It is a commonly known fact that triathletes tend to by inflexible – I am referring to physical inflexibility here (although I accept that there are plenty – myself included – who are known to be inflexible in our mindset too, but that’s for a different day). Physiologically, we see the shortening of the hamstrings, tight calves and glutes, and shortened Achilles from time on the bike and running, seized upper thoracic / neck / shoulders from being in aero tuck and swimming with poor form. You stand back and observe how athletes move at a club level squad session and these are all very common sights to see. Typically, these are your age group athletes who are waking up well before dawn to get in their morning training session before rushing off to work, where they’ll wear work shoes (maybe even heels for the ladies) and sit at their desk for the next 8 hours, before dashing to their afternoon session or getting home to being a functioning member of the household. Amongst this regime, so few will prioritise any form mobility work outside of a warm up and cool down (at a minimum I’d hope!).
To reflect on this kind of routine, it’s not surprising that over time our soft tissue contracts and begins to contort our movement patterns. For example, as a coach, it’s great to be able to recognise that an athlete is failing to get rotation through their body in the pool. So you prescribe them some drills to help them improve on that. But what if their body won’t actually rotate – in the water or otherwise..? No drill will fix that, which can become a very frustrating process for the coach and the athlete. To correct this technique, one needs to take a step back and take a look at the athletes mobility – are they physically capable of performing the movement? No? Then there is a mobility issue there that needs to be addressed.
So how does an athlete go about addressing limitations in their movement patterns? Well, the first stage is awareness. The old saying ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ rains true here. Looking at the routine described above, triathletes will too often go about their training with minimal body awareness. They don’t realise they struggle to rotate in their torso, or get a full hip extension when they run, or activate their glutes when cycling. Having an observer can certainly help to have these things pointed out, but at the end of the day the athlete is the one responsible for their own body. Executing sessions with mindfulness and awareness of your body movements is something all athletes can do at all times. Even when you’re walking around the office, sitting at your desk, driving your car, executing hard run intervals, climbing a hill on your bike – HOW is your body moving? Is it with perfect posture or are your shoulders forward and back curved?
Once you become aware of some of your movement problems, then it’s time to find the cause. Typically, the cause doesn’t come from the site itself, it’s simply manifesting there. For example, if your knee collapses inwards when you run the cause of this is likely to be coming from above or below the knee – have a look at your ankles and hip. What kind of motion restrictions do they have? Limited movement in the ankle could be related to unhealthy tissue in your feet, Achilles, calf (or all of the above). So start there. Commence a daily routine of a few minutes to get you towards full ankle range of motion. Rolling a golf ball under your foot to loosen tissue, using a calf roller to release your Achilles, a hockey ball down the front of your shin (in the muscle, not on the bone). Just a few minutes each day focusing in improving your ankle mobility. Test it regularly. Can you get into a full squat with your feet flat on the ground? Watch any small child do this and you can see that humans are meant to be able to do this. It’s our lifestyles that have then impacted on our bodies ability to move in this way.
In his book Ready to Run, Dr Kelly Starrett states that “all human beings should be able and willing to perform basic maintenance on themselves. Sports medicine has it’s place, but you have both the right and responsibility to know what’s going on in your body, take care of as much business as you can, and harvest any performance that’s hiding in the shadows.” There are so many performance gains to be had from a healthy body that moves efficiently, rather than a rigid athlete that muscles their way through each session. You’d be better off reducing the main set by 5 min and spending time releasing tight tissue that is forcing you to execute a poor (and inefficient) movement patter. Learn to move well – in life and in exercise and you’ll have a shot at reaching your athletic potential.
It’s a shame that mobility is such an insignificant part of triathlon culture. I firmly believe that triathletes (especially age group athletes who muscle their way through their training and racing) could stand to gain so much from changing this attitude. Not only in their performance, but longevity in the sport and quality of living an injury free life.
To learn more on mobility exercises for every joint and muscle in the human body, I’d highly recommend Dr Kelly Starrett ‘Becoming a Supple Leopard’ or check out his online videos through Mobility WOD.