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Preventing knee injuries with mental training

July 30th, 2009

A pair of new studies from the University of Michigan offers an interesting take on how to prevent knee injuries like the ever-common ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears. What they’ve found is that the “wrong move” that leads to the injury may result as much from fatigue in your central nervous system as from physical fatigue in the knee or joint itself. That means we may want to change the kinds of preventive exercises we do to focus more on our brains and reflexes.

University of Michigan researchers studying ACL injuries had subjects perform one-legged squats to fatigue, then tested the reactions to various jumping and movement commands. Researchers found that both legs—not just the fatigued leg—showed equally dangerous and potentially injurious responses, said Scott McLean, assistant professor with the U-M School of Kinesiology.

So what does this mean? Monotonous rote exercises, like just doing simple squats over and over again, may not be as effective as exercises that incorporate rapid changes or unexpected moves — anything that keeps you on your toes and keeps your mind engaged.

The researchers also suggest that “(m)ental imagery or virtual reality technology can immerse athletes to very complex athletic scenarios.” Realistically, though, I can’t imagine more than a tiny fraction of athletes ever taking advantage of that kind of thing. The useful take-home message is the one that everyone can apply: don’t just go through the motions.

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