It is a Wednesday morning in late August and I’m lying on a treatment table. My legs and ankles are being poked and prodded. My hamstrings, which are tighter than guitar strings, are being manipulated and stretched to gauge their flexibility.
I’m then asked to stand on my tiptoes and hold that position. The news I’m about to hear does not come sugar-coated.
‘The endurance in your calves,’ says Matt Konopinski, co-founder of Rehab 4 Performance, with a twinkle in his eyes. ‘It’s absolutely rubbish.’
We have not come to this state-of-the-art facility on the outskirts of Liverpool for tea and sympathy but we have come for the good of our health. Running has enjoyed a surge in popularity over the last 18 months but the increase in those of us who are pounding the streets has led to an increase in related injuries.
In the past, grassroots athletes have had to make do with rudimentary cures for their tweaks and strains and could only dream about having access to the facilities that professionals have on hand — but not any more.
Rehab 4 Performance co-founder Matt Konopinski tests Dominic King’s flexibility
Matt, who has worked as a physiotherapist for Liverpool, the FA and Glasgow Rangers, had an ambition to open a practice that could be used by anyone to overcome aches and strains or work towards peaking for a future goal. ‘Running is a great activity to take on,’ says Matt. ‘It doesn’t cost you anything, you can walk out the front door and you can just crack on with it. But we are seeing a lot of injuries — because of the last 18 months and the pandemic, it is something that a lot of people have taken up.
‘We are seeing a lot of that coming through. The common theme is either training errors or the body not having the physical capability to go from zero to the level of physical activity people are putting the body under.’
While his initial appraisal of my condition suggests I’m on the road to recovery (or should that be road to ruin?), I’m in training for a half marathon. Over the course of the next month, Matt and Alan Jordan — the facility’s strength and conditioning coach — will work with me to see what progress they can help me make.
‘Come and sit here,’ says Alan, pointing to a contraption that is wired up to a computer. There are a variety of straps and buckles and nothing about this seat is designed for comfort. ‘Let’s see what you have got in your legs.’
This, to give it its full title, is an isokinetic dynamometer. It works out what strength you have in isolated muscles and provides an accurate handle on what exercises you need to be doing to improve your performance, while preventing the possibility of injury. Once Matt and Alan have studied the results, they provide a programme for me to work on. We spend 90 minutes together going over it, running through the exercises. It is agreed we will meet again four weeks later to see what progress has been made.
Sportsmail reporter Dominic weight trains in the gym under the guidance of Alan Jordan
It is now late September and I’m back for another session. Alan, who worked with Everton Women, Liverpool Women and then at St George’s Park before moving to Rehab 4 Performance, is taking great delight at the way I am wincing as I do a variety of hamstring exercises.
The guidance they have provided, though, has made a difference. Two days before this visit I had shaved 45 seconds off my best 10k time. True, the time is never going to put me in contention for the Paris Olympics in 2024 but something bigger is at stake.
If we have learned anything since Covid, it is that life is precious. It has never been more important to look after yourself physically and mentally. For grassroots athletes, to be able to call on such expertise is a huge benefit.
Dominic puts his legs to work
On the walls of the gym, there are testimonies from Danny Ings, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen to vouch for the work of Matt and his co-founder Chris Morgan, who have tried to bring together a group of experts from different fields in sports medicine.
‘Having worked in the NHS 20 years or so ago, I was aware that this environment was not accessible for the common man,’ says Matt. ‘Chris and I always felt that, by not having access to this environment, people’s ability to rehabilitate optimally was probably hindered to an extent. We felt the access to a variety of personnel with expertise in different areas was also something that doesn’t sit under one roof. We wanted to be able to provide that level of service to everybody, recognising that the top sports people have that.
‘What commonly happens is that people will go and see their GPs, who are amazing. But they have to have lots of different hats on and sometimes people will get sign-posted in the wrong direction. The idea here was about environment, expertise and ease of access.
‘For someone who was looking to prepare for a particular competition, what we can do is bring people in and have a look at their physical capabilities. Then we can look at the data we get and make objective decisions — we can see this, here is the intervention that you need.
‘It’s like with you: if you improve your calf capacity, your ability to cope with the repeated demands of running is going to be greater. We wanted to have a feel of exclusivity but also accessibility. We want people to come in and feel that it is a bit different. We are talking about interventions here that can maintain your health and well-being.’
Those two words are key. Looking after your health is the best investment you can make and there is something inspiring about being in this facility, having access to this knowledge and equipment and seeing the improvement, over time, in results.
‘Through the pandemic, one of the things that was coming out was the fact that people who were healthier — physically — had better outcomes if they caught Covid-19,’ explains Matt. ‘If a chemist could put exercise in a pill form and patent it, they would be a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
‘The benefits from exercising are immense. Physical inactivity is your biggest threat of coronary heart disease. Often when you ask someone to engage in physical activity, there can be a lot of barriers. But that is a good way to frame it: if exercise was a tablet it would be worth billions.’
For further details visit: www.rehab4performance.com
Matt and Alan aim to provide amateur athletes with professional treatment
Girl power! Britain’s Gadirova twins urge youngsters to find a sport they love and say: You can do anything you put your mind to!
By Lewis Steele
As the curtain falls on a historic summer of British sport, there is one phrase on the lips of the Gadirova twins: ‘Girl power.’
Expanding that slightly, it has been a year to remember for teenage British girls. There’s the obvious example of Emma Raducanu, the 18-year-old ‘teen queen’ who won tennis’s US Open against all odds.
But before Raducanu, there were the Gadirovas. Alongside Alice Kinsella and Amelie Morgan, Jessica and Jennifer unexpectedly helped secure Britain’s first Olympic medal in team gymnastics since 1928.
‘Girls can do anything they want if they put their minds to it and this summer shows that,’ says Jennifer, distinguishable by introduction only as she sits to her twin’s left. ‘Girl power is great. This Olympics saw more women in the GB team than men, it shows that we have more power than ever.’
(L-R) Jennifer and Jessica photographed outside of the Lilleshall centre of sport
They rallied to come from behind to nab the artistic team bronze medal in Tokyo, before 13-year-old Sky Brown’s skateboarding third-place. What pleased the girls more was that these stars thrived in sports that are not stereotypically female disciplines, such as skateboarding and tennis.
‘People reading this stuff will get younger girls to say, ‘Actually, I can do that as well, I can succeed in sport’,’ says Jessica. ‘Girls will think that certain sports like football or skateboarding are more for men and boys, so girls think they can’t do it. But seeing younger girls do it will inspire younger kids to get into things with no barriers of gender.’
Jennifer is quick to interrupt. ‘It’s not only about girls, though,’ she says. ‘For our sport, gymnastics, people will think it’s a very girly sport. But anyone can do our sport if they want to, you just need courage to do it.’
The twins turned 17 last weekend and admit winning anything at Tokyo was beyond their wildest dreams, with Paris 2024 the main aim for podium places.
Their Olympic odyssey has been accelerated tenfold in the last few months, but both are keen to stress this was years in the making and started in grassroots venues such as Aylesbury Gymnastics Academy, their local club.
‘When we were younger we were very energetic and played around with many different things,’ says Jennifer. ‘We started when we were five years old and got into many different sports, but we fell in love with gymnastics. We used to just keep jumping on stuff and doing cartwheels everywhere.’
Jessica adds: ‘To be honest we never had an idol in gymnastics that got us into it, we just loved it as a sport. We knew the Olympics existed but never thought we could get there but we just tried to be our best every day and get better.’
Britain’s Emma Raducanu won the US Open last month at the tender age of 18
13-year-old Sky Brown won bronze in the skateboarding at the Tokyo Olympics
After the Olympics, the twins went on a short family holiday and then got straight back into their training regime, after excelling in their GCSE results. Their next targets are the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games, with a bold eye on Paris 2024. Not much has changed in terms of their training programme, but a trip out now usually involves someone recognising them. ‘After the Games we had a load of fun opportunities. We got to do Blue Peter, we went to the James Bond premiere last week and the Team GB homecoming,’ says Jessica.
‘It’s been very exciting. People stop us on the streets now. Even if we’re not in our home city, people still recognise us and it’s so different now.’
So after being inspired by Tokyo, what advice would the twins have for budding sportspeople? ‘I would say take each step as it comes and don’t put any pressure on yourself to make it,’ says Jessica. ‘We have always done it as a hobby. We just tried to enjoy every session, be our best every day and get better. We were inspired by Simone Biles and she is the best gymnast so far. It was an honour to be with her in Tokyo.’
Jennifer adds: ‘I just liked to do it for fun. I would tell kids to enjoy it. If you don’t love doing it, then you won’t succeed or achieve much from it. It is pointless if you are forcing yourself to do it.
‘There is something out there for everyone to enjoy and be very successful in.’
British Gymnastics has recently launched an innovative recreational programme, Rise Gymnastics, which provides a fun, progressive journey through recreational gymnastics. Visit british-gymnastics.org/rise-runway
London athletics club desperate to get back on track: Future of Herne Hill Harriers in the balance
By Isaan Khan
The future of Herne Hill Harriers athletics club is hanging in the balance after Wandsworth Council have again pushed back against re-laying the track.
The club have used the Tooting Bec track since 1938 and are facing an uncertain outlook after an independent report last year deemed the track ‘unsuitable’ for competition.
The facility was last re-laid in 1985 — it should be every 20 years, according to the club — and the Harriers have had to host competitions elsewhere since February 2020.
The report permitted training without spikes until last month. But track owners Wandsworth Council have now decided to extend that period until next April and have pointed to the nearby track at Battersea Park as an alternative.
It has left the club in a predicament: let the children and adults train without spikes, despite fears of the strain it can cause on joints, or not use the facilities at all.
Jade Johnson back at Tooting Bec track
Members past and present have been campaigning to raise the £400,000 needed to refurbish the track.
Former Olympic long jumper Jade Johnson trained at the club from the age of 12 and is concerned about the number of children missing out following the recent Olympics.
‘Straight after an Olympics, there’s the biggest inspiration and uptake where kids have watched a Games for the first time,’ she told Sportsmail. ‘They may be eight or nine years old who are inspired. That track is the first track I went to after watching the 1988 Olympics. It was my first recollection of the Olympics and seeing Flo Jo (Florence Griffith Joyner) and seeing what she did. I was like, ‘Wow, she’s amazing, she looks just like me’.
‘At the time where I was living in Liverpool, there was a lot of racism and it was really difficult for me and my sister, so it was amazing to see someone that looks like me being loved and accepted.’
The health impact on children at the track is also a concern for Johnson. ‘You’ve got young children growing in their joints, their spines — they are in the process of growing,’ she explained. ‘It’s extremely important they have a facility that doesn’t put extra stress impact on their bones.
‘We want to protect the health of the young athletes and adults who train there. It is going to cost around £400,000 to re-lay the track. The council could have put some money away each year.’
Club president Keith Newton claimed recent injuries to the athletes have left the club weighing up the track’s usage.
‘We have been finding that some of our athletes have been picking up calf-type injuries and niggles,’ he said. ‘The impact is quite significant. It’s a bit of a moral dilemma for us. Do we completely not use the facilities at all because of our concerns about the risks or do we continue to use it as a training facility but with restrictions on footwear etc.
‘If Tooting isn’t available as a facility anymore, it repels a key facility in one of the most densely-populated areas of the country and one of the most highly-used local facilities.’
Team GB 1500metres semi-finalist in Tokyo Katie Snowden, who trains at the club, said: ‘The Tooting Bec track has become very worn and lost its bounce which means the risk of lower limb injury is greatly increased.
‘The surface being so hard now also means it is no longer safe to wear spikes which hinders training, particularly speed sessions, and it means the injury risk is again increased when racing as you haven’t got the chance to transition into spikes first in training.’
Wandsworth Council’s environment and community spokesperson Steffi Sutters said: ‘We have seen some claims on social media in recent days that the track is unsafe and that its future is somehow at risk. These claims are totally untrue. The athletics track at Tooting remains perfectly adequate for training purposes and for school sports events as we continue to monitor its condition.’