Hospitality Is An Endurance Sport
And Marcia Polas wants to help you train for it.
April 2, 2018 ● 8 min read
By Lauren Friel | Photo illustration by ChefsFeed
Marcia Polas knows you wake up every morning feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck.
She sees you, bartenders who get home at 5 a.m. and have to get up for the brunch shift tomorrow. She sees you, too, line cooks picking up doubles to pay for dental work. She sees all of us, and she knows, because she’s the woman behind Polas Pilates, the occupational pilates training and workshop company she founded to help heal and correct working bodies (like those of us industry folk) 14 years ago, and whose slogan is, “It shouldn’t have to hurt to do your job.”
We talked to Marcia to help further the conversation we’ve started about self-care in the industry. “More than anything else,” she says, “I want people to understand that it does not have to feel this way.” (Wait, for real?)
Read on for some expert intel on how to help your body do its thing.
Lauren Friel: Tell me a little bit about exactly what it is you do—because you’re not just a pilates instructor.
Marcia Polas: From what I understand, I’m the only person doing this combination of things, so it’s a little awkward for people to define what I do.
I call myself an occupational pilates teacher and a movement consultant. I say it that way because my practice is based on how people use their bodies to do their jobs—the study of that, and then applying the principles of pilates to help you do your job, effortlessly.
LF: Why do you focus on the restaurant industry in particular?
MP: Everyone I work with has what I think of as extremely physical, rigorous jobs. When you think about the hospitality industry, and you look at a chef, a bartender, a somm… they’re on their feet for easily 14 hours a day, and they’re working and moving in a small space, and they’re using their bodies in a repetitive fashion. And they all have very similar patterns; chefs all have a pattern, and have similar physical issues. Bartenders all have a pattern. They might vary a little bit, but those physical issues are coming from misusing their bodies; using their bodies out of alignment within the repetitive motion of the job, and being on their feet for that period of time.
You can’t get away from the repetitive motion of the job. But you can use the body more efficiently. I teach people how to use their bodies so they’re using their power for themselves versus against themselves, so they don’t do damage.
I also study and teach my students about fascia and fascial patterns. Each repetitive motion job has its own fascial pattern.
LF: What’s fascia?
MP: Fascia is all the connective tissue in your body. When it’s healthy, it looks like runny egg whites underneath the skin. When it’s not healthy, it looks more like silicon implants, or great big gobs of something. If we have healthy fascia, our muscles, ligaments, and tendons get to do their jobs properly and hold our skeleton in alignment, and we have healthy blood flow. If we have unhealthy fascia, then there’s stuff sort of pushing, pulling, and getting in the way. That’s where a lot of these repetitive motion injuries come from. That’s where a lot of the pain comes from, the low-grade chronic discomfort.
I’ll walk into a workshop and say, “Raise your hand if you feel a little like you were hit by a truck last night,” and every hand goes up. And everyone will look at me like, “How did you know that?” If we have healthy fascia, our muscles get to rest when we rest. If we have unhealthy fascia, then when we’re resting, our muscles are still in grip. They never really get to relax and rest, so they’re working all the time. If that’s happening, then that’s also impacting compensation patterns—how we move and how we stand as we try to get out of pain.
All of this impacts how we sleep, how we come down from a shift. Whether our central nervous system can calm down so that you can actually sleep. It impacts your ability to manage your stress levels. If we aren’t sleeping well, and if we feel like crap all the time—chronic, low-grade pain that we say is just part of the job or part of aging—if that’s happening, then we’re tired on top of it. Then you add this underlying, “How long am I going to be able to do this before my body gives out? Do I have to give up this thing that I love and do something I don’t love?” It’s just not right. It’s not ok.
LF: How do you get through to people? We have an almost militant culture in restaurants—don’t complain, don’t call in sick, power through.
MP: The martyr’s badge of courage.
LF: Exactly. How do you get a chef to care about fascia?
MP: Most people in the industry don’t want to feel like shit all the time, but they power through, because, one, that’s what everyone says you have to do, and, two, no one has given them solutions that aren’t something that’s more than a band-aid.
The biggest piece of the puzzle is something that you’re addressing, which is: We’re not having this conversation. We have the conversation about depression, about injury, about exercise, nutrition. And all of that is great, but it shouldn’t hurt to do your job.
If you learn how to use your body, and you understand the tools to take care of it so that it works well, then you feel good enough to think about how you’re fueling it.
There are actual solutions, [but] instead, we do a bit of what I’m going to call—get ready, because people are going to get mad at me—bullying of chefs and bartenders and line cooks to exercise. I’m sorry, but if you’ve just spent 14 hours on your feet doing something that’s pretty physically rigorous and someone tries to tell you that, in order to survive your job, you also have to find an hour to go to the gym, or to go for a run, or to go to yoga, or whatever else, I am going to tell that person to go eff themselves. If I took an Olympic athlete and put them behind a bar for a 12-hour shift—I don’t care who it is—after four hours, they’d be like, “I’m out.”
Hospitality is an endurance sport. If we use our body correctly on the job, that should be our workout. If we use recovery tools at night, then we get to rest, then we get to get a little more sleep—then we don’t chronically hurt. You don’t end up just wanting to stay in bed all day or self-medicate.
LF: So, how do you teach people to do that?
MP: Before I say anything I just want to say this: Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel good. Listen to your own body before you listen to me.
With everything that I ask you to do, move at a zero-to-five miles per hour pace (not zero to sixty) so you can feel what’s happening in your body and not accidentally injure or strain yourself with a rapid movement. If anything feels painful, don’t do it—pain exists to tell you to stop.
First, you have to learn how to stand correctly. Almost everybody in the hospitality industry has a wide stance. That means limited mobility in their ankles, tight IT bands, and bunions. That all comes from the wide stance. It’s supposed to add stability, but that’s all BS. Let’s go through how to correct your stance:
Reach down and make sure your toe boxes is about one fist-width apart, so the outside of your foot aligns with your hip bone.
Think about the back of your inner thigh, just below your butt. Moving slowly, start to squeeze that part of your thigh together. That’s a muscle that you don’t use a lot, so it might feel like work when you squeeze it. You should feel your knees soften and release, and your butt should lift a little. You're working your inner thighs, you’re working your hamstring, and if you’re doing both of those things, you’re working your butt properly, and you’re engaging the muscles that support your knees in alignment, so you’re not locking your knees.
To make sure it’s having an effect, put your hands flat on your low belly, so the heel of the hand is at your hip bone and your hands are angled down toward your pubic bone. Squeeze again, and feel the muscles under your hands tighten. Do it once more, and feel your pelvis shift. It’ll either shift forward and up or down and back (men tend to experience a shift down and women a shift up, based on their standing patterns). You should also notice a little of the pressure coming away from your ankles and your feet.
Now you’re standing with your body in alignment. If you do this, just this first part, then it’s going to take some of the strain off your low back, and off your ankles and feet. Everybody knows what a plank is—the point of a plank is to learn how to hold your core muscles stable, so there isn’t as much pressure on your arms and your legs.
So, this is basically starting to plank from the ground up, so your attachment to gravity isn’t putting extra pressure on your lower half—you’re actually holding things up. In addition to that, you’re engaging your pelvic floor, which helps promote everything from vocal resonance to better sex.
If you’re in the weeds in the middle of service, are you going to be able to think about squeezing your thighs together? Probably not. But, you can do it during prep, when you’re making your coffee in the morning, when you’re brushing your teeth, and when your back starts to hurt during your shift. We build awareness in these areas so we know how to start using our bodies differently.
Eventually, what happens is, we get strong enough that we just start doing it without thinking about it. Once we learn how to use our bodies properly, our bodies will show up, no matter what direction we’re moving in.
The next step is making sure our fascia is healthy and hydrated so our muscles can rest and recover.
To help with dehydrated fascia, hot water and Epsom salt are your best friends. If you don’t have a tub, fill a pot or fill the sink with comfortably hot water and Epsom salt. Soak everything from your feet and legs to your arms and hands.
Use your own arms and hands to massage your fascia, which will also help keep it loose. Skip the foam rollers and instead knead your arms, legs, feet, pecs, glutes, and whatever else you can reach. It’s important to do it yourself because you know what hurts and what doesn’t, so you’re unlikely to go to hard and accidentally hurt yourself. Any spot where you press the skin and it feels like there’s a bruise where there isn’t one—get in there and knead it like dough.
Get into resting position for 10 minutes every night before you go to bed. It doesn’t matter how you sleep, it matters how you put yourself to bed—resting position allows gravity to help you reset your spine and get things to relax. Even if you’re getting home late and you’re exhausted, put yourself in resting position on the floor. Throw a blanket over yourself, because even if you fall asleep on the floor, if you’re in resting position, you’re still going to feel better in the morning than if you just went right to bed.
Get some arnica gel. Slather it on your feet and ankles before you put your shoes on. It’ll help with bruising, inflammation, and topical pain.
Never, ever, ever wear a shoe without a back. I don’t care what it is. I hate Danskos, because they have no flexibility, and they’re doing the job of your foot for you, which is going to cause a lot of problems. You’re also weakening your arches because you’re not using them. You need something reflexive, so when you move, it moves.
Never wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row. You’re in them for 14 hours, so whatever standing pattern you have is going to sink right into the footbed, and it’s just going to reinforce the pattern and not give you any support after a while. If you can’t afford two pairs of good-quality work shoes, buy two pairs of inserts, and swap them every other day (or every other shift, if you’re working doubles).
There are actual solutions and ways that you can learn to take care of your body so you can do what you love, and have a life, and feel good. I’m open to teaching these workshops anywhere in the world, and I’m doing my best to make them affordable. Reach out and do a virtual consult. Learn about your fascia and how to take care of it.
It’s not for everyone, but there are so many people out there who are chronically aching. I’m doing everything I can to get the work into their hands. I want to be obsolete.