Triathlon is a seasonal sport. There are several intense months of training followed by a few glorious months of the “off season.” Many of us continue to exercise during this time but at a considerably reduced rate, while some plan their next season and others literally sit on their couch and relax. What ever you decide to do, you deserve it. Resting and relaxing is exactly what your body needs after months upon months of training. However in order to ensure your next season is less riddled with injury, or to maintain the gains you made this season, you may consider adding a few low key workouts to your lazy off season routine. Working with triathletes and runners on a regular basis, I have found a few specific areas that need to be addressed to keep my athletes healthy: core stability, spinal mobility, functional strength and plyometrics.
“Core stability” is an out dated term but one that everyone seems to understand so forgive me for using it. Let me tell you a little secret. Having a strong core is much more than strengthening your abdominals; it is about breathing, alignment, and coordination between several muscle groups. So stop holding your abs in! Paul Hodges, a well known Australian physical therapist describes core stability as having “optimal control finding the right balance between movement and stiffness.1” Julie Weibe, a physical therapist out of California teaches about the importance of the diaphragm-pelvic floor piston in creating a strong and balanced core2.
So how does all this relate to triathletes off-season training?
Breathing is one of the most important building blocks of every athlete. This may seem obvious, but to many it is not. Breathing correctly in the optimal alignment allows your anticipatory core (deep core) to stabilize your body before you move. Research has shown that in healthy individuals your anticipatory core actually turns on before you move an extremity. When you take a step, spin your legs, or move your hand through the water your anticipatory core stabilizes you. If it is not working correctly, your body will rely on less optimal movement strategies and muscle groups to get the job done. If you don’t have a strong foundation you will eventually have a crack in the wall, i.e. become injured.
How do you find “good posture” and learn to breathe correctly?
Stand up and feel where the weight is on your feet. Where is it? On your heels, your toes, or in the middle of your foot? “Good posture” is a little different for everyone, however it is essentially keeping your weight on the middle of your foot while standing, relaxing your rib cage, and allowing it to sit over your pelvis. This sets up what Julie Wiebe would call you diaphragm-pelvic floor piston.
If you are thinking “I breathe everyday so I must be doing it right” this lady is crazy. Not necessarily. When breathing correctly you should be able to breathing into your diaphragm and expand your rib cage. Most people breath into their upper chest or their belly, a good breath is one that expands your lower rib cage as well.
Let’s figure out how you measure up. Go ahead, try it. Place one hand on your chest and one on your lower rib cage. What happens? Which hand moves? If you are breathing correctly, your inhale and exhale will be nearly equal; inhale 3-4 seconds and exhales 4-5 seconds. You should feel your hand on your lower ribs move out as you inhale and move in as you exhale.
If you don’t feel your rib cage move, you have some work to do. Try lying on your back or kneeling on your hands and knees and try again – it may come more naturally. Then practice until it comes more easily. You can practice while you are sitting at your desk, standing to brush your teeth, or lying on your back at home. Once you feel comfortable, the next step would be to consciously add breathing to your exercises and gym routine. I have no doubt you already know several “core “exercises, but the key to enhancing their effectiveness is alignment and breathing.
In my practice I have found that many of my triathletes have very “stiff” spines. You know who you are! It is likely a combination of work, life, and training. Spending many hours sitting on planes while traveling, working on computers and hours and hours of sitting on a bike likely contribute to limited spinal mobility. You probably feel like it isn’t going to ever change – you are destined to be the “stiff guy.” This doesn’t necessarily have to be true!
Why is spinal mobility important? It’s easy, the spine connects everything and if it isn’t moving, your movement is coming from somewhere else. In order for your shoulder to move correctly your thoracic spine and rib cage must also move correctly. The muscles that stabilize the shoulder may become inhibited if your spine isn’t moving, causing you to injure your shoulder. If your pelvis and lumbar spine are stiff you may not get enough hip extension while running. Limited cervical spine motion can make it difficult to rotate your head, breath in the pool, or turn your head to look over your shoulder cycling. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
You don’t have to spend hours and hours improving your spinal mobility, but here are a few of my favorite spinal mobility exercises that may improve the flexibility of your spine and help to prevent injury down the road.
What does “functional strengthening” actually mean? It is another phrase that you have likely heard your coaches, friends, and other triathletes talk about. Strength is not always functional. If you want to get better at running, doing the leg extension machine will help your muscles get larger but it will not train them to stabilize you on one leg during running. To perform freestyle you need your latissimus dorsi and your gluteus maximus to fire in a coordinated pattern is there a machine that allows this to occur – no there isn’t.
Functional strength is essentially specificity of training – train your body to get stronger and perform coordinated movements to prevent injury. It is about more than pure muscle girth, instead, it is about how the muscle produces force during specific movement patterns.
For example, squatting is considered a very functional movement pattern. In our daily life we squat down to pick things up off the floor, to sit, to stand, and to lift or carry objects. In order to squat we need to have a certain amount of spinal mobility, motor control, and strength in several muscle groups because nothing in the body occurs in isolation. Squatting also is important for triathletes because when done correctly it is baseline motor pattern the brain can recognize and draw from. Sitting on a bike requires hip flexion, knee flexion, and ankle dorsiflexion, thoracic and lumbar extension all of which are components of a squat.
If you want to learn more about functional movement patterns Gray Cook is a great resource. In the meantime, here are a few good functional strengthening exercises that may help improve your strength and coordination before you next triathlon season begins.
Plyometric exercises are exercises that rapidly stretch and contract the muscles. They incorporate explosive movements such as jumping to increase power or speed3.
Running kinematics, or how the body moves when you are running, changes when running off the bike. Research has shown that when running “off the bike” triathletes show decreased hip extension, increased anterior pelvic tilt, increased lumbar lordosis and increased hip flexion compared to those that do not bike before they run4,5. Translation: when running off the bike most people are not as fluid, have decreased ROM of their legs, and their spine and posture are not optimal.
The good news is that Bonacci et al. found that adding plyometric exercises to regular endurance training corrected the presence of altered neuromotor control when running “off the bike.” Plyometrics can improve your body’s transition from biking to running as well as improve your overall power and strength. Here are a few examples of plyometric exercises you can add to your off-season routine.
Keep these four key concepts in mind as you prepare for your next season and while you are training! You will be glad you did as you cruise through the season injury free!
British Journal of Medicine. (2015, January 18) Paul Hodges on Core Stability. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hplw6Lg95SY
Bonacci J et al. Plyometric training as an intervention to correct altered neuromotor control during running after cycling in triathletes: A preliminary randomised controlled trial. Physical Therapy in Sport 12 (2011) 15-21.
Rendos N. et al. Sagittal plane kinematics during the transition run in triathletes. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 16 (2013) 259–265.