Is improved biomechanics the untapped frontier for performance and injury prevention?
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
In the 1980s, as triathlon grew rapidly around the globe, it defined itself as an endurance sport hungry for any and all avenues that led to more performance. Unlike road cycling and distance running, triathlon was free of any lore or culture that might cast disdain toward new ideas on how to train, what to eat or what gear to use. Triathlon took on a reputation for innovation and experiment. Runners and cyclists focused mostly on the training, while triathletes attempted to enhance training and overall performance with what were then newfangled ideas such as the Pritikin Diet, salt tablets and aerobars.
Today, we continue to see this Formula-One-like thirst for performance in triathlon, and the top-tier professionals have left little to chance when it comes to exhausting what sports science can add to performance. Three-time Ironman world champ Craig Alexander is famous for his body temperature versus heat and humidity experiments.
It may have all started with Dave Scott. Scott, who dominated the Hawaii Ironman with six wins in the 1980s, had a tremendous effect on triathlon’s obsession with nutrition as a tool of high performance. Although he’s altered his diet since to include fish and more healthy fats, in the 1980s he followed, to great fanfare, a very strict vegetarian high-carb/low-fat diet modeled off of the Pritikin plan. Scott’s dedication, coupled with his mastery of the marquee race in the sport, instilled an obsession for performance-based nutrition within our sport that continues to this day.
Eighteen years after his last race in Kona, Scott continues to press forward into new frontiers. Always fond of incorporating ancillary forms of training into a triathlon program—Scott believes that his time in the weight room is what allowed him to transform his weak run mechanics into a strength—he coached Chrissie Wellington to her fourth Kona victory, in 2011, despite the ravages of a bike wreck she suffered within a month of race day. Wellington’s adherence to a lower volume, higher quality training year, as prescribed by Scott, was bolstered by routine visits to the gym—up to three and four times per week—for strength exercises and weight training. Wellington was likely able to overcome the inefficiencies caused by her injuries partly because of this foundation of strength training.
The point to be put under a microscope for today’s generation of triathletes relates to this fundamental observation: Despite injuries serious enough to visibly hobble her stride, Wellington set a personal record for her marathon in Kona. Rather than weaknesses created by the injuries leading to a complete disintegration of her ability to perform, particularly under the stress of the pooling fatigue that comes with a day of racing an Ironman, Wellington kept moving at a swift pace. Surely this was a testament to her preternatural mental strength and desire to win. But considering the amount of ancillary strength and flexibility training injected into her program, a fair question to ask is this: To what degree did the extra credit she earned in the weight room allow her to hold off a breakdown in her ability to move? And moreover, what is the value to all triathletes in not only good biomechanics, but also in preparing the body so that it can sustain those biomechanics under the load and fatigue incurred in a long race?
One of the most powerful discussions ignited by the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall came from his declaration that movement problems are the root cause of most running injuries, whether they are from overbuilt running shoes (limiting the foot’s range of motion) or running form that is defined by heel striking. In the book McDougall reports that 80 percent of runners deal with at least one injury per year. While the heart of the book centers on the culture of the Tarahumara Indians, the reader follows McDougall in his personal journey from being chronically injured to the starting line of a trail ultra-marathon. In addition to switching to a neutral running shoe, McDougall is drilled to overhaul his running stride from that of a reckless plod to a light, nimble foot strike. While most of the attention on McDougall’s book has centered on barefoot running or minimalistic running shoes, the book has also ignited interest in running form workshops such as Dr. Nicholas Romanov’s “The Pose Method of Running.”
The intent of the Pose Method is to develop running form in the same way you would skills to play an instrument. In Romanov’s view, optimal running form is a matter of the application of physics and human biology. The word “pose” refers to the key positions in a running stride—like the positions, or poses, you’d find in ballet. Romanov uses drills to teach a runner what, in terms of physics, these poses are and that the most efficient path forward is to move from position to position. Perhaps the most valuable development to happen for a heel-striking runner is that the change will give the athlete the benefit of relying on larger, more powerful muscles—such as the glutes and hamstrings of the posterior chain—as opposed to smaller muscles such as the hip flexors.
In other words, Born to Run has opened up the discussion on attending to running like you would a skill as opposed to just hauling in as much raw mileage as you can. As Romanov explains, you can see and hear the difference between the best runners and the slow runners by hanging out at mile 2 of a road race. The fastest runners will have peppery, high-cadence running strides. You’ll barely hear their feet touch the ground. Watch long enough and as the slower runners go by you’ll notice the ever-increasing volume of feet slapping the pavement, a transition from mid-foot or forefoot striking to hellacious heel strikes and slower and slower cadences.
The topic of biomechanics and running injuries pales in size compared to biomechanics and triathlon, which is why improvements in movement and biomechanics, including the development of optimal positions, motor recruitment patterns and skills, will yield not only a thicker buffer against injuries but huge potential gains in triathlon performance.
While Scott, McDougall and Romanov are good resources for information on biomechanics and performance, when it comes to this topic, there are two names that stand out above all the rest: Kelly Starrett and Carl Paoli, who have emerged as leading movement and mobility coaches. They have worked with an array of athletes, from Tour de France cyclists such as Levi Leipheimer, Olympic gold medalist rowers, elite triathletes and runners to world-record-holding powerlifters, and they have ventured outside of sports and helped people ranging from soldiers in the U.S. Special Forces to professional ballet dancers. Starrett is a physical therapist and former world-class kayaker and has established a global following through the video blog Mobilitywod.com. Paoli is a former world-class gymnast and runs Gymnasticswod.com. Starrett and Paoli have collaborated on identifying and teaching a fundamental approach to harnessing the possibilities inherent in movement, mobility and position, in conjunction with strength, power and endurance, which they believe is the foundation to all sports.
“Triathletes can suffer,” Starrett said. “They are highly motivated and they really, really suffer. Whoever suffers the most can win. But there’s a rich world of performance potential that lies deep within the world of movement and mechanics. What we want to do when we work with a triathlete is make the invisible visible. Because what we need triathletes to understand is that if your muscles are tight, if you can’t get into and hold a good position in the swim, on the bike or during the run, you are going to be making movement compromises. You’re well into the bike portion of the race and because your back is cramping up, or your shoulders and neck are hurting, you can no longer maintain an aero position and you have to sit up on the saddle. That’s just one example. If you fail to optimize your positions, your range of motion and your movement, you will be leaving untapped performance on the table.”
Starrett adds that such compromises can vividly reveal themselves in the last portion of the race when inefficient positioning takes its toll and the athlete’s performance degrades when it counts most.
“The best athletes, when it gets difficult, when exhaustion begins to set in, their positioning improves,” he said. “When they get tired they default into better mechanics.”
“Consider this,” Paoli said. “If through movement training a triathlete can gain a 3 percent improvement in efficiency, that’s a gold mine in terms of performance in an eight- or 10-hour race.”