Posture and Flexibility for Maximum Triathlon Performance

Modern lifestyle has got us sitting for hours at a time in a poor position, whether it’s at a desk for work or web browsing at home or slumped on a couch watching TV and using a laptop. This leads to muscle imbalances causing postural problems, even in the active triathlete.

In triathletes, there is the additional training factor that both swimming and cycling tend to develop hunched shoulders. If you do not have the muscle flexibilities and strength balances to naturally hold proper, efficient posture all the time, you will struggle to reach your potential, no matter how hard you train!

In summary, forward head, round-shouldered posture decreases triathlon performance because:

  1. A forward head requires more energy to hold up during cycling and running, which can prematurely fatigue the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
  2. Changes to spinal curvature top to bottom occur, making the body less biomechanically efficient. Pelvic angle and limb range of motion also affects running stride.
  3. Hunched shoulders and tight chest muscles impede upward movement of the ribcage, increasing the energy necessary for breathing.
  4. Decreased shoulder range of motion due to tight chest and shoulder muscles decreases swim stroke length and strength.
  5. Forward head posture positions the head further down into the water, forcing one to roll excessively and work harder to breathe.

Most importantly, taking care of your postural imbalances will prevent injuries of all kinds. For example; the swimming and cycling aero position increases load on the neck, which when combined with forward head posture, increases the probability of ruptured discs and pinched nerves.

At Bristol Physiotherapy we aim to address these imbalances brought about by poor posture and educate you on how to avoid injury and enhance performance.

By Emma Davies

Running Technique

In 2012 Australian Triathlete Pete Jacobs achieved his 10 year dream of winning the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. Here’s a video of his tips on how to improve your run technique.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JucHwHW3LQ8

Running Posture

Running tall with a proud posture and your chest up will help you to maintain alignment. As soon as you slump forwards in your posture, you’ll start dropping your hips back – sticking your butt out! As Pete says “if you drop your hips back, you slow down a lot”.

Holding your posture tall encourages you to hold your hips over the landing foot, leading to a lighter, quicker contact on the ground.

Foot Contact

Pete recommends a very flat midfoot strike, with the heel and ball of the foot striking the ground in unison, with more weight being put through the ball of the foot.

This is a great option for so many distance runners, far less aggressive that the forefoot strike many attempt to achieve. Of course, appropriate foot strike pattern will vary from runner to runner, and even within an individual from pace to pace. Experiment on your runs!

Cadence & Arm Carry

So frequently overlooked is the inherent link between the rhythm of the upper body and that of the legs.

Once you’ve perfected the relatively simple action of the arm swinging back and forth, independent of the torso, the rhythm of this movement will directly influence leg speed. Keeping a relatively short, fairly choppy arm carriage at marathon pace will keep your legs turning over quickly and efficiently.

Relaxation

Pete recommends to focus on remaining relaxed, and removing feelings of tension through muscles that “don’t need to be working”. As long as your core is strong and switched on, everything else will “find it’s place more easily”.

 

Knee Injuries

The knee is a complicated joint and there a variety of injuriesknee-pain that can occur, but the two most common injuries are patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) and Illio tibial band syndrome (ITBS). Both of these conditions have a nasty habit of starting off slightly niggly and then developing into a full-blown chronic injury if not assessed and rehabilitated appropriately.

These injuries generally occur when there is a sudden increase in running volume and frequency or changes have been made to the type of training, i.e adding hills or sprints (interval training). These changes exacerbate pre-existing flaws in running technique, biomechanics or muscle balance leading to such injuries.

Should you find yourself fighting with a niggly knee or you have just developed a knee injury, then RICE (Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate) should be applied. I advise my athletes to use Physicool (physicool.co.uk), a cooling bandage that can be easily applied to any peripheral joint – much easier than trying to secure a bag of peas to your knee not to mention a lot more comfortable!

Check your Trainers! Are they over 2 years old? Have they done more than 400 miles? If you answered ‘yes’ to either of those questions then you need to update them. I also advise that you go to a reputable running shop with a gait analysis service. It may be a bit more expensive than what you can find online, but you will be fitted with the correct trainers for you and should there be an issue you can take them back. We recommend our clients to go to Moti.

lower limb imbalanceNext, would be to address your biomechanics. Anatomically speaking, the knee is positioned in an unfortunate position. It is located between two very mobile joints: the hip and the ankle. We often find that control at the hip and/or foot and ankle is compromised, disrupting the alignment and loading of the knee as we run. Hence, exercises designed to strengthen your hip (Glutes) and core stability are nearly always prescribed in knee injury rehabilitation AND prevention.

Your hip and leg flexibility also plays an important role in biomechanics. Ensure you are stretching all the major muscle groups after exercise and you should spend at least once a week doing extensive stretching such as yoga or a session on the foam roller. Although, during rehabilitation I frequently advise a daily stretching program.

This advice is based on the most common knee issues. It is strongly advised that you seek an assessment from a Chartered Physiotherapist should you be experiencing any niggle or injury.

Calf Injuries

A common running injury is a calf strain or a tear. The calf muscles, Gastrocnemius and soleus, are loaded repetitively and heavily during running. With every stride we take when running, the calf gets loaded, firstly to absorb the Gastrocnemius Strain shock of our body weight landing, then to help propel us forward into the next stride. When running, we take roughly 1500 strides per mile. Which makes it easy to see that if there is a weakness in the calf complex, or a fault elsewhere in the kinetic chain or running technique leading to increased load on the calf, injury is almost inevitable.

The calf is classified as a global mobilizer muscle, meaning that its main anatomical function is to absorb and then create large motions and forces. It is accompanied above and below by stabiliser muscles which are responsible for keeping the joints stable – so that it can carry out its main function. However, if stability is compromised, particularly at the foot and ankle complex, leading to excessive pronation, the calf will begin to try and take on a stabilising role also – leading to loading it is not positioned well to cope with. An example of which would be an overpronating foot or weak glutes causing excessive inward rotation of the knee.

Often a poor warm-up is cited as a reason why athletes sustain calf injuries. Most of us appreciate the necessity for a thorough warm-up. I often use ‘blue tack’ as an example when describing how muscles and tendons respond to a warm up. When you try and stretch cold blue tack it is tough and usually breaks, whereas when is has been warmed up it stretches nicely. It is also important to note that as we age, these elastic properties of tendons and muscles diminish – thus accounting for the increased occurrence of calf strains in the more senior of our athletic population.

A final contributor to soft tissue injuries in runners, especially long-distance runners is dehydration. Dehydration negatively impacts muscle function by reducing blood flow to muscles and decreasing muscle elasticity or flexibility and endurance.

Grades of strain or tear:

Muscular strains are classified according to their severity in terms of how many fibres have been disrupted or ruptured:

Grade 1 Grade 2 Grade 3
This is the least severe of calf injuries. A small number of muscle fibres have been damaged within the muscle. Signs and symptoms of this type of less serious strain may not be noticed until cessation of the activity. Tightness, cramping feelings and slight soreness are common when the muscle is stretched. This is sometimes referred to as a partial calf tear. A greater number of muscle fibres have been torn, but the muscle remains largely intact. More immediate localised calf pain is present during activity, especially walking and running. Often the area is sore to touch. Total rupture. All the muscle fibres have been torn, losing continuity throughout the muscle. This is a serious injury and highly disabling. The athlete will be unable to walk pain free. Often bruising will appear below the tear site and there may well be a palpable bulge where the calf muscle has recoiled upon itself.

Treatment and Rehabilitation:

Initially, the Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation (R.I.C.E) principal should be followed. Therapeutic Ultrasound, Acupuncture, Sports massage and Taping are all methods used to facilitate soft tissue healing. Sports massage, however should not be performed until the acute phase has passed (3 days +). Approximate timescales for rest are; 3 weeks for a grade 1 strain and 4-6 weeks for a grade 2 strain. Grade 3 tears will most likely require surgery followed by a 12 week rehabilitation programme.

As with any injury, progressive and comprehensive exercise based rehabilitation is key to avoiding recurrence or secondary injuries. Secondary injuries often occur through compensatory mechanisms which may have become habit during the injured period. The rehabilitation period is also an ideal opportunity to target those areas that get ignored in weekly training routines. Core stability and gluteal muscles are a great place to focus on when activity is restricted. Research has found that the stronger these muscles can become, the more likely a successful outcome is to be reached in terms of injury recovery, injury prevention and most importantly performance.

Rehabilitation Exercises:

Specific single-leg exercises are important to build the strength in the injured limb and to regain balance which will have been lost on the injured side during the injury period. Here are some suggested exercises. However, I recommend you see a Physiotherapist for a tailored program and appropriate guidance.

Single Leg Standing

SLStStand on one leg keeping your bottom squeezed and core engaged. Ensure that your pelvis is level, your knee is facing forward and your trunk is upright. Try not to lock your knee. If you can successfully hold this position on each leg for 15-20 seconds you are ready to progress to a single leg squat.

This exercise targets your core and glute muscles.

Single Leg Squat

Single leg squat

The same principles are applied in this exercise as in the single leg stand. The picture shows the athlete squatting to a chair. The chair provides a nice prompt to ensure that you are squatting correctly (sticking your backside out and not just bending at the knee).

I suggest that you start by only squatting down as far as you can control your knee (keep you knee cap over your 2nd toe) and keep your pelvis level. This may only be a tiny dip to start with, but it will improve.

Supported Heel Raise

This exercise should be pain-free and should therefore not be considered until you are symptom Heel raisers free walking up a flight of stairs. Begin with 50:50 of your body weight in both feet and raise up on to your toes, if you feel the need you may hold onto a rail/kitchen unit for support. Complete 3 sets of 10. If this is easy then you may progress on to 60:40, increasing the load in the injured side. The increases my continue 70:30, 80:20 up to a single leg heel raise.