with Christine Bell

Too often I see clients early in the New Year with season-stalling injuries caused by overzealous training.

After a 4- to 6-week romp on the holiday party circuit, they jump off the couch and into high-intensity training, only to be frustrated a few weeks later when they develop an injury. Generally these injuries come from excessive volumes of swimming, biking or running.

Typically the underlying cause of these problems is a deficiency in strength and flexibility, especially following the holiday layoff.  There is not an athlete competing — professional or age grouper — who wouldn’t benefit from fortifying their foundation of strength and flexibility early in the year.  Make this a priority and you’ll improve your efficiency of motion in all three sports and prevent injury, thereby bringing your dreams of PB’s and podium finishes closer to reality.

When planning your early season training sessions, ALWAYS remember this formula:

Strength + Flexibility + Technique = Efficiency = Speed

1. Strength

Muscular strength is a broad and varied topic, but focus on your core early in the season.

Core strength is imperative, because it helps eliminate excessive motion in your midsection and provides a solid base from which your limbs can move. If you have a solid platform (i.e., your core), then less energy will be lost through extraneous movement, and you’ll exert less abnormal forces on your limbs.

The key to a strong, rigid core is engagement of your Transverse Abdominus (TA) muscle. Your TA is a deep core stabilizer that wraps around your trunk like a corset and, when contracted, gently narrows your waist and stiffens your spine. Your TA is an endurance muscle so it can work at about 30-40% of its maximum for long periods of time.

Your TA is simple to engage but requires practice to master while exercising. Initially you should practice engaging your TA while standing or talking on the phone, then progress to engaging it momentarily during training activity. Eventually you will be able to concentrate and focus on your TA when trying to maintain your form (and, consequently, your speed) in all three disciplines.

How to engage your TA:

  1. Stand tall with your hands placed gently on the inside of each hip bone, about 2 inches out from your navel.
  2. Take a big breath in and out through your nose.
  3. Gently draw your navel in towards your spine so you feel a gentle contraction underneath your finger tips.
  4. Continue to breathe normally, letting your chest rise and fall (don’t hold your breath!)

Your six-pack (or rectus abdominus), while good looking on the beach, won’t contribute to your triathlon success; it works hard for only a short period of time.  The TA, on the other hand, is in the engine room, providing sustained stability throughout your longest days of training and racing.  Invest in keeping it strong, and it will become one of your secrets to success!

2. Flexibility

In order to optimize your strength, you must also optimize your flexibility. One of the most common problems we see among triathletes is tight hip flexors.  If the hip flexors are tight then athletes will struggle to recruit their gluteal muscles, which are critical for efficient cycling and running.

As you know, a muscle generates optimal force in its mid range of elongation. When a muscle is shortened or lengthened, its ability to generate force is compromised.

If your hip flexors are too tight (i.e., shortened) on the front of your hip joint, then the opposing gluteal muscles behind the hip joint are not at their optimal length, either.  Therefore your ability to generate power is reduced.

Most athletes know it’s important to get their glutes to fire, but they struggle to engage them when running or strength training.

3. Technique Tips

I will dive deeply into the biomechanics of swim, bike and run technique in the coming months.  For this article, let’s look at a few tips to consider for each sport, based on the information mentioned above:

Swim: Focus on engaging your TA muscle and keeping your hips still when swimming. You want to feel like a canoe in the water, not a rubber raft. If your trunk is still as you catch and pull, then you will eliminate drag through the water.  A strong TA will stabilize your body in the water and help reduce that drag.

Bike:  When climbing, make sure to get out of the saddle for 10 to 20 revolutions. Try to feel your glutes engage at the bottom of each pedal stroke.

Run:  For runners, nothing strengthens the glutes like hill repeats!  With your chest high, think about planting your foot with your toes open and engage that glute as your foot hits the ground.

Poor technique – and its resulting loss of speed — is often due to poor strength or flexibility.  Make it a priority to get to the gym, do some Pilates, or take a yoga class; it will make you stronger, more efficient and will reduce the risk of injuries, setting the stage for a healthy and rewarding race season.