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One simple action has a profound effect on your triathlon performance. You can and should do it anywhere from your car to your desk to a movie theater to your dining room table: sitting up straight.
Our habitual position isn’t sitting up straight like mother taught us, though. Too often, it’s slumping forward. Our pelvises tilt backward, drawn into that position both by tight hamstrings and by bucket-shaped chairs and car seats with no lumbar support. This encourages our upper backs to round even more than usual, our shoulders to roll forward and our chests to collapse. Having hands on a keyboard or steering wheel only exacerbates this position. At the top of the spine’s chain, the chin juts forward, shortening the back of the neck.
What’s more, spending hours every week folded over on a bike, especially with your forearms on aerobars, compounds the problem. Your chest muscles shorten, limiting your ability to take full, deep breaths, and the muscles of your upper back become overstretched, limiting your ability to engage them fully for your swim stroke. You lose some of your ability to stand or sit tall, and that compromises your balance in the water, your comfort on the bike and your efficiency on the run. Not good!
Fortunately, can undo these imbalances by following these simple steps.
1. Be aware. Take every opportunity to notice your posture and to move toward a neutral position: head balanced; chin slightly tucked; shoulders low with the chest broad; pelvis in a neutral position, weight on the sitting bones, not the sacrum.
If it’s hard to come into this position, change your surroundings. You might need to raise or lower the height of your work chair, for example, or get a new chair entirely. In your car, a rolled towel slipped along the small of your back will help you hold your pelvis level; on a plane, an airline-issue blanket, if available, or your jacket can do the same. Sliding forward toward your table or desk instead of resting against the seat back and resting the soles of your feet flat on the ground can give you room to balance the relationship of your spine and pelvis.
To aid your awareness, choose one day a week to set a countdown timer on your sports watch. When it chimes—every 20 minutes, say—do a quick postural assessment. While you’re at it, take a few deep breaths and focus on releasing tension around your shoulders and neck, letting it go with every exhalation.
2. Stretch the tight muscles. A few times each day, take a minute to stretch your chest and your hamstrings. You can do this in your office or wherever you happen to be sitting. Stand up and lace the fingers of your two hands together behind your back in a “handcuffed” position. Keeping your shoulders low, lift your hands a little higher as you take five or more breaths and enjoy the stretch in your chest muscles.
Follow this by folding into an L shape, hands to your desk or table. Hold your hips over your heels, bending your knees as necessary, and stay for a few breaths as your hamstrings release and your shoulders stretch.
In the evening, take a pillow or two off your bed and lay them on the ground. Lie back across them so that they run the length of your spine. Staying here for a few minutes will help open your chest. If you can support your pelvis with another pillow, you’ll get a gentle stretch for the hip flexors, where tightness can contribute to poor posture.
3. Strengthen the weak muscles. Two or three times a day, rest on your belly on the ground. Take your hands out to the sides, in a T, a W or a V formation. Pointing your thumbs to the sky, squeeze your shoulder blades toward each other 10 to 15 times. Rest and repeat for two or three sets. This simple exercise, coupled with awareness of your posture and stretching of your tight spots, can go a long way toward keeping you balanced for swimming, cycling and running.