I’ve done a lot more sitting in the last 18 months than I did prior to 2020. While I still work out pretty regularly, I’ve been feeling noticeably achier across all parts of my body. So last month, when I was invited to the Nike Sport Research Lab at the LeBron James Innovation Center in Beaverton, Oregon to learn about my 36-year-old, prone-to-back pain body, I jumped (as nimbly as I could) at the opportunity.
Inside the brand’s headquarters, where its footwear and apparel are developed, thousands of elite and everyday athletes are tracked in both controlled and organic game play environments so that it can address problems for all different body types, age groups, and levels of effort through its products. After breakfast at a crown-shaped table — a nod to LeBron’s logo — other editors and I were able to tour the over 750,000 square feet of polished concrete, matte black surfaces, and function-centered interiors. I also got to see the massive lab itself, where a 200-meter track surrounds a turf and regulation-sized basketball court outfitted with 400 motion sensor cameras adjacent to climate chambers and a recovery room. It’s basically a playground for fitness enthusiasts.
At the lab, I went through various physical tests that are conducted behind the brand’s creation of sportswear. First up, I got a full-body scan that collected over 100 different measurements that show any glaring asymmetries. The former NCAA volleyball player in me and the owner of an unused Bachelor of Science in Movement Studies was thrilled to learn if my body mechanics and the way I move were aligned with the footwear and apparel decisions I’d made on my own. Keep reading for the most interesting things I learned, below.
I headed to the Applied Performance Innovation Treadmill bay where my gait would be recorded. There, I picked a comfortable speed and ran for three minutes. The findings? I take long strides that cause a deeper sway in my hips than necessary. At 6 feet tall, my initial thought was, duh, I take long strides, but upon further investigation, this leads to extra stress on my hips and affects my overall running game. Shorter strides equate to more steps per minute, the experts explained, and less force on my knees and hips — thus less risk of injury. Improving my stride can not only lend for better performance, but it can decrease the impact on the body and afford a shorter recovery time.
Looking at a video analysis of my running form, the team also determined that focusing more on kicking my feet back as I run would lend for a more efficient stride for my body, and they were able to recommend exercises that would aid in the correction of this. These include butt kicks, lateral walks with bands, squat jumps, and side-to-side jumps, as well as moves that focus on my posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, calves). I already regularly do the recommended banded exercises and regular squats, but it seems it’s time to add the others to the mix.
Then it was time to learn how your footwear choices impact your body by (ideally) aiding in the prevention of injury and more efficient movement. The researchers did multiple scans of my feet to examine dimensions I never considered, which areas of the foot absorb pressure when I walk and stand barefoot, and my ankle and toe flexibility. Purely from the data, the woman was able to tell me how I’ve been wearing sneakers (I have been wearing a size down because my feet are very narrow) and what my typical fit struggles were.
This info combined with my gait gave the Nike team the ability to recommend footwear options that fit my lifestyle and body composition: I’ll now be wearing the Pegasus Air Zoom for running and working out, and the Infinity React Flyknit 2 for my long walks over the Williamsburg Bridge. Your shoes, I learned, can ultimately translate to healthier joints, more fluid movement, and even more confidence when doing physical activities: The Infinity’s cushion system made my injury-prone body feel safe and secure. And I’ve been working out in older versions of React Flyknits for a few years, and these new ones offer such a stable foundation I may return to the gym occasionally rather than sticking to my at-home barefoot workouts full time.
Next up was my favorite room: the recovery center. This is where you can take an ice bath, get massage therapy, get stretched out, or receive treatments like acupuncture. I immediately leveraged the massage therapist to get my travel-induced kinks out.
I shared two things with her: No matter how much warming up, foam rolling, and post-workout stretching I do, the center of my lower back and across the top of my glutes rarely feel loose, and I experienced a lot of pain in my hip flexors when I was a college athlete. She cautioned that oftentimes we’re “cranking” our muscles by pushing them too far thinking we are becoming more flexible rather than easing them into stretches slowly — which is important so the muscles can have a break before getting into a deeper stretch.
My massage therapist also informed me that there was no amount of foam rolling or stretching that was going to get the tightness out of my psoas muscle — the muscle that runs from your lumbar vertebrae in your lower back, comes across the front of your pelvis, and attaches to underneath your femur (in your quads). Its location makes it difficult to stretch, but all sorts of factors can make it tight: think extended time sitting, sleeping on your side, and weakness in the surrounding muscle groups. And this is why lower back pain is so common.
As she did some manual manipulation, she recommended acupuncture relieve my psoas tightness. Acupuncture, she explained, has the ability to address the nervous system and blood flow in specific areas to address pain. I decided to give that a go for the first time later that afternoon. Twenty minutes after super-fine needles were placed along my body, it felt like I was submerged in waves and my muscle tension melted away.
Now, after traveling home from the west coast, I’m excited to upgrade my workout routine — and I’m sure my body will be grateful for it.
Heiderscheit, B. (2011). Effects of Step Rate Manipulation on Joint Mechanics during Running. Med Sci Sports Exerc. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3022995/
Sajko, S. (2009). Psoas Major: a case report and review of its anatomy, biomechanics, and clinical implications. The Journal of Canadian Chiropractic Association. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2796950/
Shakoor, N. (2010). The Effects of Common Footwear on Joint Loading in Osteoarthritis of the Knee. Arthritis Care Res. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2940270/
Sun, X. (2020). Systematic Review of the Role of Footwear Constructions in Running Biomechanics: Implications for Running-Related Injury and Performance. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7039038/
Ziyi, Y. (2017). The effectiveness of acupuncture for chronic pain with depression. Medicine. November 2017 - Volume 96 - Issue 47 - p e8800 doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000008800