Strength, stretching and mobility training — otherwise known as bodywork — are crucial to your triathlon program. I recommend that you always include bodywork in your training, even if you have to give up some of your swim, bike and run sessions to do so.
If you haven’t been doing this type of training recently, then now is a perfect time to start!
In this edition of Workout Wednesday with Bioastin, I share my thoughts on how you can get started.
Have You Experienced Any of These Problems?
Here are examples of problems that typically afflict triathletes who don’t incorporate mobility, strength and stretching (MSS) into their training:
Problem: Neck is tight on the bike and low back starts to ache in the late stages of training rides and races.
Diagnosis: A tight thoracic spine – the middle of your back – loses mobility and consequently the cervical spine near your neck and lumbar spine in your low back try to compensate.
Problem: Your quads are excessively fatigued from the bike and when you try to run, your legs feel dead. This happens to all levels.
Diagnosis: The gluteals, the big powerful “butt muscle” complex, are not firing and the quads are taking up the slack. Immobility in the hip joint combined with a reduced range of motion result in little to no glute activation, and results in a weak bike leg and a slow run.
Problem: Your shoulders and arms ache during the swim. They feel like lead after 15 min and in a race you find yourself not winded but having huge muscular fatigue.
Diagnosis: Your shoulder mobility, flexibility and strength are a disaster! Your big back muscles — lats and serratus — should be contributing but they’re not able to fire. Increasing range of motion and strength are key!
What’s the Solution?
By performing bodywork consistently, you’ll increase the range of motion that allows you to maximize your strength. A tightly bound muscle cannot fire to its potential! Here’s a quick glimpse of what you should add into your training schedule.
Mobility work should be performed every day or, at a minimum, three times per week for 15 minutes per session.
Ideally your mobility routines should be done prior to training. If that’s not possible, then get on the floor at night and do them before going to bed.
There are three key areas to focus on:
- Thoracic spine
- Rotator cuff (along with the supporting shoulder tendons and muscles)
Thoracic spine mobility will allow you to have movement in the rib cage and scapula and will increase flexion and extension of the spine. You need that kind of mobility, since all three sports are dynamic. Swimming requires thoracic mobility to enhance the range of motion of the shoulders, arms, and pectoralis. You need mobility in the thoracic spine when cycling to allow optimal core stability while in the aero and standing positions. Finally, you won’t run fluidly without thoracic spine mobility.
Hip mobility is also important, because it allows the knees to maintain consistent movement throughout the sagittal plane while pedaling on the bike. While cycling, tight hips make you look like you’re riding a bronco! Your knees will flare outwards, which stresses the hips, hamstrings, and low- and mid-back. When running, sufficient hip mobility allows proper pelvic tilt. Tight hips place enormous stress on the low back and knees, and compromise initial contact when the foot hits the ground.
Rotator cuff mobility affects all triathletes. When swimming, rotator cuff mobility increases overhead reach —i.e., shoulder flexion —for a better hand entry and a stronger catch. Shoulder mobility also puts less stress on the posterior chain muscles.
Stretching goes hand in hand with joint mobility.
For example when swimming, tight lats, serratus, and pec muscles can limit the range of motion of your upper back and chest. Ultimately, this affects your ability to perform a proper hand entry and catch in freestyle.
Another problem area for triathletes is tightness in the hips and quads. That tightness impinges hip extension, which then places additional load on the knees, back, ankle joints and feet muscles. Tight glutes and hip flexors cause excessive tilt in your pelvis. In open water swimming, tight hips and quads place the lower back under huge stress, causing your legs to splay apart. Tight glutes even pull on the shins, which increases excessive flexion on the down stroke when biking.
Finally, rotator cuff tightness places enormous stress on the upper trapezius, levator, and forearm muscles. Freedom of movement –provided by improved flexibility acquired through regular stretching — minimizes the potential for shoulder injuries.
All of this stretching and mobility work is complemented by improved strength to keep you moving smoothly and powerfully. When it comes to strength training, most triathletes should focus on three primary areas:
Core. Your body’s core provides stability. Without strong and balanced core muscles, there is loss of symmetry, posture, and ultimately speed. A stable and strong core is paramount for performance in all three disciplines.
Glutes. Without a strong core, you cannot properly engage the gluteals. Together, the core and glutes provide power and muscular endurance — vital in triathlon. Overly fatigued quads are often a result of weak glutes. Excessive rocking on the bike, medial knee rotation on the run, and wiggling of the spine and feet while swimming are all linked to weakness in your glutes and core.
Calves. Your calves and feet are often neglected and can definitely benefit from purposeful strength training. As we age (even into our 30s!), there is a loss of foot and lower leg strength. Building calf strength for the bike and run is an absolute necessity for improving your speed and avoiding injury.
How Much and How Often?
Regardless of your personal circumstances, know that a little bit goes a long way. If you begin a mobility and stretching routine, start with three to five slow dynamic movements, where you pulse gently at the end range of each exercise. Then go to a static hold for 45 to 90 seconds per exercise.
When doing strength work, maintain good form and begin slowly on each exercise. Start with two to three sets of 6 to 12 repetitions. If you need to look in a mirror to maintain proper form, then do so.
How Can You Fit Mobility, Stretching & Strength Into Your Schedule?
Aim for at least 5x per week for 15 minutes a day, and you will notice a huge return. Not only will your triathlon performance improve, but you’ll also be offsetting the decline typically associated with normal aging. Here’s a sample schedule:
Sunday: 15 min. Mobility and stretching.
Monday: 15 min. Mobility, stretching and strength. The strength exercises for MWF are noted on Wednesday.
Tuesday: 15 min. Mobility and stretching
Wednesday: 15 min. Mobility, stretching and strength. The strength exercises would include core, back (Primarily mid and low traps which also work the shoulders ) and gluteals. 3 exercises, 1 set each.
Friday: 15 min. Mobility, stretching and strength. The strength exercises for MWF are noted on Wednesday.
If you take the time to incorporate mobility, stretching and strength work in your overall training program, I promise that you’ll see dividends come race season!