One of the most unique parts of our sport also happens to be one of the biggest stressors on the body and that is the cycle to run transition. Amber Johnson of First Wave Fitness takes us through the importance of gaining a more functional understanding of your body and staying strong and stable under fatigue, particularly when it comes to running off the bike.
Make sure you check out the video above. Big thanks to Michelle Bond for hanging out with us for the day and being our model.
Text by Amber Johnson of First Wave Fitness | Images and Video by WITSUP
Endurance, by its very definition is the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way. The capacity of something to last or to withstand wear and tear.
But often in the world of endurance sports, things do give way, and our bodies often don’t withstand the wear and tear. Which is why 80-85% of injuries in endurance sport are attributed to overuse. With more than 70% of injuries that occur whilst training and competing in triathlon attributed to running.  The stats start to add weight to the age old saying “The hardest part is getting to the start line.”
When you start to consider the weekly demands of triathlon training, we are asking our bodies to endure A LOT, and as endurance athletes we play a balance game between our training load and our body’s capacity to cope with that load.
On a two hour training ride alone, if a cyclist is pedaling at a rate of 90rpm that equates to 10,800 pedal strokes per leg. If your weekly training program had you covering eight hours on the bike that’s a total of 43,200 pedal strokes a week. Covered over 52 weeks, that’s a tidy 2,160,000. Factor that into riding a 5-hour 30min iron-distance bike leg, you’re ticking over 29,700 pedal strokes on race day before you even hit the ground running.
Now applying the same thinking to running, a loaded activity where the body is required to correctly distribute the impact forces of each foot landing. A runner, running at a cadence of 90 steps per minute, in a one hour run, will cover 5,400 foot strikes per minute, per leg. If your weekly training program had you covering 50km a week at a 6min pace that’s five hours a week and 27,000 weekly foot strikes. For a four hour 15min marathon finish to an iron-distance race, that is equal to 22,950 foot strikes and landings at the end of a big day out.
Very quickly the numbers start to add up and even with perfect bio mechanics that’s a lot of loading on the body. Add a movement deficiency to the mix and you’re on the countdown to a repetitive strain injury.
“The cycle-run transition is unique in that heading into the run requires of us the highest energy demand, at a time in which our body is at its most fatigued.”
– Amber Johnson
One particular stressor on the body that is unique to triathlon is the cycle-run transition.
After spending hours out on the bike our body is fatigued, glycogen levels are depleted, and a redistribution of blood flow is required. As a result, our proprioception of what our body is doing in space is low. The cycle-run transition is unique in that heading into the run requires of us the highest energy demand, at a time in which our body is at its most fatigued.
The energy cost of running off the bike compared to a stand-alone run has been shown to be anywhere between 1.6-11.6% higher. The extent of which, depends largely upon the conditions of the preceding bike leg. Variations in power output, elevation, heart rate and draft vs non draft all factor into where our energy efficiency sits coming off the bike. With studies indicating this risk period in running economy and neuromuscular control to be anywhere between 5mins, and up to as much as 14mins.
“Make your position of fatigue a stronger one by gaining a more functional understanding of your body.”
– Amber Johnson
Though many of us would argue that there is nothing more freeing then sitting into the sweet spot on your TT and ticking your legs over. Our hips are feeling anything but freer! Maintaining the aerodynamic position on a time trial bike places the body in a prolonged period of hip flexion, and the offshoot of this is an increase in tightness through the front of the hip and pelvis. This anterior tightness can be attributed to compensatory movement patterns of the lower limbs in a running gait. Two such compensation that are frequently linked with running related injuries being, an increase in anterior pelvic tilt and a decrease in hip extension.
To give you a better understanding of what we mean by an anteriorly rotated pelvis, think of your pelvis as a bowl of water. Your hip bones at the front are the top of the bowl of water. When we anteriorly rotate the bowl, all the water comes flooding out. We never want to be spilling the water out the front or the back, we want to keep it up right and stable, and this is what we mean when we say, “maintaining neutral pelvis”. Another good visual of this is a runner who still looks as if they are sitting down as they run.
“If running with a stable pelvis is proven to reduce our risk of injury, we must first know what the feels like to achieve it, and then how to switch everything on to help maintain it.”
– Amber Johnson
Not only does the tightening of the hip flexors and quads shut off optimal function of the glutes, but the anterior rotation of the pelvis leads to compromised shock absorption and an inability to properly distribute force of running across the body. All of which spells a recipe for disaster for your lower back, hips, knees and ankles…
In order to condition ourselves for the training demands of our sport, to become more resilient to injury and a more robust athlete, we need to first gain a functional understanding of how our body moves in space. If running with a stable pelvis is proven to reduce our risk of injury, we must first know what the feels like to achieve it, and then how to switch everything on to help maintain it.
I don’t think an article has gone by yet where I haven’t quoted Gray Cook with, “First Move Well, And Then Move Often,” because the importance of instilling the foundations of movement at the very basic level first cannot be understated. In the same way as building a house, it is the foundations that you don’t see that provide a strong, stable and lasting framework for our bodies to hold strong and weather the conditions of our sport. Without these, superficially we may appear strong but how long are we likely to hold up before the cracks start to appear? Using that same analogy if you were to build your “forever home” from the ground up, would you cut corners on the very base that ensures its structural integrity and longevity? Then why do it with your body?
“Stability should always come before attempting to build strength.”
– Amber Johnson
In the next video/article (released later this week) we take you through a few basic exercises that you can easily implement at home to get you on your way to restoring proper movement at the hips, what it feels like to be in neutral pelvis and some activation work to encourage the stabilising muscles of your hips and core to help you maintain that position now that you’ve found it.
Many of the drills you may already be familiar with, but when performed correctly each play an important role in cementing good movement. Stability should always come before attempting to build strength. You need to have a working understanding of the very basic; what it feels like to intentionally rotate the pelvis, where neutral is, and what is switched on to get you there.
Our activation drills are on the floor as an entry level because the body feels safest there. The floor provides us a sense of stability and when our body feels safe, is when it will be receptive to working properly. Stability training does not mean balancing you on a fitball whilst juggling. The body is frightened when it feels unsafe and it’s going to grab from anywhere and everywhere to restore that safety. If you can’t switch on the right muscles on the floor first, what hope do you have balancing on a fitball or for that matter balancing on one leg mid run stance?
Just as you would when you first set out running, you wouldn’t take on a marathon before you’d learnt to run five kilometres. The same should be true with strength. Integrating these movements, performed correctly and consistently overtime will go a long way in helping you survive the cycle-run transition and become more resilient to the fatigue. A greater proprioception of hips, glutes and pelvis means that you can more efficiently regain neuromuscular control and return to a better running economy safer and sooner. Make your position of fatigue a stronger one by gaining a more functional understanding of your body.