For an Olympic athlete, training is a year-round commitment at the United States Olympic Training Center (USOC) in Colorado Springs. Blake Butler, a physical therapist and certified running and triathlon coach. He trains elite-level high school and college runners and multi-sport athletes. Some are Division I and national champion athletes. For Butler, working with Team USA Olympic athletes as a physical therapist in their Volunteer Sports Medicine Program.

Butler has been running for over 35 years, and has extensive personal and professional knowledge on what it takes to be a top performing athlete. Sticking to his training philosophy of ‘train smarter, not harder’, he was able to drop his marathon personal record time by 28 minutes. This time qualified him for the 2014 Boston Marathon. He even dropped his time by another 5 minutes to 3:02 at the 2015 Twin Cities Marathon.

“With the first-hand experience and knowledge I’ve gained from being a physical therapist and a coach, I’m able to break through to the runners a little more easily because I’ve had the injuries the same injuries.”

Butler’s ability to connect with athletes and his professional background helped him while he spent two weeks at USOC in April.

“I had the privilege of working with both summer and winter sport athletes that live at the Olympic Training Center. This included able-bodied and Paralympic athletes. Some of the athletes had surgeries and are recovering from injuries, so they won’t be eligible for the Olympics this year. Some of the other athletes have already qualified, but most of them have their trials or national competitions coming up.”

As a medical personnel, Butler was able to bring specific treatment options to the exam table. One in particular was functional dry needling. Dry needling is a technique used by trained and certified physical therapists to treat myofascial pain and muscle dysfunction by inserting a needle, which doesn’t have any medication, to a targeted muscle group.

“I was able to perform dry needling on several athletes, swimmers, male gymnasts, judo athletes, a boxer, a weightlifter and pentathletes. I also worked with athletes on exercise, form and body mechanics specific to their sport, as well as joint mobilization and other manual techniques.”

These athletes would come in many times a day, and see several other medical professionals throughout the week. Athletes at the Olympic Training Center have access to a variety of providers while they are train.  They will often work with many providers all in the same day.

“Some [athletes] would come in before their first practice, after practice and then after their second practice. Often it was for soft tissue work. Sometimes they would see a chiropractor for adjustments or other manual work. Other times they would see an athletic trainer, then a chiropractor and then a physical therapist.”

The Olympic Training Center Sports Medicine Clinic had 16 treatment tables in a large open room.  All the staff shared this space. The staff consisted of two to three chiropractors, three to four athletic trainers and three to four physical therapists. There was a separate room with a hot tub, a cold plunge and a Swim EX (a swimming treadmill). Butler observed a blind swimmer working out with an athletic trainer and another winter athlete aqua jogging while rehabbing a leg injury. The facility also had a big exercise room with equipment like to the TRIA Fit Gym.

At the training center Butler spend about 80 percent of the time performing soft tissue work on the treatment table and only 20 percent on exercise. That’s the opposite of how he works at TRIA. Physical therapists focus most of their time on exercise to return injured athletes back to their sport.

“When working with professional level athletes where training is their full-time job, they are accustomed to coming in for treatment to primarily receive soft tissue work to loosen up tight/sore muscles so they can get through their next practice. Often times, upon my assessment, this was pretty much all they needed. However, if the athlete was dealing with a significant injury affecting performance and ability to practice fully, I had to step outside the box of their expected routine treatment and tried to do as much education as possible and work on the exercises that I felt were the most important for them to work on in addition to providing some of the soft tissue work that they were seeking. Most of the athletes were very receptive and responded well to this type of treatment.”

Not only did the frequency of visits vary, but also the visits were different than Blake was used to at TRIA.

“It appeared to me that the lines were blurred between the professions, and there was not always good continuity of care. Many athletes wanted to be seen by the same provider each time, but often they would just be seen by whoever they could get in with at that time. At TRIA, we do our best to keep a patient with one PT, and when an athletic trainer sees a patient for the PT, they collaborate on what the treatment will look like for that session. After working at the Olympic Training Center, I can confidently say without question that we provide the best care anywhere and I am very privileged to work for such a great organization with professional and support staff that is second to none.”

While there were many differences for how things are done at TRIA compared to at USOC, one thing remains the same: the types of injury the athletes incur. It doesn’t matter if you are an elite athlete or the everyday runner/athlete, you’ll both see the same issues.

“Elite athletes place a lot more stress on their bodies, and they’re stronger in general. However, they also have the same muscle imbalances that you see in the general public because they get really strong in certain areas which then creates a bigger muscle imbalance. An example would be weight lifters because of the way they lift and the stresses they put on their bodies. Gymnasts too, are super strong in some areas of the body, but then horribly weak in other key areas that will create problems for their shoulders, back, forearms/elbows and knees.”