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Written by: Nate Koch
Modern-day triathletes have evolved their training to include more cross-training activities with a strong emphasis on increasing core strength. This trend reduced injury rates and allowed athletes to perform at higher levels. However, in most core strengthening programs, one key component is consistently overlooked: spinal mobility. By increasing spinal mobility, triathletes can optimize bike fit and comfort, prevent injury and enhance performance.
The spine moves in three planes. In all three triathlon disciplines, the sagittal (or forward-backward) plane is the primary plane of movement. Repetition of sagittal movement leads to restricted spinal mobility in rotation (transverse plane) and side-to-side extension (frontal plane). This effect of the single-plane movement of triathlon is exacerbated by the flexed “caveman” posture many of us sit in for eight hours a day at the office. The spinal immobility and other postural and muscular imbalances that result from spending so much time locked in this position often cause leg malalignment, abnormal muscle firing and soft tissue restrictions. These problems may in turn create injuries such as sciatica, ITB (iliotibial band) syndrome, shoulder impingement and Achilles tendinosis.
In swimming, normal and symmetrical thoracic (mid-back) extension and trunk rotation are crucial to performance. The last 20 to 30 degrees of shoulder flexion (arm elevation) actually come from extension of the thoracic spine and not shoulder mobility. If this motion is not possible, the result is a shorter and less efficient swim stroke. Worse, inadequate thoracic extension can also lead to shoulder impingement and pain. Proper trunk rotation also helps to clear the shoulder blade during the recovery part of the swim stroke (arm out of the water), reducing the possibility of shoulder pinch.
Symmetrical lower extremity movement in cycling is essential for power production, pedaling efficiency, saddle comfort and injury prevention. Because the upper body is fixed on the bike, abnormal spinal/pelvic rotation will cause the legs to operate out of the straight plane (the thigh/knee/lower leg may be angled in or out). This results in abnormal stress and strain, creating a dreaded overuse injury. In some cases this can be corrected with shims or a bike fit, but the underlying issue may not be resolved until spinal mobility asymmetries are addressed.
Another cycling-specific restriction is limited mid-back (thoracic) extension or back bending. This forces the neck to compensate (more so in an aero position) and can lead to excessive strain on the neck and upper trapezius region and may contribute to headaches and visibility restrictions. Improved spinal mobility in this region may allow for a more aero bike position and thus improvement in performance. Lung volume has also been shown to increase with improved thoracic mobility. A few studies have shown improved chest expansion, increased lung volume, improved posture and increased spinal mobility with thoracic spine mobility exercises. Obviously, these benefits can have a direct impact on all three disciplines.
Runners with asymmetrical spinal mobility often exhibit biomechanical faults, such as a functional leg length discrepancy, that lead to abnormal rear-to-forefoot loading, excessive motion in the lateral or rotation plane, abnormal stride length and an overall decrease in efficiency. These deficits are ticking time bombs waiting to explode when you increase volume or intensity, and can lead to everything from plantar fasciitis and patellar tendinosis to shin splints.
Bottom line: Do not discount the importance of core strengthening, but give spinal mobility equal attention so that you can realize your maximum potential and reduce overuse injury. Normal and symmetrical spinal mobility are essential for optimal muscular recruitment and for reducing muscular fatigue, resulting in greater force (power) production and more efficient movements. Think of the combination of core strength and spinal mobility as a tree trunk that is strong but not rigid, so that it bends but never breaks in strong winds.
For additional spinal mobility tests and exercises, visit Endurancerehab.com.