Rethinking body armor for contact

When it comes to contact sport, body armor is a hot topic. This makes sense: armor protects you. But there is a problem as well: in the world of physical preparation armor is shorthand for size. In the real world that is hardly the case. The best combat armor is not the biggest. There is a reason modern soldiers don’t go onto the battlefield dressed as a medieval knight. To be effective armor has to be strong. It needs to allow movement. It needs to protect the most vulnerable parts. It needs to connect to the body. Size is the least concern in most cases.

My job is coaching mountain bikers, specifically downhill (DH) mountain-bikers and even more specifically, professional DH racers. You might not think of it as a traditional contact sport, but the hits can be faster and more intense than any sport played on a pitch. Like their alpine skiing cousins, the goal of the sport is to get from the start-line at the top of the hill to the finish line at the bottom as fast as human and machine dare given wild terrain, big rocks, jumps, loose dirt and lots of trees and other features. Road cyclists often face overuse injuries, but in mountain biking it is trauma that gets us. A big crash can leave riders rehabbing and retraining on the sideline for weeks or months. In this article I look at how we can redefine armor by look at the demands of the sport, mechanism of injury, and training design.

» Learn more from Kilmurray in our interview with him on HMMR Podcast 206.

Step 1: Understand the sport demands

Here is DH racing in a nutshell: race from top to bottom as fast as you can, with big impacts, rough terrain, and lots of vibrations. Tracks descend between 400-650m per run, and are 1.5 to 2.5 km in length. Conditions vary with the weather, from desert levels of dust to slippy, wet clay filled soils. Competitions take place over three days, riders have a qualifying and finals run and overall they’ll do between 10 to 15 runs on the track throughout a race weekend. Falls and crashes happen often, in training and racing.

As you can see, the body and mind need to be resilient. Racing with less than ideal range motion or pain is common. But racing with a stiff shoulder is far preferable than sitting a race out with a grade 3 shoulder separation. Body armor in the form of muscle mass, tissue quality, control of range of motion and well invested general athletic ability are key considerations when building the riders training program in light of the sport demands.

Body armor in the form of muscle mass (especially at proximal injury sites like hip, neck, or shoulders) also serves a pure performance function. Momentum. More momentum means faster, which can also mean bigger crashes as P still equals ma. So a bit of armor can help even if we don’t want riders to start looking like rugby players. A balance of mass along with movement quality goes a long ways.

And, finally, body armor also provide a rider with a critical layer of mindset resilience too. Feeling strong and “built” for want of a better term delivers a confidence to crash and confidence to ride hard that few other physical qualities deliver. Riding while scared or hesitant is a recipe for an accident.

Step 2: Understand the mechanism of injury

This is an easy one: blunt force trauma! That’s it really. Mountain bike athletes do face the occasional wear and tear training issues or freak cramps, strains or sprains. But the primary mode of injury is trauma.

Trauma can come in different forms. When rider and bike come to an abrupt stop, the rider often goes flying and lady luck then decides if they land on a soft patch of dirt or hit a large boulder or get a limb twisted up in the wrong way! The outcomes of worst case scenarios can vary, but experience and the limited evidence available point to shoulders and ankles being the most injured sites. Shoulder separations, broken collarbones, traumatic rotator cuff or labral issues for the upper body, lower leg fractures and ankle ligament trauma for the lower extremities. Next on the list is neck and head trauma, concussion is common, with post concussive neck pain and mobility reduction a common theme. Cervical spine is also one the few body areas that gets a true repetitive injury issue, wear and tear on the lower cervical vertebrae, especially for lower body-mass athletes is exacerbated by the rapid and frequent head accelerations, further exacerbated by wearing a 1.5kg helmet!

Related to this are also the lacerations, cuts, bruises related to blunt trauma. You won’t see much “injury prevention” research available for these sorts of issues. These are hard to mitigate, but a training program that is guided by philosophy of “inoculation to all stressors” will go some ways to reducing training time lost when healing from cuts, hematoma, or impacts. Quality sleep and quality nutrition are as much part of our “body armor” strategy as they are cornerstones of consistent world-class preparation.

A well built, holistic training program should mitigate the chance of wear and tear or repetitive injury. As others more experienced than I have said, we aim to build adaptable athletes not just adapted ones. Our contact points are the grips and pedals on the bicycle, not cleats in turf or skis on snow. So those high force or high velocity mechanisms of injury that damage knees, ankles and hips of football, rugby, snow sports or track and field athletes are less common in MTB. With that said, trauma is chaotic and with a race season that lasts only 5 months one major injury can halt a career, so body armor building should be systematic, coherent and long term. Body armor then needs to be a theme that has a common thread throughout the training process. Tailored to the needs of each rider and their stage of development and history of injury.

Step 3: Align your pillars and find your methods

Before we define the means and methods of training, we need to see where body armor fits into the overall eco-system of training. Understanding where a goal fits into training will help you make sure you choose the right methods to reach it. Our eco-system has some key pillars, all of which are developed simultaneously (with a periodic spotlight put on certain elements), they are:

  • Psychological toolbox
  • Physical capacity
  • Riding ability
  • Lifestyle management

If you’ve been coaching long enough, you can probably fill in the blanks of how the body armor thread weaves its way through the above pillars. The material development of body armor lies mainly in physical capacity, but as mitigation of injury and issue goes the intersection of psychological skills and riding ability is of high importance. Being able to manage a wandering mind before dropping into a vastly changed, slippery and muddy track while knowing just how to adapt your brake modulation or body position on the bike can go a long way to not needing your armor.

The actual construction of body armor lies in the physical and lifestyle pillars. While “hypertrophy” is only a specific goal for those who really need it. The loading parameters of a downhiller’s strength training while, if paired with an adequate diet, lead to incremental gains in muscle cross sectional area, tendon strength, thickness & stiffness and connective tissue resilience.

With the pillars in mind, we then start to select training methods. The methods vary from redundant, reductionist injury “prevention” exercises like banded rotator cuff work, to progressively overloaded strength exercises for upper and lower extremities like shoulder press and deadlifts. Between reductionist extremes we use exercises that challenge strength at end range while keeping shoulders and hips connected, like one-arm TRX fall-outs or medicine ball throws. Ankle or wrist injuries can be mitigated by regular dosing of elastic and reactive focused hops, skips, jumps and push-ups. The quality of the work done in a riders physical preparation dictates the quality of the body-armor come impact. Quality reps on the trap bar, trump touch and go bounces, quality low hurdle hops trump box jumps for time, quality med ball throws with awareness of position and posture trump the number of repetitions in a session. Quality dictates depth of capacity in the long term.

Step 4: Create a program and plan

So how does this all look like for the athletes training plan? When creating a plan it starts with understanding the sport’s culture(s). DH MTB is a racing sport, getting from A to B as fast as possible, often referred to as the F1 of cycling, so professionalism and the search for marginal advantage is common. The sport roots though, are somewhere between outdoors and extreme sports. This means that culture is a broad canvas of different strokes. Some racers will want the rationale and some certainty as to why they are developing the biggest anterior deltoids possible or why most squatting is done through large ranges of motion. Others on the more action sports end of the cultural spectrum may need the body armor broccoli on their plate to be hidden. Gaining mass, mobility or strengthening smaller structures may need to be hidden as “warm-up” sets or exercises, or slotted in as a “filler” or “finisher.” Coaching dogma will lead to your crucification and the limited progress for the athlete if they are “action sports” in mind set and would much prefer to spend 4 hours at the skatepark instead of 40 minutes in the gym.

Below is an overview of the different approaches I use in different situations:

  • Self-care aession – these are standalone sessions with “self-care” in mind. For athletes with a clear performance focus we will call them adaptation acceleration sessions. The content can include injury rehab and prehab along classic physiotherapy lines, low intensity aerobic activity, eccentric focused strengthening of specific body parts or globally challenging exercises for shoulder, hip and ankle strength, mobility and control. Here is an example of one such session:
  • Body armor = body building – for the lighter athletes, who weigh sub-62kg, male or female, or for those with previous injury that lead to atrophy we can program true single joint or isolation exercises. We want to get bigger. We don’t care about others paradigms, we simply wish to drive a certain adaptation.
  • The warm-up – our pre strength training warm-up is mobility focused and progresses from floor to standing – the goal is to always challenge range of motion and time under tension to a point where not only is the body prepared for training but also received enough stimulus to increase or grow the athletes strength through range.
  • Primers – the bridge between the warm-up and the training, here we can program two to three exercises that prepare the body more specifically for the main strength training exercises to come in the session, while also serving an injury mitigation or body armor goal.
  • Fillers – if long warm ups & primers are just too damn boring for an athlete we can pepper the plan with some fillers between exercises, often mobility focused or neck work. An athlete with poor elastic lower body qualities can strength their soleus with some funny walks or single leg calf raises between deadlifts and bent over rows. Anything goes when the ultimate goal is A to B on the bike. This is a key “hide the broccoli” strategy! Examples of primers and fillers are shown here:
  • Fingers to toes – full body summation and dissipation of force can build the infrastructure needed to perform well at your sport, take impacts, take crashes and avoid overuse issues. For example a double KB swing to Press can develop posterior chain strength, shoulder awareness, upper back and grip strength and serve a key role in developing an athlete’s confidence and competence with a training implement. Not to mention pack on some shoulder armor!
  • Taste the rainbow – especially so with professional athletes, continuing to maintain or develop a diverse range of movement skills is critical for overall health and the non-mass related body armor. Play golf, surf, ski-tour, walk the dog, run up a mountain, climbing or bouldering. For the MTB athlete at least, getting outdoors, moving in ways not allowed by the constraints of the bicycle is a key part to health promotion.

Final thoughts

Sideswipe a tree, tuck and roll at 35 km/h over some mini-boulders, fold an ankle flat landing a 15m drop-off, whiplash from a high-speed slide out or simply the desire to feel built to crash in the start gate – for the downhill racer, body armour isn’t a banal pursuit of aesthetic goals or hypertrophy, it’s an essential albeit individual pursuit of race readiness. Form follows function but function may need a little protection!

One final note to consider on this whole topic is that at every level the 3 Cs are critical. I don’t go into detail on all of these steps for fun; it is necessary for coaches and athletes to have a solid understanding of what they are doing and why. Before and after the planning process we need to make sure we’ve ticked all the performance potential boxes related to body armor:

  • Competence – the athlete’s ability to understand the purpose of the exercises and loading chosen, interpret and implement the program with purpose and own the feedback process so coach and athlete can progress training. The coach of course has an equal responsibility to the athlete here.
  • Control – Mastery of movement in the physical prep environment – body armor in the MTB context means resilient tissues, strength through range and the ability to achieve the same functional outcome without undue cost from different bodily structures. This means the coach must understand the programming of and the athlete understand the execution of tempo, summation and dissipation of force, resultant postures, range of motion and complementary forces.
  • Condition  – Deploying your strength through range and capitalizing on the relationship between mass and momentum is not possible without the ability to exceed the demands of your sport. Riding practice all day, qualifying at 4 p.m. and doing it all again tomorrow mean exposure to risk, both from trauma and from reduced capacity to perform due to accumulated or acute fatigue. Conditioning is built from the cellular to cultural levels. Healthy muscle and connective tissue, fed by a broad aerobic spectrum, fueled by a competent and aware athlete mean the hours spent developing control in the gym are used to their fullest in the sporting environment.

As you can see from the above it’s the connections between methods, means, communication and education that serve athletes best. Just as body armor has to be connected, so does our planning process.