Take 5: Lessons from the slackline

04/24/15 – BOSTON, MA. – Doug Pagani, S’16, used the slackline on Centennial Common at Northeastern University on April 24, 2014. Staff Photo: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Last summer biochemistry major Doug Pagani, S’18, was walking by the slacklines on Centennial Common and thought he’d finally give it a try. A year later, there’s hardly a day when you can’t find him there or thinking about the next trick he’d like to master. Here, Pagani talks about the keys to getting started and how he’s tried to improve his performance not only through exercise but also understanding the science of it all.

Walk before you bounce
Just as a baby must learn to crawl before it can walk, a slackliner has to be able to walk before he can bounce. Though the first try at balancing on one leg may seem impossible, it’s just a matter at keeping at it for long enough for your body to get used to the line. Walking is simply chaining moments of single-leg balance; with each side mastered, the line becomes your new ground floor.

Once you’re a slackliner, there are basically two different ways you can expand: First, is longlining—with a longer line comes many different challenges that a short line close to the ground doesn’t have, one of which is that you can’t just step up on the line so you need to learn how to mount. Second, and this is really where my roots are, is tricklining. With a slight increase in length, and large increase in tension, the line becomes a navigable trampoline. Tricklining may appear to be completely inaccessible, but for the dedicated spirit, it is absolutely possible to pick up from scratch.

This might sound strange, but learning how to fall is one of the most critical first steps to tricklining; it is the first thing I teach people. The safest way to fall is folding forward and completing what is basically a front roll. Another way is back falling, and the best approach is to convert the downward momentum horizontally by doing what is basically a cartwheel.

Learning how to fall is one of the most critical first steps to tricklining

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Some slack-science
Though it can be frivolous, understanding the whys of the world can be immensely helpful when trying to optimize how you go about things. I’ve found this to be the case when trying to protect against and recover from injury in slacklining, and also to learn the ins-and-outs of rigging lines. In particular, I’ve taken the time to research anatomy, biology of recovery, nutrition, physical therapy practices, and physics forces involved in tensioning.

An understanding of basic physics is helpful for having a familiarity and appreciation of the tensioning forces involved in rigging the line.

As for biology, the crucial element of slacklining is that it is a very high-impact activity. For me, I started out with inflexible ankles, flat arches, shin splints, and weak knees. These, of course, are not permanent problems, but must be dealt with patience. Time-course, consistency, and nutrition are the three most important elements I have found for myself when trying to recover from and strengthen my body to prevent injury.

The next trick on the checklist
Right now I’m trying to nail a trick called a free fall; it’s a 360 paired with a chest bounce from sitting position. It’s a rotational movement, which makes it difficult because you cannot use your line of sight to spot your anchor and adjust.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Getting fit
For slacklining, as well as the other activities I like to do, full-body fitness is essential. Just for slacklining, every point along the kinetic chain, from my ankles to my hips to my core, need to be properly conditioned. And then for tricks that involve manipulating my body about the line, the core becomes even more important, and the upper body as well. Lastly, if I want to be able to have a long session on the line, I need to have well-conditioned cardiovascular health. All this requires a very varied and thorough practice at the gym. It requires a tremendous amount of proactiveness to avoid falling into an overly simplistic routine, or one that is too cursory, as well as the know-how of which exercises are best. For lower body, I’ve found it is best to adapt foundational exercises to one-sided ones, in which the stabilizer muscles on the sides of the legs and ankles have to work when they otherwise wouldn’t with two feet firmly planted.

The community
Slacklining may not be a sport. But when it gets down to it, what spreads slacklining is people. I would not have been able to learn anything about tricklining were it not for my main man Thonah, nor rigging were it not for the Northeastern University Huskiers and Outing Club—also known as NUHOC—nor longlining were it not for the lovely folks down at the Hatch. The best reward of slacklining is the satisfaction of reaching a goal, be it to just walk, or do something gnarly like walk a highline between two peaks of the alps—and especially so if you’ve done so with the help of friends. So, if anyone reading this is ever walking by the slacklines and sees me or anyone else hitting the lines, come up and give it a try.