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Polarised to Pyramidal Training Intensity Distribution: The Principle of Specificity is Key

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A new blog post has been a long time coming (we’ve been busy!; me doing some training, work and the addition of a little girl and Prof writing a book), and with Ironman NZ behind us for another year, it’s given me the chance to write something I’ve been wanting to express for some time.

I love a bit of social media interaction. Whilst I’m not the most vocal, I do enjoy keeping an eye on the latest hot topics in the world of endurance sports and Ironman Triathlon. Over the past few months or so, “polarized training” has become a real buzz word in the triathlon training world. Particularly Ironman. But is this really the best way to train when considering an event like Ironman? Here is a spin on it from Plews and Prof.

Training intensity distribution and polarised training

When we refer to training intensity distribution (TID), we are talking about how much of the time we spend in low, moderate and high training intensity zones.

Figure 1: Training zone demarcation using the classic three zone model.

Figure 1 shows a great illustration of the zones we’re talking about from the father on the topic for us, Professor Stephen Seiler, which I’ll use throughout this essay. Have a read of his 2009 paper if you want to really geek out. In a nutshell, there are generally two main models of TID that have dominated the literature. These are namely the polarised (1) and the threshold (2) models of training.  The polarised model was first described within the training performed by the East German system from 1970-80, whereby a high volume of low-intensity training appeared balanced against regular application of high-intensity training bouts (~90% to >100% VO2max). This was partially confirmed in 2004 by Fiskerstrand & Seiler (1), who showed a “polarized” pattern of training also when they explained the training and performance characteristics of 28 international Norwegian rowers developing across the years 1970-2001. This polarised model is said to be described as performing about 75-80% of your training at a low intensity (<2 mM blood lactate), 5% at threshold intensity (~4 mM blood lactate), and 15-20% at high intensity  (>4 mM blood lactate) (3). This training organization contrasts the classic threshold model (~57% low intensity, 43% threshold, 0% high-intensity (4)) of endurance training, whereby large volumes of mid-zone threshold work is thought to be optimal (2). This former study on world class international rowers provided evidence to support the importance of the polarized training model for endurance athletes striving to be the best in the world, and subsequently has been largely adopted by athletes across many endurance sports. (5,6)

Iron distances races: Racing in the black hole

What’s very interesting about the polarized training method as it relates to Ironman, is that most of the research has been carried out in sports where race pace intensity is above the second (“anaerobic”) threshold. Sports like rowing 7 for example, (where much of the TID research has been done), is closer to VO2max intensity. To illustrate, Figure 2 shows an example of the typical intensity breakdown over a 2 km rowing race (split into the three-zone model), where the majority of time spent during the 6-8 min race is above the heart rate associated with the anaerobic threshold. Even in a cycling road race there would be substantial amounts of time spent in the low intensity bandwidth (below the first aerobic threshold, whilst sat in the peloton), alongside shorter times spent above the second threshold (closing gaps, making breaks etc.).

Figure 2: The typical heart rate intensity distribution of a 2 km rowing race. 24% at low intensity (it takes time for HR to rise), 34% at a moderate intensity (still rising) and 42% at a high intensity.

Comparatively, the intensity distribution of Ironman racing is vastly different, with most of the time being spent in the moderate intensity bandwidth. Figure 3 shows my HR distribution during the Taupo 70.3 event in December 2017. From this, its clear that most of the ~4h race duration is spent at a moderate exercise intensity. To take this a step further, we can look at my race for Ironman New Zealand 2017, where there is even more time spent in the moderate intensity heart rate bandwidth (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Time in Zone 70.3 Taupo bike (top: 2 hr 14 min) and run (bottom: 1 hr 18 min). Bike includes 2% low intensity, 72% moderate intensity and 26% high intensity. Comparatively, running includes 0% at low intensity, 54% at moderate intensity and 46% at high intensity.

When looking at Figures 3 and 4, keep in mind that the moderate intensity training bandwidth is quite large (145-160 b.min-1 cycling and 150-165 b.min-1 running). The Ironman distance mostly happens in the low end of this bracket (average and max HR for bike and run respectively = 145/157 and 151/163 b.min-1) while the 70.3 distance occurs near the top (154/161 and 164/176 b.min-1)

Figure 4: Time in Zone for full ironman (2017 Ironman NZ) bike (top: 4 hr 58 min) and run (bottom: 2 hr 55 min). Bike includes 25% at low intensity, 74% at moderate intensity and 0.2% at high intensity. Comparatively, running includes 4% at low intensity and 96% at moderate intensity and 0% at high intensity.

Pyramidal Model of Training Intensity Distribution

More recently, a number of retrospective studies have put forth another model of TID for cycling, (8) running, (9) and triathlon, (10) termed the “pyramidal” model. Here, most training is still carried out at low intensity, however there are decreasing proportions of threshold and high-intensity training performed. This is a model less discussed that many might not be familiar with. Indeed, we often assume that an athlete who is not polarized in their TID must be in the “threshold” model by default. However, published research has revealed this middle-ground model that we need to appreciate.

Exact defining percentage breakdowns of the Pyramidal model have yet to be clearly established, however this general implies ~25-30% and 5-10% of TID at moderate and high intensity training levels, respectively, with the balance being low intensity training (50-70%). (3) As such, within the pyramidal model of TID, we expect to see less training time at a low and high training intensity, and more time at moderate training intensity. From a specificity standpoint, this middle ground training is much closer to the demands of ironman racing (Figures 3 and 4). Thus, when race day approaches, and training sessions become more “specific” and closer to race intensity, it stands to reason that perhaps the Pyramidal model may particularly suit long course triathletes.

Figure 5: 1 week of training (7 January until 13 January). 64% <LT1, 25% LT1-LT2 and 11% >LT2

Figure 5, shows my TID during one week in the month of January 2018 (competition phase) before the New Zealand National Middle-Distance Champs. As we can see, my TID certainly fell in line with the Pyramidal model.

Take home points

For Ironman distance racing, or any sport preparation for that matter, we have to consider the principle of specificity. For Ironman, as we are still working in an aerobic event, building aerobic endurance is of key importance. Thus, however you’re skinning it in your Ironman training, a fundamental principle needs to be an aerobic foundation. Ideally, we should be working within a range of TID, that span across the polarized (80/20) and pyramidal (60/40) models, depending on the phase of the training cycle. For example, early season training might look more polarized, while pyramidal may appear to form, as we get closer to racing.

One final point, it that we must also acknowledge the role of athlete health (11) and the stress that training places on the autonomic nervous system (12,13) when substantial amounts of training time are performed above VT1. Thus, future research may want to consider describing the optimal durations of pyramidal and polarized training phases in the diets of Ironman athletes.

 

References

1.    Fiskerstrand A, Seiler KS. Training and performance characteristics among Norwegian international rowers 1970-2001. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2004;14:303-10.
2.    Seiler S. What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes? Int J Sports Physiol Perform 2010;5:276-91.
3.    Stoggl TL, Sperlich B. The training intensity distribution among well-trained and elite endurance athletes. Front Physiol 2015;6:295.
4.    Neal CM, Hunter AM, Brennan L, et al. Six weeks of a polarized training-intensity distribution leads to greater physiological and performance adaptations than a threshold model in trained cyclists. J Appl Physiol (1985) 2013;114:461-71.
5.    Laursen PB. Training for intense exercise performance: high-intensity or high-volume training? Scand J Med Sci Sports 2010;20 1-10.
6.    Seiler KS, Kjerland GO. Quantifying training intensity distribution in elite endurance athletes: is there evidence for an “optimal” distribution? Scand J Med Sci Sports 2006;16:49-56.
7.    Plews D, Laursen PB. Training intensity distribution over a four-year cycle in Olympic champion rowers: different roads lead to Rio. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 2017;In Press.
8.    Lucia A, Hoyos J, Pardo J, Chicharro JL. Metabolic and neuromuscular adaptations to endurance training in professional cyclists: a longitudinal study. Jpn J Physiol 2000;50:381-8.
9.    Esteve-Lanao J, San Juan AF, Earnest CP, Foster C, Lucia A. How do endurance runners actually train? Relationship with competition performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2005;37:496-504.
10.    Neal CM, Hunter AM, Galloway SD. A 6-month analysis of training-intensity distribution and physiological adaptation in Ironman triathletes. J Sports Sci 2011;29:1515-23.
11.    Maffetone PB, Laursen PB. Athletes: Fit but Unhealthy? Sports Med Open 2015;2:24.
12.    Plews DJ, Laursen PB, Kilding AE, Buchheit M. Heart-rate variability and training-intensity distribution in elite rowers. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 2014;9:1026-32.
13.    Seiler S, Haugen O, Kuffel E. Autonomic recovery after exercise in trained athletes: intensity and duration effects. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007;39:1366-73

Having been involved in elite competitve triathlon from a very early age, the area of performance and individual improvement has always intrigued me. As I've grown and gone through various experiments on myself and in the lab, I've realised that much of what we've been taught is false.

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Training

How to Make the a Great Swim to Bike Transition

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Triathletes are quick to complete training sessions that require them to run off the bike, and rightly so. The neophytes out there will likely experience a sensation, unlike anything they’ve come across when undertaking their first run off the bike. You will your legs to run but they’re still thinking pedal circles and your quads are pumped full of blood and you feel as though you’re running on stumps.

There’s no real reason to question the merit of training your body to shunt blood from cycling muscles to running muscles, ASAP. This both alleviates the sensation described above and improves performance. The human body is a very adaptive mechanism – ask it to do something over and over again and apply a training stimulus slowly and progressively over time and it will adapt.

How else do the likes of Alistair Brownlee and Javier Gomez manage to run 10 kilometres off the bike in fewer than 30 minutes? How do the best ultra distance triathletes get into running stride quickly and post 2:40 marathons or better? One word: Practice.

However, the bike to run transition is just one instance where triathletes must switch between muscle groups. What about the transition from the swim to bike? This is often neglected in transition and brick training with people devoting more time to the transition from bike to run.

In the water

Think about it; depending on the length of the event and your ability in the water, you’ve been laid prone for somewhere between 10-to-70 minutes. The vast majority of the work you’ve done is with your upper body as your legs trail along behind, generally with a two-beat kick and often buoyed by a wetsuit. In fact, during longer swims, it isn’t uncommon for triathletes to experience cramping in the calves and hamstrings due to a lack of blood supply. I suggest intermittently kicking a little harder to those I coach to avoid this. Flexing and extending the ankles as you swim to maintain some blood supply to the calves can also help.

However, the vast majority of the blood volume dedicated to the work you’re performing is being directed to your upper body. Then wham, you stand up, try to run to your bike, get onto it and pedal away at a rate of knots.

Is it any wonder your heart rate rockets, you immediately go into oxygen debt and the effort becomes anaerobic? It takes time to recover from this as you try to settle into a rhythm on the bike and regain your composure.

Think it through. You’ve largely robbed your legs of blood, which transports the oxygen critical for aerobic metabolism. You’ve then asked them to spring to life. The only option is anaerobic (which literally means without oxygen) metabolism. This can only be performed using muscle glycogen – which is a highly prized, limited and valuable asset – particularly in longer-distance events in which you’re trying to conserve it as best you can. In this scenario, straight out of the blocks you’re burning it like there’s no tomorrow; a folly that later in the bike, and potentially on the run, could come back to haunt you.

So, what to do?

As we approach the end of the season and plunge into the winter months, after the requisite break from formal swim, bike and run training, the winter is an ideal time to base-build. Part of this building process should also entail the building of the aerobic infrastructure necessary to facilitate swift and efficient changes from swimming to cycling, as well as riding to running.

During the off-season this can be as simple as a once-a-week casual changeover from an aerobic swim session into your bike gear before heading out for an aerobic intensity ride of a moderate duration.

Your body will soon adapt to the fact that the quicker it learns to shunt blood from the upper body to the lower body, the more comfortable and easier such sessions will become.

As the season looms closer, the training starts to change. Lower intensity aerobic sessions are traded for more and more tempo or race-pace sessions, which, through being more intense, have a greater reliability on anaerobic metabolism. Provided you’ve laid your base with the appropriate lower intensity aerobic work, your body will quickly adapt to the demands of higher intensity training and your enhanced aerobic infrastructure will be able to dissipate accumulating lactic acid.

This is where transition sessions come into play.

Following a comprehensive warm-up, focus on completing multiple, shorter, race-pace tempo or anaerobic threshold or greater intensity lactate tolerance transitions, depending on how close you are to competition and the duration of the event you’re preparing for. When warming up, it is good to do so in a reverse order, that is, run to bike to swim. This will mean you are in the water and ready to go hard while having at least opened up the blood vessels to your cycling and running muscles.

So how can you most effectively achieve this?

  • If allowed, bring your bike and stationary trainer to the pool.
  • Warm up with 10 minutes on the bike and five minutes in the pool. Then repeat the main set two-to-five times.
  • Swim 600 metres as 200 fast and 400 at mid-race pace
  • Bike 15 minutes in five-minute blocks. Four minutes at race pace with one minute of recovery.
  • Pedal or swim five minutes easy between sets.

This is a simple workout that can be varied in duration and intensity depending on your level of conditioning and goals for the approaching event. What’s important here is to prepare the body for the demands of changing muscle group usage and shunting blood between the upper and lower body quickly and more efficiently to optimise race-day performance.

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3 Key Cycling Stretches for Triathletes

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Humans did not evolve in the aero position. As such, the long periods triathletes spend on their bikes can cause myriad of muscular problems. Here are some of the stretches that should be employed to stay supple and injury-free on the bike.

It comes as no surprise that as triathletes the majority of our training time is spent on the bike chewing up kilometre after kilometre. Sure, the impact of riding is less than that of running, but due to the sheer amount of time that triathletes spend on the bike, this is often the biggest cause of muscular tightness.

What makes the issue worse is the time spent trying to hold an aerodynamic position while riding. This immediately places huge stress on the lower back, ITBs and hamstrings, which are all areas that require attention in your pre- and post-ride stretching routine. Here are a few stretches I employ to alleviate tightness.

ITB foam roller trigger

Most athletes have a foam roller, however, a rolled up towel can also be used. ITB injuries are very common in triathletes and cyclists, so this simple trigger release can do wonders pre and post ride. Roll up and down along the side of each leg to help release tightness and be sure to spend some extra time with any particularly sore spots. Feel free to spend as much or as little time repeating on each side both pre and post ride.

Quad stretch

The quad stretch is another simple yet effective stretch that can be done post ride to release tension and muscular tightness. Place a towel under your knee and one foot out in front with the other foot behind you. Use two hands to bring your back foot to your bum and you should get a great quad stretch. For an even greater stretch, move your hips forward.

Foam roller back stretch and release

Just like with the ITB trigger, a tightly rolled-up towel can also be used instead of a foam roller. Place your arms across your chest and slowly roll back and forth along the roller. Once you feel comfortable, raise your arms behind you to increase the stretch. It is common to hear a few pops or cracking from your back as it releases under the pressure of the foam roller. This stretch is a must for those with a tight back from spending time in the aero position.

Glute stretch and release

The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in your buttocks and becomes very tight under load when you are riding. The glutes, as they are otherwise known, are responsible for a lot of our stability and posture while riding and therefore become tight after hours spent in the saddle. Many people do this stretch lying on their backs; however, I find a seated version is more effective as it is easier to maintain your posture. While seated, lift one leg up and place your ankle on the opposite knee. Slowly push downwards on the knee and you should feel the glute muscle slowly release. Make sure to repeat on both legs.

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Beginner’s Guide to the Bike Leg

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New to triathlon? Check out the beginner’s guide to the bike leg.

If you’re thinking about getting into triathlon, then you need to get on your bike. For most of us, that’s not a problem since bike-training sessions are generally deemed the most enjoyable, and often the most sociable, sessions to undertake.

A few hours on the weekend winding through the hills on your bike with your mates can be great fun. So, the problem with bike training usually isn’t getting it done, it’s more likely that it’s a disproportional amount of time spent completing kilometres that are not as effective as they could be, in terms of the training effect.

Like any other aspect of preparing for your first triathlon, training for the bike leg involves training effectively and recognising that the bike leg involves a special set of considerations that are unique to the sport – and involve more than just knocking out kilometres. An essential part of performing well on the bike leg, and ultimately on the run, is to incorporate the interrelated aspects of the race into your training.

The basic skill set

Before we go further, there is an essential set of riding competency skills that you need to progress safely in your training. For example, you are going to need to be confident at riding in a bunch – and that means knowing how to ride straight, signal hazards, corner, brake, descend and understand a group’s rules. These skills are best taught and explained by a coach, or the head of your riding group. Once you have mastered the basic skill set, it’s time to progress your performance.

Develop the engine first and then work on the chassis

I have seen a lot of age group athletes on bikes geared up with the works – deep dish carbon wheels, aero helmets, power meters, aero bottle cages, electronic shifters, complex hydration systems and the like. The allure of the bike leg can be to invest in equipment – to effectively ‘buy’ speed – and there’s plenty of equipment to think about. For me, though, it comes down to this: invest in developing the engine (you) first then invest in the chassis (the other bits) later. For new triathletes, this means investing in the essential minimum set of training tools; a road bike (alloy is fine) that fits you, clip-in pedals, an indoor trainer, and a GPS bike computer. Aside from the gear you’ll train in, that’s all you’ll need. This set of training tools, with the correct training structure, will be enough for you to prepare for and race well at your next event. There will be plenty of time to invest in fast gear when you’re up to speed. To set a correct structure we need to have a closer look at the demands of the bike leg.

Understanding the demands of the bike leg

When training for the bike leg, athletes often forgo the structured training they employ in their run and swim training and instead focus on parameters like average speed, distance covered (irrespective of how), and duration (again, irrespective of how). I have heard plenty of talented triathletes explain how they have a solid 120 kilometres to knock out, with no other objective, and then complete that in two or three segments with coffee stops between. In other words, they’re counting the kilometres between coffee stops.

The bike leg doesn’t involve coffee stops.

The bike leg starts on the mount line and ends on the dismount line. Between those lines there is at least one acceleration component, a straight-line constant speed component, one or more cornering/turning components and a deceleration component. In addition to these, there are also external factors such as road surface and weather considerations, all of which need to be prepared for. Some races also involve additional considerations such as hill elements, traffic issues, and congestion/drafting issues.

The four ‘als’

Just like training for every other leg, structured, objective-orientated training on the bike is more likely to deliver increased performance gains. As a starting point, adopt a training approach that exceeds the demands you are likely to encounter on race day. These demands will vary according to the type of event (sprint distance, Olympic distance, etc), the course, and the conditions. Each of these demands are key input considerations and ultimately the four ‘als’ that will govern your race day performance – technical, physiological, nutritional and mental.

Getting technical

There are a number of technical aspects that can provide significant performance improvements, and shave time off our race result, with little training investment. Most notably these are: mastering mounting the bike, pedalling efficiency, acceleration skills, and cornering skills. Surprisingly, in a sprint distance event at an average speed of 35km p/h, taking 30 seconds to mount your bike means a loss of about 200 metres over an athlete who takes 10 seconds. This equates to an average speed differential of about 0.5kmph that you’ll need to make up on your quick-mounting mate. Improving mounting skills so that the transition onto the bike is seamless and does not involve stopping is the easiest way to gain an immediate front-end performance improvement. Have a coach show you how to mount on the bike or head down to your local footy oval and practise jumping on your bike on a grass surface.

Keep going round in circles

In terms of pedalling efficiency, the principle underlying straight-line speed on a bike is pretty straightforward. It involves the simultaneous and continuous application of opposing forces to each pedal spindle throughout the entire pedal cycle. The mechanism for applying these opposing forces is your legs and your core, via the linkages provided by your shoes, cleats and pedals.

Working on improving pedalling efficiency and other technical aspects (such as cornering, accelerating) is often overlooked, even though time savings are there for the taking. Single-leg drills on an indoor trainer are a great way to develop an improved pedalling action. As a starting point, try incorporating up and down reps of 30 seconds left leg only, 30 seconds both legs, 30 seconds right leg after an eight-minute warm-up holding a cadence in the range of 90rpm to 100rpm. Start with three x four-minute single leg drills with each rep followed by two minutes with both legs best work. Focus on commencing the up cycle by pulling your knee towards your chest, pushing the toes forward across the top of the cycle, commencing the downstroke with the ankle, and pulling your heel towards the rear wheel across the bottom of the stroke.

Firing up the engine

I like to keep things pretty simple when it comes to preparing an athlete for the physiological demands of a race. A typical preparatory phase would involve six-to-seven week blocks of hill riding incorporating gradual progression in total elevation and/or duration (for strength development), a speed endurance development block including rides that combine hill work, and faster rides on the flats (say, 50 percent hills and 50 percent fast flats), and a block of pure speed work. This might involve criterium/velodrome-type sets and race simulation sets. So, preparing for a sprint or Olympic-distance event might involve a structure of about 22-to-24 weeks. To give you an idea, a general framework for a 22-week preparatory phase for an Olympic distance event might look like this:

Weeks 1-to-4: Transition to training

  • Two rides per week, incorporating a long ride building to 70 kilometres per week
  • One skills session per week (e.g. mounting bike, cornering and turning skills, bunch riding skills)

Weeks 5-to-8: Hill progression

  • Two rides per week in the hills building to 70-to-80 kilometres per ride, adding 10 percent total elevation per week
  • One indoor interval set per week

Weeks 9-to-12: Speed, endurance and mental toughness

  • One ride per week in the hills – 50 kilometres plus per ride
  • One ride per week ‘50:50’ starting with 50 percent hard hills and 50 percent time trial type effort in weeks 9 and 10 building to race distance, then reverse in weeks 16-to-18
  • One combined ergo and track run per fortnight (e.g. 3 x 6m00 on the ergo with 1200m to 1600m runoffs)

Weeks 13-to-16: Speed

  • One 50-kilometre tempo ride per week
  • One speed set per week
  • One race simulation set with a run off the bike

Race preparation sets – mental toughness and confidence

Race preparation sets are an essential part of preparing for your event. They allow you to rehearse a nutrition strategy, devise a pacing strategy, develop an understanding of the interrelationship between bike effort and run performance and develop confidence in your skill execution. With my squad, I like to conduct race simulation sessions about five weeks out from the event on a course that replicates aspects of the racecourse. This includes a run off the bike element. These sets give us the opportunity to experiment with nutrition and pacing strategies, introduce a competitive element through the use of handicap starts, and experiment with different pacing strategies for run off the bike. We do this in full race set-up, on a course that replicates the characteristics of the one we will race on. The great thing about some of the online mapping tools is that we can easily analyse the characteristics of any course anywhere in the world, and then plan routes that replicate it to the maximum extent possible.

Race day

Adopting a training approach that involves training for, and rehearsing, all aspects of bike performance will mean that, come race day, there should be no surprises. Not only that, your investment in building your engine and skill development means you won’t have a lot of time to admire some very flash looking bikes as you rip past them – but you’re entitled to have a chuckle to yourself.

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Managing Cycling Injuries

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Cycling can be a major factor in triathlete injury, and though many athletes attribute their muscle soreness and injuries to their running or swimming, it’s important to understand that poor cycling technique or bike set-up is often a key contributing factor in triathlete injuries. Cycling is a relatively unnatural position and action. While it’s true that cycling is low impact when compared to running, it’s also safe to say that the human body did not evolve to allow us to ride bikes.

Cycling places the muscles of the trunk, neck and hips in positions that are generally considered suboptimal for maintaining good musculoskeletal health for sustained periods of time. Even small imperfections in cycling technique and positioning can become exaggerated over the thousands of pedal strokes taken while riding. Fortunately, correct cycling technique should work basically every muscle in the lower body, which limits the chances of muscle imbalances developing. Combined with effective body management practices, it is possible to virtually eliminate the risk of cycling injuries – well, those that don’t involve hitting the tarmac at speed, at least.

The keys to injury prevention and management

Cycling is naturally low impact, so assuming that set-up is done correctly, your body is generally able to deal with the loads that cycling generates. Additionally, the cycling action is extremely effective at strengthening all of the muscles of the lower body, and avoiding muscle imbalances. Nonetheless, there are a couple of great ways to minimise the risk of injury and manage muscle soreness related to cycling:

  1. Core strength to minimise unwanted movement of the trunk and pelvis and provide a stable platform for efficient pedal stroke.
  2. Stretching and flexibility training to counteract the repetitive and sustained use of muscles in suboptimal position during cycling.

Core/Trunk Strength

Surprisingly, many amateur athletes often overlook the contribution that core strength makes to the cycling motion. A bike is inherently unstable, so naturally it takes a degree of trunk strength to simply maintain your balance on the bike. On top of this, for the human body to exert any force through an object (for example, the pedals and bars), we always require a stable platform to drive off.

A simple example of this might be to think of your rectus femoris (rec fem), the long muscle in your quadriceps that attaches at the front of the pelvis and inserts into the shinbone (tibia). When the rec fem pulls on one side of your body, it exerts a force that flexes the hip and extends the knee. Due to its unilateral action during cycling, the rec fem is also exerting a downward pull on one side of the pelvis at a time. If the pelvis is not stabilised by other muscles around the trunk, we could expect that the force generated by the rec fem would result not only in extension of the knee (which we do want), but also in a forward tilt and sideways drop on that side of the pelvis (which is definitely not what we want). The fact that this doesn’t happen for most cyclists is a great example of your core in action, stabilising the pelvis so that the force of the rec fem muscle can be translated entirely through extension of your knee and into the pedal stroke. Now consider the fact that just about every muscle in your legs, and many in your arms, are working during the pedal stroke, exerting force around your spine and pelvis. This explains why we need a strong core to not only ride efficiently, but also prevent unwanted movement that can result in injury.

Stretching

As previously mentioned, cycling places the body in a sustained forward position and requires a number of muscles to change their resting length while riding. When done effectively, the cycling motion is also highly repetitive, which is often a recipe for tight muscles. To counteract this, start with a stretching program focusing on the following key areas:

Neck – the lower your body position, the more your neck is required to extend to allow you to see in front. This results in tightness of the neck extensor muscles. Neck position also tends to be very static, so it’s important to maintain range of motion to avoid stiffness in the neck. Some easy neck stretches include using your hands to pull the head to the side and front, and slowly rolling and turning the head from side to side. Spend a few minutes after each ride performing these actions, and remember to always move gently when stretching the neck.

Lower back – due to the sustained flexed position of the lower back, it’s important to maintain range of motion in the spine before and after cycling. Start with a basic cobra stretch to improve extension, and a lumbar rotation stretch or rolling your legs side to side to improve rotation. A common source of lower back pain in cycling is the quadratus lumborum (QL). To stretch the QL, sit with your legs outstretched and apart, and reach toward one foot with your hand. Once your body is stretched down as far as possible, hold your toes with your hand on the same side and start to rotate your body in the opposite direction, reaching your arm back behind your head. You should feel a stretch down the side of your lower back. This stretch is best performed with a partner.

Legs – for triathletes, probably the most important muscles to stretch are the psoas or hip flexors, which can easily become shortened when cycling. Starting in a lunge position, lower your back knee to the floor, then push your hips forward until you feel a stretch in front of the hip on your back leg. It also helps to stretch any muscles that cross two joints, as these tend to require greater extensibility. This includes the hamstrings, quadriceps (rectus femoris) and gastrocnemius. Depending on the amount of ankling utilised in the pedal stroke, you may also need to stretch the muscle on the front of your shin (tibialis anterior), which can easily be done by kneeling with your toes pointed, then sitting on your heels.

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How to Build Strength on the Bike

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Taking a break from triathlon over the winter months? Put this time to good use and learn how to build strength and power on the bike.

How do I build strength on the bike? This is probably the question I get asked the most as a coach, and it’s the toughest to answer – especially when dealing with time-poor athletes, as biking is so time-consuming and few of us have the time to tap out two-to-three hour rides in the hills each day to gain the necessary strength needed to improve our ironman or half-ironman bike time.

As a pro athlete, it’s quite easy to lay down a strength-specific bike block to top things up if needed, which generally takes four-to-five weeks of specific work, provided the athlete has a good five-year base behind them. As an age grouper though, a 600-kilometre strength-focused week is not realistic. So, how do you build strength from a 200-kilometre bike week?

This is a tough proposition, but here are a few tips to increase your strength and hopefully improve your bike time. I am not saying that you will be pushing a 58-tooth chainring and riding at 45km/ph, but even if we’re just squeezing a small amount of juice from the orange, we are still getting somewhere.

Hill reps

This is probably the best way to increase strength. It is the most used and the most uncomfortable – but generally, the sessions that you find the most uncomfortable are the most beneficial. I see hill reps as the paddles/band session you do in swimming converted to cycling. Both sessions add specific stress on certain muscle groups of the body that are critical to the areas that need to be worked.

Much like this swim session will add stress to the shoulders/back/core, strength sessions on the bike will increase the work on the glutes and hamstrings, which is where the main power on the bike comes from. In saying this, when doing strength efforts it’s important to stay seated and place the chain ring in a large gear (one that is hard to pedal). If you have a cadence meter on your bike computer you will want to see around 60-to-70 RPMs on it while you are in the saddle. A gradual climb of around two-to-three kilometres is perfect for this session and should be completed two-to-three times with a submaximal heart rate of around 70 percent of your maximum. This effort should not be a lung-busting torture test, as it’s not designed to stress the cardio system but to build the muscular and central nervous system.

Gym

Hit the gym for an extended period of time during a break in racing and focus on specific muscle groups like the glutes, hamstrings and lower back. Not only will this assist with the increase in power development but also, perhaps, more importantly, it will help in the prevention of injury through strengthening the associated tendons and connective tissue around the muscle groups. This type of program should only be attempted after a consultation with a qualified coach or PT who can guide you through these exercises and ensure they are done correctly. I am a big believer in the benefits of a well-constructed and consistent weights program periodised with a structured program within the training phases.

Trainer sessions

Most people refer to these as the Devil. They are widely detested, particularly by athletes with sadistic coaches who program two-to-three hour solo sessions on the machine. As for strength benefit, these sessions are great as strength endurance sessions and can be added in if you find it hard to get to the hills. Just drop the gear down, stay in the saddle, and get the heart rate into the zone that you need.

Generally, trainer sets are a strength session in and of themselves as there is no freewheeling, no traffic lights and no downhills so you are constantly placing power down in a consistent manner. So, if you are time poor, increase your trainer sets during the week for a short block of time to increase strength. Double bike days are a good way of increasing your kilometres without having to utilise a three-to-four hour block of time. If you are crazy enough to double down and do two sessions in a day, then go for it as the benefits will show in your riding.

Block it up

Talk to your coach if you have one, or if not, plan a bike-specific block into your schedule. The only downside to this is that you might have to drop a few swim and run sessions. This is fine as long as they don’t drop off completely as the fitness will still be there from the increased bike mileage. This type of block should be done in the offseason for a few months. Don’t go overboard as a small increase in training of a particular discipline will have other effects on the other two disciplines – so plan it well and do it smart.

Use a power meter

This relatively new tool is great for monitoring power in training and providing a realistic target to attain and race to in a long-distance competition. It can be used in training for gradual goal setting and to set targets that are attainable and realistic for the athlete. By setting incremental power targets over a longer period of time, you should be able to hit an increased and ‘visible’ goal.

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Training

How to Improve Your Running Drills

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Want to improve your run drills? The real benefits of drills are a result of how they are applied to training, writes Graeme Turner.

Coaches love drills. The Internet, magazines and books are all full of drills and every coach has their favourites. Drills are an important way for people who are learning how to run properly to develop the correct skills to run efficiently and avoid injury. As a coach, I use drills as part of the warm-up for my track sessions. I’ll share two of my favourites later.

Practising a skill develops the muscle memory to execute the technique. In the case of football, repeatedly passing the ball develops the correct technique to accurately deliver the ball to a teammate. In the case of running, drills develop correct run technique; for example, lifting the knee rather than pushing through the calves.

However, what football coaches ascertained is that a player doesn’t just stand there and pass the ball. They may be doing that while running at full speed. And they may be passing the ball running at full speed with a 100-kilogram opponent running at them at full speed.

3 stages of acquiring a skill

  1. Learn the core skill.
  2. Learn the core skill at speed.
  3. Learn the core skill at speed under game (or race) conditions.

You may notice now that if you watch a football practice session the drills are performed not standing in a line but with trainers running at them with padding trying to knock them over.

Most football players at the top level typically already have the core skill – they need to hone that skill under the intense pace and pressure of top-grade football. This is something that has changed over the last decade as coaches have learnt the criticality of developing skills under game pressure; however, in many ways running is still at stage 1 – Learn the core skill.

Incorporate the drill into a run

Running drills are typically practised during a session and then the run component of the session is executed. The assumption is that the skill will develop the muscle memory and this will then, via some form of osmosis, translate into actual running. However, the drills, like the old football sessions, are performed statically (in place) and not under pressure. Over time this skill may translate to the athlete’s run but, at best, this will take a great deal of time.

By adopting a football-style approach, the outcome of the drill can be reached more quickly and the skill becomes more resilient to the pressures of a race. Rather than practising a drill and then running, try incorporating the drill into a run.

Here’s what I do during running sessions

Run 100 metres starting at an easy pace. Once you reach the 50-metre mark, build up pace so that by the end of the run you are at about 85 percent of full pace. Note, for sprinters, the end pace may be closer to 100 per cent.

Now, do the same build but at the 50-metre mark start focusing on a key skill. For example, focus on lifting the knee rather than pushing off the ground. Keep this focus while building up the pace to the end of the interval. Performed statically, this is the traditional ‘marching drill’; however, we are focusing on the skill while running and progressively adding more pressure (pace).

Don’t expect to ‘get’ this straight away. It may take a few run-throughs to develop the skill. I actually do this when racing – focus on a drill for a while in a run as a way of not only ensuring good technique but also as a means of distraction.

Many other drills, such as ‘tunnels’ (keeping the head level), can also be practised this way, even the traditional ‘butt kick’ drill – probably the most commonly incorrectly performed drill – can be performed this way. Curiously, performing butt kicks while running typically means the runner performs this drill correctly with their knee pointed forward rather than straight down.

Two of my favourite drills

Hot Tin Roof

Ground contact represents deceleration. The greater the ground contact time, the greater the loss of momentum and energy. Picture the running track as a hot tin roof. As your foot is about to hit the hot tin roof, focus on pulling the foot up so that it spends the minimum amount of time being ‘burnt’.

Ninjas

A common mistake runners (and coaches) make is focusing on the drill and not the outcome. Butt kicks are a great example of how focusing on the drill itself can create the wrong outcome. ‘Ninjas’ is an example of a drill where the focus is on the outcome, which ultimately is what every runner seeks. At the 50-metre point, focus on running silently – like a ninja trying to sneak up on somebody. This is a great drill to do with a partner as you can compete to see who can make the least noise. Like the hot tin roof drill, this facilitates a much shorter and lighter ground contact time and also tends to mean the runner becomes less flat footed. I could call this running quietly, but ninjas sounds much cooler.

Rather than make drills a separate part of your session, incorporate them into the run itself. Not only will you learn the skill faster but the skill becomes less likely to break down under race conditions.

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