Use These Neuromuscular Exercises to Shake Off the Taper Crazies
Race week can leave you feeling sluggish and stressed. Keep your muscles activated and firing—and ready for the big day—with these light neuromuscular activation exercises.
Similar to how athletes typically include short swims, bikes, and runs during a taper week to maintain a sports-specific “feel,” neuromuscular exercises can help sharpen the connection between the brain and muscles. Proper neuromuscular activation and timing ensures that muscles are turned on and off as needed to produce stability and coordinated, powerful movements.
Traveling, standing in check-in lines, and extra time off of the feet during race week can all lead to sluggish neuromuscular connections—which is where these exercises come in. Neuromuscular activation exercises are designed to recruit muscles in sports-specific patterns and increase proprioception, coordination, and technique. They are meant to be performed at relatively low loads in order to optimize your ability to go on race day, without producing soreness. So, save that max effort squat, but pack a few bands in your tri travel bag and give some activation a try!
Single-Leg Banded Hip Drive
Why: The hip extensors are important for power generation and stability while cycling and running, and increased sitting during race week can impair their neuromuscular efficiency. This exercise helps to counteract that in a running-specific movement pattern.
How: Begin standing with a band anchored behind you, positioned high around the front of the hip of the stance leg. Bring the opposite knee forward, then bend the hip and knee of the stance leg slightly, allowing the band to pull the hip backwards as you extend the opposite leg behind you. Return to the starting position, pushing the stance hip forward by contracting the gluteal muscles, and driving the opposite knee forward. Perform 2 sets of 20 repetitions per side.
Why: The tension of race week can manifest physically with a forward head, and hiked, forward shoulders. This results in tight muscles in the neck and chest, and inhibition in the shoulder blade stabilizers, which compromises shoulder function and power generation.
How: Stand with your back against the wall. Bring your arms back, touching the wall with the backs of the elbows and wrists. While maintaining contact with the wall, slide the arms up into a “Y” position. Do not allow the back to arch excessively from the wall, or the shoulders to hike excessively. At the top of the motion, bring the shoulder blades down and together. Hold 3-5 seconds, then slowly lower arms back down the wall. Do 20 repetitions.
Hip Hiking With Band
Why: The lateral hip muscles play a major role in stabilizing the pelvis during running, which helps to maintain trunk and leg alignment. Delays in activation of these muscles have been linked to injuries, so this exercise is designed to activate them in a manner similar to running.
How: Begin standing with one foot on the edge of a step and the other leg off of the edge, keeping tension in a small band around the ankles. Drop the free foot down by tilting the pelvis, and then use the hip muscles of the stance leg to “hike” the leg back to level. The motion during this exercise should come from the hip and pelvis; do not allow the knee to bend. Try to perform this exercise at a rate of about 90 repetitions per minute in order to replicate muscle demands while running. Perform 2 repetitions of 20-30 seconds per side.
PNF Upper-Extremity D2 Flexion and Extension
Why: PNF stands for “proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation,” and is aimed at improving neuromuscular coordination. It uses certain diagonal patterns that activate muscles used together in functional activities. PNF D2 flexion moves the arm into shoulder flexion, abduction, external rotation, and elbow extension, while the D2 extension pattern reverses this. This activates muscles that work together during the swim stroke, including the key scapular stabilizers, pecs, and rotator cuff muscles, enhancing shoulder rhythm and stability.
How: Stand holding a band anchored down and across your body, with your palm facing towards you. Pull the band diagonally up and away while rotating your arm to finish with the palm facing forward. Slowly return to the starting position, and repeat. Perform 2 sets of 15 repetitions, then anchor the band up and away from your body in order to reverse the movement into D2 extension, pulling down and in across your body. Perform 2 sets of 15 repetitions.
Walking Rotational Lunge
Why: Walking lunges activate the primary movers and stabilizers during running and cycling (quads, calves, glutes, and hamstrings), require trunk stabilization, and improve hip extension mobility. Adding in rotation provides a further core challenge and exaggerates the upper body/lower body counterbalance present during run gait.
How: Stand holding a light weight in front of your chest. Take a large step forward, and drop the trunk and hips towards the ground by bending the front hip and knee. As you are lowering yourself towards the ground, rotate the trunk towards the front leg. Do not allow the front knee to come forward of the toes, or collapse in, and do not allow the trunk to lean forward or backwards excessively. Push off the feet, driving the back knee forward while rotating the trunk back to center. Push slightly onto the toes of the stance foot to activate the calf muscles, and then repeat, stepping opposite foot forward. Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions each leg.
From July/August 2022