fast track back to personal bests and it’s our job to direct them in ways that helps their long term development.   I would have them set up small process oriented goals that are achievable and reinforcing that they are seeing improvements towards where they want to be long term.   In this case, visualizing racing at a high level again and achieving personals best can be a motivator for them but they need to remain focused on little victories along the way.   
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Mental state before a race is of the utmost importance.   That’s why setting small achievable goals along the way (sometimes weekly) can help that athlete feel like they are almost having little mini-PR’s by hitting the goals.  For example, I have a middle distance athlete that is struggling so I gave an assignment in the 4 X 800.  I told the athlete that they were not going to get a split for their time until Monday and that I wanted them to focus on attacking the last 300 meters.   If the athlete isn’t going to get a split then what else can they focus on besides being aggressive at the end?   It was unlikely that athlete was going to run a personal best on that day for a number of reasons so I tried to create a situation where they could achieve something positive.  
With that being said, I tell my athletes all the time to stay positive and give yourself a chance to be successful.  By turning negative you are very unlikely to have success in a tough situation but by being positive you have a 50% chance in that tough situation.  I also tell them that persevering through challenging times is what makes the successful times so valuable – without that challenge then it would all be too easy. 
 

You have dealt with several major injuries in the past being a competitive runner yourself.  What were these injuries? Do you think it could have been prevented? What helped post-injury to help you get back to running again (Justin has not missed a day of running in 405 days)

 
​I’ve had a lot of fairly significant injuries: torn plantar, plantar fasciitis, SI joint issues, ruptured ligament in my ankle and others.   Those all stopped me from running completely but for the most part they could have been prevented.   I needed to be more aware of what my body was telling me and I needed to spend more time doing preventive work like stretching, strengthening, icing etc.   I also was not good at spacing my hard days out so I would work way too hard on days that I should have been just putting in the minutes. I used to take time off and then push really hard on my first day back.   It was foolish to miss days of training but then expect my fitness to be at the same level.   I’ve calmed down with that over the years and have grown a little wiser in the ways of recovery.  
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Coach Wood on his way to winning the 2012 S.A.D.D. run at Oneonta High School.
The most helpful thing for me to do post-injury was a conservative but consistent approach to getting fit again.   It can’t be done all at once but something needs to be done everyday.   So, now I’ve run 405 straight days of 4 miles or more with the last 40 + being 6 miles or more.  I can honestly say that this is the healthiest that my body has felt in a long time. 
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How can I relate this to my future patients as a PT?

  1. Mental: During the rehabilitation process, I will push my patients to focus on the small achievable goals when rehabbing as Coach Wood mentioned, instead of them getting too caught up in the numbers or rushing to their long term goal.  The road to recovery can sometimes take months and this could be very discouraging especially in the beginning! Keeping an athlete/patient positive throughout the process will yield better results in the end! The road to the top of the mountain will have celebratory checkpoints along the way.  The mental state of someone rehabilitating will have a direct impact on how they perform that day during your treatment.
  2. Spacing Hard EffortsCoach Wood attributes the success of his athletes to correctly distancing hard efforts during training.  By resting, we are allowing our body to reap the benefits of the harder efforts (see my post on Rest). I anticipate on seeing many athletes in my clinic for overuse injuries.  Most of my injured athletes that I have coached throughout the past 7-8 years had a difficult time pulling back on those easy days.  The same holds true in the physical therapy setting; this is often why you see patient’s 2-3 times per week vs. 5!
  3. Warming Up / Cooling Down:  There seems to be a nice smooth progression when the Steven’s athletes are warming up before a big effort.  When an athlete is on their own outside of the rehabilitation setting, are they being educated as to how to properly warm up the entire body? Too often coaches are not properly educating their athletes as to how the body needs to be prepped to complete an optimal effort. Should our aim be to warm up every muscle or only the ones that are going to be used?  When do we want to use dynamic and static? Would a professional sprinter warmup look different than a professional tennis players?
  4. Listen to Your BodyThe same message that Jon Anderson sent last week was reiterated by Coach Wood, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY! We as athletes are used to feeling bumps, bruises, strains, and the nicks that come along with the constant impact of training. These are high level athletes who encountered major surgeries re-telling their story the same, every time!
  5. Physical Therapy is awesome and it can be the difference in a persons full recovery.  But we as coaches and PT’s have an obligation to educate our athletes on the proper usage of foam rolling, the correct stretching technique, and when to use ice/heat throughout training and recovery. This will be the difference maker in whether we can keep an athlete healthy or not!

 

Thank you Coach Wood for the valuable words!


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