Interview with Ackerly Shelzam

28 January 2015
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Ackerly Shelzam is a licensed physical therapist assistant. He is passionate about functional fitness and helping patients achieve their best. He is an active outdoorsman, enjoying camping, hiking, and snowboarding/skiing with his wife, Lauren.

G4: Thanks for taking the time to chat, today. It would be great to hear your story, Ackerly.

Ackerly Shelzam: I’ve been an outdoor enthusiast my whole life. The first date with my wife was a climbing date on Mt. Erie, which is a pretty good vertical drop. She took me out there before I had ever been rock climbing. When I came out West, it was because I love snowboarding and in Michigan you have hills where I was born, but in the West, obviously, you have mountains. I started traveling out West to go snowboarding and to see the sights. I just couldn’t leave.

G4: What drew you to the mountains in the first place?

Ackerly Shelzam: I would say initially the love of snow and for snowboarding. I was absolutely chasing down the best snowboarding spots. I also had a love for hiking, mountain biking, just camping — everything I guess. In Michigan, you have the Great Lakes and that’s awesome but then after that there’s not a lot of adverse terrain to explore.

G4: What led you down the path of physical therapy versus being a trainer?

Acklery Shelzam: I was drawn into the gym business because I like going to the gym and I like learning new exercises. But when I started looking at what else you could do with this passion and looking at the trainers, it seemed like they had a lot of questions themselves.

People would say that they have knee pain or back pain and could the trainer work with them? And they would always say yes but they weren’t able to explain how they would be able to work with that person safely. It was just obvious that I needed more.

I found a physical therapist assistant program online that seemed like it was right up my alley as far as having a 2-year program and more knowledge than a trainer but less of the 7-year endeavor of a doctorate. I was 28-29 when I started school. After my study concluded, I spent some time at various clinics before coming aboard at G4 Athlete.

G4: Very cool. Lets transition to the 4 absolutes. Would love to hear your thoughts, especially in the context of snowboarding and skiing. Lets start with functional fitness and get a sense of what it means to you and what it means for winter sports in general?

Ackerly Shelzam: I love the question, “What is function?” because I want to keep my answer as simple as possible. Function is quite simply, “does this resemble something I do in life?” When people are looking at exercise equipment and they are trying to determine what ones are truly helping them and what ones are giving them beauty bumps which “bumps up” the muscles but not in a way that’s going to help them be a better snowboarder. I look at this equipment and ask myself, “Does this resemble something I do in real life?”

For example, a squat machine does because when you squat, it’s like standing up from a chair. Or sitting down. Or so many different things, like lifting a box off the floor, etc.

But one I don’t really like because it could hurt your knee is the one where you’re seated and there’s a pad against your shin and you straighten your knee. When you look at that movement you have to ask yourself, “What does this resemble?” So far, the only thing I’ve ever come up with is that little kick of the knee to get my sheets off my bed. Not even a soccer player kicks like that. They kick more from their hip.

So function to me is, “Does this resemble real life?” That’s why we do our best to emulate our exercises off of something that looks like life. It’s hard to simulate an exact movement pattern like snowboarding. But you can darn sure bet that it’s going to have to do something with a slightly squatted position and rotating the upper body because that’s what you’re doing out there.

G4: What would you recommend to a snowboarder that comes into the clinic? How would you go about teaching them and then applying functional fitness for them?

Ackerly Shelzam: It would depend if they have an ailment — which not all people do. Some people come to physical therapy to make sure that everything is all good, if you will. They have a biomechanical evaluation; we take a look at their body and see if they are going to have a fault coming up.

But let’s say that they did come in for a knee pain, we would try to simulate those movements as best as we could, which is very difficult for something that requires downhill momentum. But, asking them to get in a slightly squatted position like they would be on a snowboard, having them rotate their upper body back and forth like they would if they were turning and taking a look at their knee and their ankle and seeing what it’s doing. If you see that this knee is really diving in, and you’re like, “Hey Buddy, that’s maybe why you have knee pain and this is how you could prevent having knee pain.”

You just take a look at what they are trying to present and you build off of that. Sometimes people will have really solid knees. The knees aren’t the problem but you look up and they are really collapsed in the core. So on one guy I might work on lower extremity alignment and another guy I might work a lot more with his core, his ability to stay over his base of support.

Style of snowboarding also comes into play. The guy that is out there playing in the park, he is dealing with a lot more impact and moving those arms to create spinning motions. You need to take into account a different kind of movement and really focus a lot of your time on how the landing is looking.

This is different than someone who is going to ride backcountry all day. They are going to hit a little bit of the bumps and the jumps but at the same time they’re not going to be trying to ride on this hard terrain that’s going to be a different flow.

So now I’m looking for quad endurance because the back leg is trying to hold a lot of weight to keep the tip of the nose out of the snow.

G4: How does functional fitness compare with biomechanics? How would you differentiate the two?

Ackerly Shelzam: That is a little stickier as far as how you’re going to explain that, but if we’re trying to keep it real simple and trying to break it down for somebody, I would say that biomechanics is more about structure governing function.

If my foot is slightly canted out as I apply weight to it, I would naturally assume that that would collapse, because of the counteractive forces and gravity. My knee would then follow my foot and it may be canted in because if it is canted out, it might roll in. But maybe my foot is built the other way and it’s already rolled in so my body would throw it out.

When we see that and we see it within the movement of the first category of the functional fitness work of testing them and watching them move, we’ll say that this is a multi-pronged approach. One thing you can do is increase your awareness and realize that your knee is diving in a little bit. But know that your foot is setting you up for this; that’s your structure. You can’t change your structure short of surgery.

So what else can we do? Maybe we can offer a little more extra support within the shoe. Or maybe it’s not that severe and it’s just something to be aware of.

G4: Would one way of saying it be that biomechanics is your innate physical capacity positively or negatively whereas functional fitness is the application of those natural movements based off of your biomechanics?

Ackerly Shelzam: Yea. You look at the structure. Once you see how the structure is built, you can already assume how it is going to function, and then you need to see that. Because people compensate and people are really strong in places that you maybe did or didn’t predict. You have to look at both and appreciate both. Because you are beating your head against the wall if you’re trying to help somebody when the structure is the issue but also if you see the structure and you think we got this and you think it will roll in and you discover that it doesn’t, it rolls out, ok! That’s your function. They have compensated and they have figured something out with their body.

G4: How about from a snowboard application? What should a snowboarder be aware of and be thinking about when it comes to biomechanics?

Ackerly Shelzam: The ability to use the glute more than the quad is something that as an infant, it happens naturally. When we crawl, we move from our core out to our extremities, But as people continue to get stronger and stronger, they stop using their glute as much and they use their quad more because your quad is able to do it for a time.

But for me, I have enjoyed snowboarding more. I’ve had longer days and less sore and painful areas later by figuring out a strategy to utilize my glute more. That’s, in most physical therapists’ opinion, the way it is supposed to be. The glute is stronger than the quad and that we’re supposed to move proximal to distal. We use the phrase neuromuscular reeducation or perhaps you could say you’re quad-dominant because you have huge quads. That’s good, but let’s use our body the way it was designed and have longer, better days.

I would say to a lot of snowboarders trying to appreciate how to get that glute going that when they’re working out, when they are hiking, that will make it easier to find it on the slopes.

G4: How about nutrition? Is there anything a snowboarder should be aware of on the nutritional plane?

Ackerly Shelzam: Absolutely. And I look at it from a pure enjoyment standpoint. It’s like using that glute not to be a booty bum today but to ride longer and have more fun. You do a three-day trip up to Whistler; you don’t want to be absolutely cashed after half a day on the first day from fatigue and then you feel so sore you miss the second day. The same thing goes with nutrition.

If I go out there with a coke and a snickers bar, I’m going to crash before noon. I want to make sure I feed the body and then if you take it to the next level, it’s going to make you actually stronger like you’re going to be building muscle out there if you did a good job of feeding yourself before you hit the mountain. And then finally is repair; it’s going to help you have less sore quads the next day because you did a good job with fuel and hydration.

It’s a huge role. It’s something that I missed the boat on for a long time in life. I was a really scrawny guy and I was prone to injury. I broke both arms because I was so scrawny. I think a lot of it was lack of nutrition. My dad fed me really well but once I got out there on my own I thought I was fine if I had ramen 8 hours ago. It was bad.

G4: If you are going up to Whistler for a 3-day weekend, the obvious answer would be that nutrition is a lifestyle so you should always be eating the right way, but even if you eat ok but you havent been thinking about it, what sort of preparation should you have? Its not as simple as the day of starting to eat better, right?

Ackerly Shelzam: Correct, especially with hydration. You are really thinking about hydrating the day before. Of course, you continue to hydrate the day of but we’ve all had the experience where we’re working out or hiking and you are thirsty but you just can’t seem to get enough water. That feeling is accurate. Your body is already dehydrated. The day before is a great day to prep, especially with people who like to get first tracks. You’re going to get up really early so your body is not going to get a lot of time to wake up, process, and all that.

It’s also a good idea to transfer over to people who are the smartest so I highly encourage people to check out by Emily Edison because she has a little tab that says “pre-workout” or “during workout” or “post-workout”. A sheet laid out for you with some health ideas for snacks you could pack.

G4: What about mental edge? What should a snowboarder be thinking about before they go up the mountain or while theyre on the mountain?

Ackerly Shelzam: That’s an interesting conversation. It can actually be a danger at some points. What I mean by that is that a lot of people are going to look at mental edge and confidence as a similar category. If you think you are absolutely bullet proof and you’re coming off a 30-foot drop you might be able to nail that no problem and no pain but is it worth it? Mental edge on the mountain is almost a reverse. I had to think about how it’s more fun to ride the whole day rather than do this one thing and possibly destroy myself.

For me, mental edge became more of a “let’s actually think about what we’re doing a little bit.” As a Michigan boy, it even came down to “don’t get yourself caught in an avalanche scenario” because that was not a thing in Michigan. Out here, I’m the guy who says, “Let’s go drop over here,” and guys are telling me that that area is a slide zone. So it’s a little different in snowboarding.

G4: Research actually shows that theres a discernable outcome of having positive visualizations and mental outlook. You actually perform better and recover from injury faster. Being able to imagine success, even if its not a crazy trick down a cliff but even imagining that you can go all day can have some discernable influence on being able to achieve what you are setting out to do.

Ackerly Shelzam: Absolutely. And you know, for me when I was first starting out, there was a fear of going down these huge mountains, even though you know how to stop and you know how to turn you look down and you’re like “holy crap.”

I call it paralysis with analysis. You’re at the top of the hill and you’re just sitting there. You want to point it down but the more you think about it, the more you lock up. For me, it was a very key part in my riding to figure out how to just go and stop thinking about it.

The more that I would not analyze it and go, the more that I realized that I actually had skill and that allowed me to get to another level and to become a lot more enjoyable. I don’t mean to sound cheesy but I would say that it helped shape my personality because it feels like it’s all connected. Your ability to charge down a hill or sign up for college when you’re thirty. Stop thinking about it; start signing up.

G4: I have one more question. Its always interesting for the young athletes and people who might have dreams to go further. What advice could you give to the high performing athlete looking to take the next step?

Ackerly Shelzam: I’d say for the person who is serious about looking to get to a high level, whether that be a scholarship at the collegiate level or whether that is being a professional U.S. ski team member or NFL or MLB. I would say that you have to love your sport. If you don’t love it, then you should have a different mindset and think more about recreation.

The next level, to go from great to amazing is the hardest level. I can make any athlete way better. But to take an athlete that is surpassing a lot of people’s average skill sets and taking them to the elite is going to be an arduous journey and you’re going to have to have the passion come first.

I would talk more on the mental edge aspect than on the physical attributes because at the end of the day, it’s going to be who works harder. Who can get themselves up at 5 a.m. That person that can give full effort. I’ve never met an amazing athlete that didn’t work, work, work.

G4: Is there a threat of imbalance when you just work, work, work?

Ackerly Shelzam: Absolutely. If you are not smart, then you might as well shut it down. So having good people in your corner is crucial. We’ve already covered multiple degrees today. Psychologists with the mental edge, a nutritionist with nutrition, a physical therapist with the body movement.

The guys and girls that I know are working with almost everybody. We have a ski team member in our G4 midst and she is awesome about talking to a nutritionist; she has a great attitude and she works based on what she’s being helped with. She’s not just shredding her body for no reason. You need to have people help you find what your deficits are and help you go for it.

G4: I always find this an interesting conundrum. Look at Russell Wilson. Hes lauded for everything he does but on twitter he has the hashtag #NoTimeToSleep. He gets to the facility really early and leaves at midnight. But sleep is important, right?

Ackerly Shelzam: Absolutely. Recovery.

G4: So to truly be elite you have to work harder than everyone else but is there a too much to that? Is Russell Wilson going too hard?

Ackerly Shelzam: I’m stoked that you bring that up. Because I said work, work, work and you could have people going too hard 7-days a week and hurting themselves. So, work, work, work can also be brainpower. A lot of that is Russell. Part of his no time to sleep is studying. It doesn’t always have to be going to the gym and destroying your body.

Even for our snowboarder and people that don’t do team sports, get a game plan. Study what other people are doing better. Watch film; appreciate movement; take a look at why the judges like this one snowboarder better than you. Or why somebody is going faster than you. What are they doing? You start talking physics, vectors, and angles.

When you do have the passion to take it to the next level and you’re willing to put in the effort, then part of that effort is to be knowledgeable about what you’re doing. Recovery is a way to get stronger. We have a lot of good stories about athletes that we know that are successful that are in a 3-4 day range of physically working and the other days are the recovery days; you don’t just sit there; you do foam rolling, stretching, making sure your nutrition is good. Maybe you do need a day of mini golf to diffuse the brain.

That’s an awesome question. Recovery is our way to success and working can also be through mental aspects when you’re taking a look at your sport.

Photo credit: Robert van Dijk via Flickr/Creative Commons