For this week’s edition of Wednesday Workout, FasterSkier sat down with Ben Lustgarten to discuss a new part of his training regimen that aims to improve a crucial yet less focused on system of the body, the neurological system.
After yet another season plagued with injury, Ben Lustgarten began to search for answers regarding his physical health issues. In the 2014/2015 season a heal injury prevented the first-year professional athlete from training and racing during a significant part of the season. The Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team athlete turned his frustration into a search for a solution, and began a regimen that included neurological mapping to help keep his body healthy.
“The only reason I started doing this is because I have been so injured. I’ve really been looking for a solution… PT has been good, stretching has been good, but…I [wanted] to get to the source,” Lustgarten said in an interview.
While injury prevention is what led Lustgarten to focus more on his brain and its connection to the body, neurological mapping has many other benefits ranging from increased balance to quicker reflexes to more efficient use of energy.
The neurological component is something Lustgarten said he feels has been missing. “What has been lacking in my physical education has been… using your brain, because everything is in the brain, pain perception, endurance, feel of strength, vision, the environment,” he said. “We never really train our eyes, we don’t train our brain, we don’t train mapping. We just assume that if we run a lot, our body and our ankles are our feet are going to map properly.”
What exactly is neurological mapping? Lustgarten’s response covered the basics: “Your brain has a map of all of your muscles and their range of motion. So let’s say you hold out your arm and you want to move your index finger in a figure eight. If you can do that, your brain has mapped that movement… If you do that with all your fingers, some fingers are going to move really erratically; they’re going to jump from position to position. That means they are not properly mapped.”
Essentially, while the body can anatomically move in certain ways, the brain is what controls the movement. Whether it is moving a finger in a figure eight or correcting balance after tripping over a pole in a mass start, the brain is in control. If the brain is able to more accurately control these movements, then the body can be more efficient and ultimately more effective.
By properly mapping movements in many of his joints and muscles, Lustgarten hopes injuries will be less common and that his body will be maximally efficient.
“All the little muscles in my ankles, as I map my ankle movement, those muscles will increase their muscle memory with the specific positions and then give me a little bit more efficiency,” Lustgarten said, giving and example of mapping he’s done with his ankle.
According to the Sun Valley skier, mapping should also improve joint mobility. “[It] has been proven to [lead to] less injuries, faster muscle recovery, efficient movement, less muscles fatigue, and better awareness of the body” he said.
Another large aspect of Lustgarten’s mapping exercises involve vision, as receiving input from surroundings is the first step in being able to effectively react. According to Lustgarten, skiers must be “in tune with [their] environment and have to always know what’s coming up, and [be able to] react to those things.”
“On a ski trail you have to know where your body is and how its reacting to the environment… So as you see the environment and see the trail, that information is going into your eyes and then you analyze that in your brain… Then, because of whatever patterns we have generated in our brain, we know how to move our muscles to react to that environment. So if there is something a little off with your eyes and you see something a little late or not quite accurately, then you are going to move your body in a way that is not as efficient,” he added.
In short, in order for the brain and body to effectively respond to your environment, the eyes must be able to quickly and accurately see the environment. The efficient joint and muscle movements will not mean much if the movements react incorrectly to the environment.
The results are already showing for Lustgarten. He is already able to move his eyes much faster while interpreting his environment just as effectively. Since starting these vision and joint and muscle mapping exercises, he has already noticed differences. “I’ve noticed it in training, like I’m on skate roller skis and I feel about as good as I did at my best last winter,” he said. “I’ve been training for three weeks now and I’m not injured which is a huge record for me…I feel good. My training has been good. I’m excited to see how this works.”
There are two parts, ‘rehabilitation and maintenance’ and ‘performance.’ The rehab and maintenance portion is designed specifically for correcting poor neurological mappings of joint movements, eye movement and focus. This section can vary from person to person, based on which exercises a given person struggles with. The performance portion, on the other hand, is a “longer nightly routine that is supposed to increase perception and function” of the targeted area, whether it be eyesight or a joint. The following workout is only an example, but Lustgarten recommends seeing a specialist to get the individual attention needed for these workouts to be as effective as possible.
Rehabilitation and Maintenance:
This portion of the workout is performed four times a day, with four reps of the daily exercise or exercises. It takes around five minutes each time.
T-Spine: This exercise works on mapping spine motion. To perform this exercise keep your shoulders in line and square them, while slowly and smoothly moving your chest up and down. To make it easier perform this exercise while sitting so you can hold your legs. This helps keep your shoulders square and still so you can focus on spine movement.
VOR (Vestibulo Ocular Reflex): To perform this exercise begin by focusing your eyes on a fixed point. Then close your eyes, move your head in a direction, and open your eyes again. The goal is to keep the eyes focused on the fixed point. The various head endpoints are left, right, up, down, up-left, up-right, down-left, and down-right. Perform this exercise as quickly as possible while maintaining the focus point. For an extra challenge, try balancing on one leg.
First, make two charts with random letters printed vertically from top to bottom. These can be arranged in many ways with a few feet between the charts. Some arrangement examples are side-by-side, upper-left and lower-right, upper-right and lower-left, and one near, one far. The exercise is to keep the head still and move the eyes from one chart to another while stating the each letter in the sequence. The goal over time is to increase speed so the eyes move and focus more quickly.
This aspect of the workout is performed once a day, between 10 and 25 minutes. It can be anything from joint mobility to saccades. The performance portion is essentially a more focused and lengthy version of a given rehabilitation and maintenance exercise. We will use the knee joints for an example.
These focus on joint mobility and neurological mapping of the knees and their movement. Perform each position four times clockwise and four times counterclockwise.
To begin, use both knees at the same time. Stand with the feet wide enough so there is a tennis ball length gap between the knees. Bend the knees slightly and move them in a smooth circle. While doing this it is very important to move the ankles, hips, and other joints as little as possible.
The second portion of this exercise focuses on one knee at a time. Start in a shallow lunge and move one knee in a smooth circle. Do this with each leg at 0 degrees, 45 degrees, 90 degrees, and 135 degrees. So after starting in a lunge, move the front leg around the other leg in a half circle pattern. Then repeat with opposite leg.
This joint circle exercise can be done with any joint from ankles to wrists to hips. It is imperative to focus on proper technique, isolating the movement to the focus joint and making the circles as smooth as possible. Also make sure there is a full range of motion in the joint with no jerks or jumps. This is to ensure that the brain properly maps the movements. Once a smooth circle is achieved, faster movements can be attempted.
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.