The fall season is the perfect time for triathletes to head back to the drawing board. It’s the time to take stock of everything that went right, everything that went wrong, and develop goals for next year.
This is also the time of the year when it’s important to take a look at biomechanics; how your body moves. Technical skills, movement patterns, and flexibility and mobility are important foundations for developing speed and fitness. You can’t overcome poor technique with raw power –certainly not in long course events!
Now is the time to rethink your swim stroke, run form, and pedalling style. But how do you identify and determine what to improve and how?
No one has a perfect swim stroke. Not even the best swimmers in the world have a perfect stroke. Swim technique is something that all swimmers need to be constantly addressing in their practice. Bad habits can form easily in the water and it’s important for triathletes to be aware of their bodies and take some time each swim session to be cognizant of their stroke mechanics.
Your deck coach should be providing feedback on your stroke and offering corrective advice for your stroke that is easy to understand.
They key to improving swim stroke is to take it one piece at a time and understand how the different parts of the stroke affect your overall position in the water. Never try to overhaul everything at once. Break it down. As an example, spend a few sessions focusing solely on hand position through the propulsive phase of the stroke before moving onto something else.
Really nail down each individual aspect of the stroke one piece at a time. You will almost certainly find that correcting one aspect throws off another that you may have already worked on. That’s swimming. It’s a tedious and never-ending process of identifying the problem, determining the method needed to correct the problem, implementing the correction, and repeat.
It’s very difficult to do with this without a coach or deck coach who can give you the appropriate direction. But even with the best deck coach the biggest challenge to improving stroke mechanics is functional mobility.
You can’t shape glass until you soften it first. In this same way, you can’t change a movement pattern in your body unless you have the range of motion in your joints, muscles, and tendons that allows for the new pattern of movement.
If you try to get your elbow higher during the recovery phase and you don’t have the range of motion to accommodate a higher elbow, you’ll find yourself compromising by engaging or disengaging other muscles and parts of your body, which may inject further problems into your stroke.
What Can You do?
At this time of year focus on stretching and loosening your upper body. Incorporate exercises into your dry land swim warm-up that will improve range of motion over time. Your deck coach can give you all the feedback you need to improve your stroke. It’s on you to make sure your body is capable of executing the changes.
Stretch bands and bars (a broom handle works) are great tools for improving range of motion. Simple technique like arm circles using the bands can improve range of motion in all movement directions.
Improving and maintaining flexibility in your Lat muscles is key to maintaining a good range of motion in your swim stroke. Tightness in the lats can shorten your reach, decreasing the amount of water you can grab with each stroke. Try standing in front of a wall. Now reach your arms straight up over your head and plant your palms on the wall. Your feet should be 1-2 feet from the wall so that you are leaning on the wall with hands above your head. Now gently lower your chest toward the wall feeling the stretch in your back and along the side of your rib cage just below your arm pits. This stretch will help maintain length in the muscles most important to propulsion.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that skills development on the bike is least important of the three triathlon disciplines, but it’s certainly the least labour intensive and exhaustive.
The primary improvement athletes can make on the bike are in flexibility and pedal stroke.
Most amateur athletes have a pedal stroke that produces forces through the pedal between 2pm and 5pm (if the crank were a clock). While elite and pro athletes produce power from slightly before noon to nearly 6pm.
This is part of the reason why many cyclists struggle to produce the same watts on the trainer and up climbs as they do outside on flats. On trainers with a small or no flywheel, and on climbs where there is back pressure on the pedals, a shorter power phase means there is a larger period of time when no power is being produced. Each time your foot applies force to the pedals, the wheel has already begun to slow down, meaning you get less benefit from the flywheel effect and momentum. If you find it much easier to produce bigger watts on flat roads or even in a tailwind or downhill, it’s possible you have a short power phase.
For those on triathlon bikes or on aero-bars, the major challenge is poor flexibility. Hamstring flexibility is important but an overlooked area of tightness is the in calves and glutes.
Tight hamstrings and calves can shorten effective leg length. This results in either excessive plantar flexion (toes pointed downward during the power phase of the pedal stroke) and lower saddle height. A higher saddle height pulls the thighs away from the stomach and chest at the top of the pedal stroke allowing a rider to lower the cockpit for better aerodynamic performance without sacrificing wattage. Improving flexibility allows a rider to increase saddle height without compromising power output.
In addition flexibility and length of the thoracic spine is important for riding in the aero position. Both effective leg length and thoracic spine flexibility and length greatly impact a rider’s comfort and ability to produce power in an aerodynamic position.
What Can You do?
Cadence drills are an excellent way to improve pedal stroke. Try to incorporate spin-ups into your warm-up. Using low power and an easy gear, spin at a high cadence. Try to get up to 120rpm or higher. If you find this difficult to start, spin as fast as you can without bouncing on the saddle. Gradually ramp up your cadence over time (days and weeks!).
Single leg drills can also be beneficial. The key to a good single leg drill is having low resistance and trying to create a smooth pedal stroke. If you’re feeling the clunk as you pedal, work over time to smooth out the stroke to avoid that clunk.
Both of these drills can be frustrating to start. But if you practice them over time, you will come to develop better pedalling skill.
Incorporating a regular stretching routine that maintains and improves flexibility of the claves, hamstrings and glutes can significantly improve cycling performance and lead to more efficient power production. Yoga is an excellent way to improve overall flexibility and encourage better mobility of the spine. Because of the nature of the spine, it’s best to consult a registered physiotherapist for specific stretches.
Like swimming running is a technical sport. Most of us have a tendency to take running for granted. It’s one of the most basic of human abilities. But we don’t all do it very well.
The vast majority of age group athletes will run with a pendulum-style stride. Their legs bend very little at the knees during their stride and the leg swings through, back-to-front like a pendulum, hinging at the hips. A lack of engagement from the glutes and hips is generally the problem. All sorts of injuries and problems can arise from inactive glutes and hip flexors while running. It can affect everything from hip joints, to IT band, to ankles, to feet and arches.
Improving run form is less tedious than correcting swim form. Runners tend to have better body awareness while running and the corrective movements are easier to understand and implement. That being said, correcting run form is a much slower process. Too many corrections too quickly can lead to season-ending injury. Running form must be corrected slowly over a long time. It can take months and years to develop a good run stride.
What Can You Do?
If you’re already implementing the flexibility and mobility suggestions from the swim and bike sections above, you’re already on the right track. Just like in cycling calf, hamstring, and glute flexibility is important. We tend to think of running as a lower body activity but the upper body plays a large role in how we move as we run. Arm carriage impacts the overall ability for a runner to achieve the desired position and form in running. This is why upper body mobility is important to running as well as swimming.
Aside from mobility and flexibility, triathletes can improve their run form by better understanding where the power actually comes from when running. As noted above, many runners don’t engage their glutes and hamstrings enough in their stride. Runners tends to think of running as pressing down through their quads. Instead imagine yourself lifting your knees using your hamstrings and hips. Think about driving your knees forward instead of trying to push the earth backward.
To understand the role your hamstrings play, try a squat jump. Go. Right now. Before reading any more do a squat jump. Bend at the knees and jump up into the air. How did you take off? Did you roll onto the balls of your feet as you took off? Did your heels land on the ground or did you absorb the impact with the balls of your feet and calves?
Try the squat jump again but this time take off flat footed. Try to jump so that your heels and balls of your feet leave the ground at the same time, and land nearly at the same time. If you found it hard, or it felt like you had a harsh landing, chances are you’re not engaging your hamstrings while running.
There is a lot of power in your hamstrings and glutes. They not only can generate a significant amount of force, but they are also capable of acting as a strong spring. Practice these squat jumps. They dont have to be huge and explosive. Practice generating lift using your hamstrings leaving the calves out of the equation.