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If restored function and/or improved performance is the goal, a designed exercise program must first restore flexibility and stability to the working joints and balance the neuromuscular system. Next, strength is restored followed by re-establishing power output. —Paul Chek
Flexibility before Stability before Strength before Power.
This is the functional progression which must be followed in any conditioning program. Breaking this chain will inevitably result in a broken athlete. Just like building a house, the foundation on which you build the body is critical to its future development and potential to weather any structural demands. While the house built outside the San Francisco area may never have to survive an earthquake, as athletes we all have to possess the specific attributes essential for successful completion of our next event or even our next workout. The physical skills to which I refer are listed by Tudor Bompa in his book Theory and Methodology of Strength Training. They are:
Agility Balance Coordination Endurance Power Strength Flexibility
Tudor calls these skills biomotor abilities. Bio = life; and motor = movement. Many of you reading this would argue that triathlon is life, and the rest is just details. So let's see how each of these qualities is necessary for us to swim, bike, and run.
Agility is the ability to move and change direction and position of the body quickly and effectively while under control. For the majority of us, it's the biomotor ability of least importance to triathlon. In fact, some would say that the reason many of us were drawn to this sport in the first place is we have a distinct lack of the agility necessary for success in other sports. But, in truth, the ability to move quickly is essential for triathlon success. While we may not have to perform like dancers or martial artists, who hasn't looked at some elite runners in awe as they run with what could only be described as grace? As a professional cyclist, I was told to "dance on the pedals" when climbing a hill. And certainly a prerequisite of controlling the position of your body during a choppy open-water swim is agility.
Balance is another skill triathletes must master. Heck, juggling three different sports, a full-time job, the occasional shower, hectic family life, and some sense of mental and emotional stability is proof enough the multisport athlete must be practiced in the art of balance. From a physical standpoint, this biomotor ability helps us keep the rubber side down when on the bike. Balance in the water helps us swim with less drag. And running, which is essentially changing support from one leg to the other, is a practice in balance as we continually right ourselves over our feet.
Coordination refers to the ability to perform movements of various degrees of difficulty very quickly and with efficiency and accuracy. Quickness and efficiency during a triathlon will not only bring you across the finish line with a better time; coordinated movements will minimize the risk of injury as you swim, bike, and run. To maintain orthopedic integrity throughout a competitive career, the triathlete must possess a high level of coordination among all three disciplines.
Endurance is the most obvious of the biomotor abilities the triathlete must have. Also known as stamina, endurance is the ability to perform work of a given intensity over a specified time period or distance. Whether it's a sprint or an Ironman, triathletes must be able to resist fatigue. Simply logging miles in the pool, in the saddle, or on your legs is one way to build endurance. But we all have a limited amount of time we can allot to training before life gets in the way. So maximizing this skill at the same time others are developed is the hallmark of the intelligent multisport athlete.
Power is the ability to apply force quickly. All movements require some degree of power, and the three activities which make up a triathlon are no exception. A combination of strength and speed, power is yet another determinant of who crosses the line first in a triathlon. Among hypothetical comparisons or real-life examples, all things being equal, the more powerful triathlete will always have a higher placing than the other. For a more comprehensive discussion, refer to the third section of this book so you can enhance your understanding of this critical biomotor ability. After all, knowledge is power.
Strength is what this book is all about. Defined as the state, quality, or property of being physically or mentally strong, any triathlete will vouch for the importance of a strong mind. The debate over strength training for physical performance, however, is one which has sparked passionate if not misguided discussion among swimmers, cyclists, and runners for years. The third section of this book is devoted to a detailed discussion of how this biomotor ability is essential for the triathlete, and should convince even the most rabid of strength training's detractors to spend some time in the weight room. But while the chapter titled "Nutrition and Lifestyle Considerations for Optimal Performance" later in the book will address the principle of thinking, a detailed discussion of mental strength and psychological training is beyond the scope of this writing.
Flexibility is the ability to adapt to changes in position or alignment, allowing us to perform joint actions through a wide range of motion. Often used interchangeably with mobility, which can be defined as the ability to move freely, these two concepts are the heart of this chapter. They're also the heart of the biomotor abilities above. Think about it—how agile can you be if your muscles are stiff? Have you ever cramped during a triathlon? Your ability to move or change direction quickly was instantly curtailed. In fact, if you weren't stopped dead in your tracks, you probably looked like the Tin Man trying to jog a couple of days after hanging out in the rain all night. Being too tight also affects your balance. Pulled out of ideal alignment by tonic musculature, you are literally over-committed in one direction. Coordination will suffer, too, as a lack of mobility must be compensated for elsewhere in the kinetic chain, often resulting in inefficiency and injury. With altered length/tension relationships, the triathlete must now work harder to perform a given movement which adversely affects endurance. Muscles positioned outside of their optimal strength curve will not only be weaker but, since strength is a component of power, a final injustice to the inflexible triathlete is that these last two biomotor abilities will never reach their full potential—much like this triathlete and his placement in the overall field.
To stretch or not to stretch? That is not the question. Not really. Though there are numerous studies debating the merits of stretching, the ones which find no benefit to the athlete are typically flawed. The authors researching the efficacy of stretching inevitably apply a general stretching protocol to the subjects in their study with a one-size-fits-all mentality. But different activities cause different responses in different muscles. This is simple to understand when one considers that not all muscles are created equal. For the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on the difference between Phasic muscles and Tonic muscles.
Phasic Muscles are composed of at least 51% fast-twitch muscle fibers. These are powerful muscles, but they fatigue more easily than do tonic muscles. Kind of a shame, too, as these muscles are primarily responsible for movement. The gluteals are good examples of phasic muscles. Tonic Muscles are slow-twitch dominant, composed of at least 51% slow-twitch muscle fibers. As such, they are highly resistant to fatigue and have a greater propensity for work. The iliopsoas is an example of a tonic muscle group.
The table below categorizes some of the more common muscles as either Phasic or Tonic:
Properties of Tonic and Phasic Musculature
Predominantly Tonic Predominantly Phasic Muscles Muscles
Prone to Hyperactivity Prone to Inhibition Function
Susceptibility to Fatigue
Reaction to Faulty Loading
Shoulder Girdle - Arm
Pectoralis Minor Rhomboids Levator Scapulae Trapezius (middle) Trapezius (upper) Trapezius (lower) Biceps Brachii Triceps Brachii Scalenes Deep Neck Flexors Subscapularis Forearm Extensors Sternocleidomastoids Supraspinatus Masticatory Infraspinatus Forearm Flexors Serratus lateralis Deltoid
Lumbar and Cervical Erectors Thoracic Erectors Quadratus Lumborum Rectus Abdominis
Pelvis - Thigh
Hamstrings Vastus Lateralis Iliopsoas Vastus Medialis Rectus Femoris Gluteal Muscles Thigh Adductors Piriformis Tensor Fasciae Latae
Lower Leg - Foot
Gastrocnemius Anterior Tibialis Soleus Peroneals Extensors of the toes
One of the major differences between phasic and tonic muscles that is of particular interest to triathletes is how these muscles respond to faulty loading. Loading is the resistance which the muscles of the body must overcome. In the gym, it may be a dumbbell. In life, it's gravity. Thus, even if the only weight room you've ever spent time in is the wait room at your doctor's office, it's fair to say we all experience loading in our lives. Faulty loading can take the form of under-use, misuse, or disuse. But as triathletes, who swim, bike, and run for up to seventeen hours all in the same day, the form of faulty loading we are typically concerned with is overuse.
Tonic muscles respond to faulty loading by shortening and tightening. With a lower threshold for stimulation, tonic muscles need very little encouragement to turn on. This can, and often does, result in hyperactivity of a tonic muscle, limiting the motion at the joint(s) over which that muscle crosses. As mentioned in the preceding chapter, this lack of flexibility (or more specifically, this lack of mobility) results in all the biomotor abilities being adversely affected.
Phasic musculature does the exact opposite. It tends to lengthen and weaken in relation to its relative antagonist(s) or opposing muscle (group). The problem is then magnified by the fact that muscles which are short and tight will hold their antagonists in a lengthened position. This can lead to what is commonly termed stretch weakness. Stretch weakness is defined by Florence Kendall in her book entitled Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain as
weakness that results from muscles remaining in an elongated condition, however slight, beyond the neutral physiological rest position, but not beyond the normal range of muscle length.
She goes on to say that "the concept relates to the duration of the faulty alignment rather than the severity of it" (italics mine). So is it any surprise that the aspiring triathlete, who may spend up to seven hours at a time hunched over the bike with a rounded back, has increased thoracic kyphosis and can't stand up straight? Brick that with a swim where the pectorals and medial shoulder rotators get overworked during the course of an hour-and-a-half-pool session, and the source of the typical triathlete's faulty posture becomes clear. Now the lengthened muscles of the thoracic spine are being pulled by the tight muscles of the chest, shoulders, and lats. This results in even more thoracic kyphosis.
Maybe you should just run, you're thinking. Well, the increased lumbar curvature created by the tight, overworked quads and hip flexors of the average runner causes a compensation in the thoracic spine leading to ... say it with me ... increased thoracic kyphosis. So much for the benefits of cross training, right? Instead of one source for our orthopedic and postural aberrations, we triathletes have three. I guess we're just S.O.L.
But no, we're not out of luck. We just can't rely on dumb luck when it comes to our stretching program. We can't just do random stretches for every part of the body and expect our sport-specific muscle imbalances to be addressed. We need a specific course of stretching which actively targets the muscles we abuse when we swim, bike, and run.
The question then isn't if to stretch, but when to stretch and how? If you perform stretches for every part of the body, you haven't done anything to alleviate the muscle imbalance caused by your triathlon training. The tight muscles are still tighter than the loose ones. Your body is still out of alignment. And a body that's not properly aligned moves and functions less efficiently, increasing its susceptibility to fatigue and, ultimately, to injury.
The bicycle wheel is a common analogy which effectively represents this idea. Ideally, thirty-two spokes running from the rim to the hub are tensioned appropriately to keep the wheel spinning true. Logging a lot of miles on the bike, especially under harsh road conditions with bumps or potholes, can lead to a wheel which wobbles as certain spokes get tighter while others become looser. Each imperfection in the road leads to the wheel wobbling worse and worse.
During college, I worked in a bike shop in St. Petersburg, Florida. Some Mondays, guys would come in with their wheels after crashing at the weekend's bike race to see if the wheels were salvageable. The head mechanic, a guy named Ray who worked wonders with the spoke wrench, would stick the wheel in the truing stand and spin it. The arms of the stand would tell him which spokes were in need of tightening and which should be loosened. He'd keep fine tuning the calibration of the stand—tightening a spoke half a turn here, loosening another with a quarter turn—until the wheel ran as straight and true as the day the cyclist bought it.
Some wheels, and some cyclists, weren't so lucky. One day a guy in shredded Lycra limped into the shop carrying his mountain bike. He'd gone down pretty hard on a training ride and his front wheel was so out of true he'd had to walk the bike to the store. The guy asked us if we could fix it enough for him to ride it home. Not much for words, Ray took the wheel from the guy, went behind the counter, and held it up at eye level as if he were reading which spokes needed attention. Suddenly, and with force which could be heard over the Chili Peppers playing on the shop's stereo, he slammed the wheel down hub-first again and again. After a few seconds, he paused, repositioned the wheel in his hands like a guy making a pizza, and slammed it down on the counter a few more times. Finally, he stopped banging the wheel and gave it back to the cyclist, who looked a bit more abused than when he'd come in. But his face changed as he spun the wheel. It still wobbled. But if he could endure a jerky ride, the wheel looked like it just might get him home.
Throughout the body, ideal length-tension relationships exist which, when altered by chronic shortening or lengthening of certain muscles, result in faulty joint kinematics. It's a matter of physics. Forces generated by movement or loading cannot be adequately dissipated in a joint which has moved away from its instantaneous axis of rotation. The resulting premature degradation of the joint itself inevitably hastens the demise of the triathlete's competitive career. But if you stretch the right muscles at the right time and in the right way, just like a wheel in a truing stand, your chances of maintaining your orthopedic integrity increase exponentially. And though I can't promise you that you won't ever have to walk your bike home, with correct stretching you should never have to limp your body home.
Excerpted from HOLISTIC STRENGTH TRAINING FOR TRIATHLON by Andrew Johnston Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Johnston. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 3, 2011
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