The Wetfoot Blog

Monday, March 11, 2013

Posture, Bio-Mechanics, and the Trail

A wilderness trip is a place and time for personal growth, both intellectually and physically.  Sometimes it seems like intellectual growth is more purposefully cultivated than the physical growth.  For instance, we use team building activities, problem solving initiatives, and a slew of acronyms and maxims that encourage participants and staff to inculcate leadership qualities of an intellectual nature.  My personal favorite is “Leadership and Followership go hand in hand.”   Sometimes, however, leaders will fret exclusively about these activities and maxims while expecting the physical growth to take care of itself.  This entry will highlight just a few basic bio-mechanical principles that staff should acknowledge and make use of to facilitate safety and skill acquisition.

Tripping occurs in environments where oftentimes the terrain we walk on is unstable and the loads we carry are heavy, which can cause injuries resulting either from falls or muscular strains and ligament sprains.  Most of these injuries are caused in some way by the instability of the participant and as such are preventable.  The first mechanism for prevention I want to mention is something called “drawing in,” which is when one pulls the belly-button towards the spine about one inch.  By drawing in one activates the transversus abdominus and pelvic floor muscles which are the components of the inner abdominal wall and whose primary function is to stabilize the spine.  Stabilizing the spine reduces unnecessary movement throughout the body thereby helping participants balance better and transfer force more efficiently as they travel.  So not only are they safer but for every step or stroke they take more distance can be covered for less energy expenditure.  Drawing in may feel silly at first but it’s a skill that should become habitual , providing long term and short term benefits to participants.

 The next thing that should be considered when out in the wilderness is proper posture while lifting or traveling.  If you were in a gym preparing to perform a squat you should have a mental checklist of postural cues to follow, these cues are as applicable in the wilderness as they are at the gym.  When lifting packs or boats participants should have their chest and head up without pressing it forward, their shoulders should be pulled down and back towards their spine, feet are placed shoulder width apart, knees over toes, heels flat on the ground, and remember to draw in.  Lifting should begin at the bottom position of a squat with knees bent.  When they lift they should push through their heels, squeezing their butts to trigger the glutes rather than the quadriceps, and they need to keep their back straight as they lift (rounding the spine may cause a herniated disk).  Lastly they should exhale as they lift, when people forget to breathe their blood pressure spikes and they can pass out or burst blood vessels.  Posture is key to keeping campers safe but it is also important is another crucial way.
 Posture has long term health implications and it can be used to facilitate learning.  Practicing good posture is a preventative measure against postural distortion syndromes, these postures are colloquially called hunchback, sway-back, and pigeon–toed.  Watch campers (and yourself) while paddling or hiking; does their head jut forward, do their shoulders round forward, do their knees splay in or out while walking?  Correcting their posture will make their trail experience more enjoyable by reducing unnecessary strain.
You may have raised an eyebrow when I mentioned that posture facilitates learning, but sit up and read on about some interesting current research.  Studies have shown that students who are required to sit up during classes have better retention on later tests possibly because posture has a positive effect on focus and attention.  Also, posture affects the regulation of the hormones cortisol and testosterone , cortisol is a stress hormone and testosterone affects well-being.  Subjects asked to sit in hunched positions had higher levels of cortisol than subjects who sat in “power poses” (i.e. good posture). They also had lower levels of testosterone than their compatriots.  So if a camper is sullen or withdrawn ask them to sit or stand with good posture.  Decreasing their stress hormones will make them feel more confident and more likely to engage in a lesson than they would have been inclined to.
 To reiterate, bio-mechanics, and by extension posture, are key tools for teaching and trail facilitation.  They keep your participants safe by teaching them good motor recruitment patterns and by stabilizing them as they labor throughout the day.  It also makes them more efficient in their movements and can facilitate learning.  So next time you craft a lesson or start traveling remember how posture will help you and your participants reach their goals. 

Arthur D'Amato is a fitness instructor at Valley Medical Center and staff member of Camp Manito-wish YMCA. If you are interested in writing for The Wetfoot, please email

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