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On my high school football team my sophomore year, we’d end most practices with shuttle runs for conditioning. Across the field and back, then repeat. As many times as the coaches wanted, usually until we atoned for whatever sins we committed during practice. It was terrible.
I remember every neuron screaming at me to quit football. Maybe those brain cells were ahead of the research on CTE. All of my teammates felt the same way. It has always been a rite of passage in football for a group of young people to be driven to hate their life decisions, but to do it together. Cool sport! And if our group-hatred had a soundtrack, it’d be one coach yelling: “GET YOUR HANDS OFF YOUR KNEES! DON’T SHOW WEAKNESS!”
That team won just a single game.
By the time I was a senior, those never-ending punishment shuttles were replaced by a structured workout plan. We had fun with it, making little games with sprints. I definitely don’t remember being yelled at in regards to how my recovery posture reflected on my manhood. We’d be hands on knees, before putting our hands up for a high five and shouting “Let’s gooooo!” That team won the league and went to the state semifinals.
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My guess is that a lot of people reading this have a similar experience, having been told that putting your hands on your knees was a sign of weakness. You want to breathe in a comfortable position? And let me guess, you want to drink water too? ONLY LOSERS NEED RECOVERY AND WATER (maybe that last one was just the football coaches). Even now, when I see athletes shying away from putting their hands on their knees, I imagine their inner child getting screamed at for doing what felt natural.
Hands On Knees Study
It’s officially time to give that inner child a big hug, because it turns out that hands-on-knees might be the optimal recovery posture! A 2019 study in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine pitted hands on head (favored by football coaches because it makes one appear big and strong, as if you’re being pursued by a mountain lion) versus hands on knees (good for teaching the mountain lion how to twerk). Twenty female college soccer players completed two randomized trials, each involving four by four-minute intervals at 90-95% of max heart rate with three minutes easy recovery. The only difference is that one trial involved hands on head during the three minutes recovery, and one involved hands on knees.
Usually when I report on studies, it’s full of discussion of error bars and disclaimers that make the conclusions uncertain. But this study was an absolute landslide, like most of those games that my high school football team lost.
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Athletes that recovered with hands on knees had significantly faster reductions in heart rate, 53 bpm ± 10.9 bpm versus 31 bpm ± 11.3 bpm. There was also a significant positive effect for breathing rate and breathing efficiency.
There are lots of cool potential explanations, from optimizing the diaphragmatic zone of apposition to changes in metabolic demand to parasympathetic activation of the nervous system. The exact causes aren’t too important for our purposes. It’s the week after Christmas and all through the house, not a creature will be looking up additional scientific studies. That being said, if any creature would do a deep literature dive, it would be our resident mouse, who has evaded every humane trap we have tried. It’s the smartest mouse alive!
The big point relates to why so many of us were told not to put our hands on our knees in the first place. To give those football coaches credit, I think it comes from a genuine place–you want to open up the lungs, right? Being hunched over can’t help? In reality, the study shows that it’s much more complex than simple models based on external appearances. What might look weak from a distance is actually the ultimate power position, maximizing recovery for what comes next.
And that’s my message heading into 2022.
Take your time, assume whatever recovery posture feels best, and try not to worry what other people might think it looks like from the outside.
It was a heck of a year. I never wanted to learn the Greek alphabet, but I have a feeling I will have no choice for the next few decades. I can’t remember my favorite teacher’s name, but I will never forget the QAnon Shaman. In my personal life, I feel like the more I try to make a difference, the bigger the group of people I let down. On the internet, it can feel like my milkshake brings more people to the yard, which is cool, but many of them are like…screw your dumb milkshake, bitch.
It can be pretty exhausting. But you know what else can be exhausting? A big run. I think it’s normal to be tired at the end of a year like this one, just like it’s normal to be tired at the end of an interval. And just because you finish an interval excited to be done with it, that doesn’t mean that the interval wasn’t a hugely cool opportunity for growth, or that future intervals will all look and feel exactly the same.
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Now is the recovery time. Personally, my hands are on my knees and I’m gasping for air. From the outside, it may look like I’m weak, all hunched over and depleted. Maybe you’re right there with me, wondering how the heck we got here. But we’re right where we need to be.
Yeah, 2021 was exhausting. And yeah, maybe I didn’t nail every part of the year like I hoped I would a year ago. I’m ready for the next one, though. What looks like weakness is just some good old-fashioned recovery.
Hands on knees now. Hands up in 2022 for a big high five. Let’s gooooooo!
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.