Foundations for Successful Triathlons

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Achieving success in triathlons is not a secret.  The first and most important step is to commit to becoming a triathlete.  And by commit I mean train. Many newbies to triathlons are concerned about injuries and what are the right things to do to prevent their bodies from failing and ensuring that their commitment become reality.

There are some simple “foundations” that will help ensure a successful journey from commitment to achievement.

MOBILITY

Mobility has some really important functions for triathletes.  These include injury prevention, reduction of muscle tightness and soreness, improving mechanics in running and swimming, improving bike position and comfort, relaxation and recovery.  There are some very important areas where mobility exercises should not be missed.  These are:

  • Upper back to prevent shoulder and neck problems and to ensure swim efficiency.
  • Front of the chest to help prevent shoulder and neck problems.
  • Hamstrings to help with bike position and relieve pressure on the spine.
  • Hips and gluteals to help bike position, assist in the stability and mechanics of the pelvis and knee in running.
  • Hip flexors to reduce the stress on the back, hip and ITB.
  • Calves to improve shock absorption with running and to prevent Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and shin splints

Persistent muscle tightness which is not relieved by mobility exercises, the presence of pain in the spine or sciatic pain are symptoms which typically require more specific intervention by trained professionals to ensure you are managing them optimally.

STRENGTH & STABILITY

Core stability can be defined as “optimal alignment of the spine and pelvis to ensure efficient transfer of momentum and summation of forces across these areas, resulting in greater precision and safety of dynamic activity”.  So what does that mean… Well it is quite simply control of unnecessary movement, improved efficiency / economy of movement, reduced risk of injury, control of spinal posture and the movement between the trunk and limbs.

Core stability is essential for sport.  For triathlon core stability is important in all three disciplines.

In swimming core stability ensures a stable shoulder blade for catch and pull.  It puts the rotator cuff in the most efficient position ensuring a reduction of impingement or rotator cuff injuries in the shoulder.  Weakness in the core tend to result in tight upper trapezius muscles and compression in the neck and upper back.

In biking the abdominals, lateral trunk muscles and back muscles are important to maintaining a still and stable pelvis on the saddle.  This allows efficient and economical power transfer through the legs to the pedal.  Endurance is needed in these muscles to ensure a safe spinal posture over the distance of the ride.

With running, the gluteal muscles (particularly the lateral ones) ensure the pelvis remains horizontal and they minimize the rotation of the lower limb.  The abdominals in turn avoid excess lumbar movement and body sway.  Endurance again is needed to make the distance.Building core requires you to start where you are able to maintain good alignment.  This means that not all core exercises are suited to everyone.  Each triathlete needs to listen to their body and modify the exercise to their level.

Important areas to target in core strength are the scapular muscles, back extensors, abdominal muscles including the obliques and deep muscles, hip muscles (lateral stabilizers and rotators) / gluteals.  Other areas to consider gaining strength in are the rotator cuff, quadriceps, calves.

POSTURE & ALIGNMENT

Posture and alignment go hand in hand with core stability.  Faulty alignment can be the result of a weak core but it can also be a result of poor postural habits and body awareness and tight  muscles.  Coaches within each discipline will often discuss and have triathletes work to obtain better alignment.

A “streamlined” position is very important in swimming. This means:

  • Arm position should be close to the head when catching.  Avoid the “Superman” position (i.e. arms 15 to 30 centimeters away from head) as this creates drag.  Drag equals harder.
  • Head should be down.  Tilting your head up will result in your legs to tip down.  Again this creates drag and drag is bad.

Successful alignment on the bike in part comes from proper bike set up.  When your bike is set up there is a few points you should focus on:

  • Elbows should be inline with the frame of the bike – not flared to the side.  This is regardless of whether you are upright or on drop bars.  If you are upright your elbows should have a slight bend in them.
  • Knee position should also be inline with the frame of the bike.  If they angle in or out from frame’s top tube as you pedal it may signal either faulty bike set up (i.e. saddle too low, incorrect cleat position) or faulty anatomical issues within your body (i.e. tight or weak muscles).
  • Spinal position should be somewhat rounded and the neck should not be hyper-extended.  Tightness in the hamstrings or hip flexors may cause excessive rounding of the spine and as a result hyper-extension of the neck.

Alignment in running is very much linked to core strength and muscle length / flexibility. Because running is an impact or weight-bearing sport and it is, by nature, repetitive when alignment is faulty it creates great and repetitive stresses on the joints and soft-tissues of the body which can cause them to become injured.

Alignment with running often takes a combination of stretching and strengthening but these general cues can help:

  • Keep your chin back and head up.  If you stick your chin out it tends to result in your hips being pushed backwards. By keeping your chin back it helps make your hips and whole body move forward as one unit.
  • Watch your trunk lean.  Are you leaving your hips or shoulders behind.  Imagine a hook in your mid-back that is anchored above  your head and slightly forward.  As the tension in creases it will draw your whole body forward until you need to take a step.  This in general will result in shoulders back and in-line with the  hips, a long spine and a stable pelvis.
  • Don’t over-stride.  If you are striking on your heels your stride may be too long. This can cause your alignment to fail and your body to excessively rotate.  It often helps to increase your cadence (how fast you move from foot to foot rather than how far).  Aim for your cadence to be between 170 to 180 foot falls per minute.
  • Don’t bounce.  The movement for running is forward not up.  Again picture the hook.
  • Soften your shoulder blades.  Pulling or gripping your shoulder blades into your body often results in rigidity in the spine and faulty alignment.  Think about space under the armpits.
  • Don’t swing your arms across your body.  Your arms  shouldn’t really travel beyond the nipple line.  This prevents over rotation of the body.
  • Use the right shoes for you.  Don’t think expensive is better.  Generally the research is showing that the body is better protected with a more neutral or cushioned shoe.  Keep in mind that this won’t be for everyone.

Triathlon is a great sport and can be very rewarding.  Enjoy the journey and take care of your body.  Remember pain is not normal.  If you struggle or you are not sure … seek advice!!

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