Optimizing muscle function for endurance sports, by K.N.*
Avoiding injury in endurance sports is a “mission impossible”, however there is good evidence out there that an arsenal can be build.
It needs to be balanced, the concept between strength & flexibility, fail at this and injury is knocking on your door. Trying to do too much at the gym the moment you set your foot in the door can lead to minor injuries. Avoiding to prehab yourself with the use of Strength & Conditioning at the gym and again you might get injured, so what does an endurance athlete must do to optimize muscle activity and stay away from injury?
Let’s take things from the beginning, as far as muscle function is concerned it all begins with mobility or in other terms correct range of motion given the joint locale. Looking at the hips for example, if you cannot work the hip extension in a pain free and wide range of motion you are limiting yourself up for running performance, having to compensate with a greater low back activation. Taking a look at another area i.e. the most mobile joint of the human body, the shoulder. Having limited mobility either due to tight pectoral or back muscles will undermine your swimming performance.
Moving into stability, a 2nd very important concept underworked by many endurance athletes at the gym, we need to teach our bodies to stabilize, for the runner’s ankle/ knee/hip joints. This is not rocket science material, just adding at the right dosage of single leg exercises with or without unstable surfaces under your feet and man you start “talking business”. Get the ankle/ knee/hip joints to micro-adjust and correct the rapid changes in direction at the gym and you start building the right stability through “proprioception” (proprioception is a fancy way of saying “I can connect quickly and efficiently my commanding center, the brain, with the acting local musculature that is working). Gym training will get muscles stronger, that is true, but as equally important is the schooling or education of those muscles to move correctly and at the right time.
Cycling can also benefit from stability due to better kneecap alignment for efficient press-down of the pedals, and this is just one out of the many benefits stability training has to offer. For the swimmer a stable shoulder through progressively loaded exercises such as the “push-up position” (only position, not action) with 1 arm at a time lift, or Swiss ball actions via single hand pushing against it, can show improvements. Adding on top of that rubber band tubing prehab work for the shoulder and your injury prevention “checkbox” is almost ticked.
It all starts from the ground- up in sports that involve running and cycling, and taking good care of your feet can pay dividends later. If your feet are aching today start with a visit to the podiatrist, which surely can give to you a tip or two about what is going on in that area that has 26 bones and 33 joints. Those two feet are your first line of communication with the rest of your body, and the moment it hits the ground (forefoot or heel first) plenty of info are transferred immediately to the brain as far as how does it feel, how much force is delivered to the ground, how much reaction is reciprocated back to the body and most importantly can the body take this well or perceives this as too much stress to handle. Taking time to prepare them, mobilizing those joints, activating those muscles with naked feet and towel exercises, roll them over a small ball, rotate your ankles etc., can create the right environment for the havoc about to occur in your next 10km road run race. Select the right shoe and embrace your foot with the right kind of lacing, just tight enough to prevent “play” and consequently instability, are also actions towards a better performance.
Another measure to add in the arsenal of the athlete, is by improving the health and quality of a very important structure of the human body, the connective tissue. It’s role is to provide the structural framework and support to different tissues, to connect and support muscle units. Those tissues preserve the form and shape of the body providing cohesion and internal support to various areas. Keeping the connective tissue limber is vital to prevent injury and one method to achieve this is through foam rolling techniques which can de-stiffen areas of the body that accumulate stress and knots, aiding in the nutrient transport and waste products to and from cells. Keep connective tissues healthy and you do improve the shock absorption ability of joints, allowing the muscles to act with better coordination. Talking to your physiotherapist or trainer about correct foam rolling techniques or exploring the scientific name “myofascial tissue release”, can eliminate some pain and restore healthy motion.
Last but not least get the right amount of functional strength training in ( only you know how much is enough ) and you complete the picture of a well-rounded athlete. Get one or two training units per week or if significantly lacking strength add a third session and you start reaping the benefits of fatigue resistance, ability to transfer power and injury prevention due to stronger musculoskeletal system. However there is a good amount of athletes that do not manage to respect the body’s signals and forget the other equally important concept called REST. Understanding this word and implementing it’s true meaning will give you relaxation time and will minimize your de-conditioning. At the end of the day your body needs to heal itself from a tough workout and if you fail to do so you end up losing the game.
*Kypros Nicolaou is an Exercise Physiologist, graduate of the University of Alabama, an ACSM certified Health & Fitness Instructor, holds an ITU Level II Certification as a Triathlon Coach, and is a multiple Ironman & Half Ironman Triathlon finisher. He is coaching Triathletes online, teaches Functional Training at ryltoday, and performs Exercise Physiology assessments at the Cyprus Sports & Research Center. firstname.lastname@example.org