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Rock Solid — The Injury-Free Triathlete, Part II

By Jason Gootman and Will Kirousis 

injury free athleteIn part one of the Injury-Free Triathlete, we covered how to maximize your health foundation to become a more rock solid athlete. Now, in part two, we’ll cover the other three factors of our four-step plan that will help you stay healthy and have better results in your upcoming multisport events.

Biomechanical Alignment

After establishing and maintaining a deep health foundation, being optimally biomechanically aligned is the next key factor in preventing injuries. Ensuring your optimal biomechanical alignment is the smartest step you can take to minimize injury-inducing stress on your joints, bones, muscles, tendons, and fascia.

Is one of your legs shorter than the other? Do your hips rotate more to one side than the other? Do you have excessive tightness in any part of your body? Have you had a string of repeated injuries despite seemingly good treatment for each of them? A “yes” answer to any of these is a sign that you may have some issues with your biomechanical alignment.

Think of your body as a system of levers (bones) and pulleys (muscles). In optimal biomechanical alignment, your lever-pulley system is ideally stacked and tensioned (like a true wheel) from head to toe to maintain an upright position with your center of mass a few inches below your belly button, just in front of your sacrum. But this natural order to the way your body’s tissues are arranged can be altered by both acute stressors (e.g., a fall, a surgery) and/or chronic stressors (e.g., excessive sitting, poor bike fit, poor running shoes) taking your body “out of true”. To do so, your body makes soft-tissue compensations, altering the pull of your muscles on your bones, changing how your body is arranged (like how a spoke that is too tight affects the tension of the other spokes and if not corrected will eventually pull the whole wheel out of true). These compensations play a significant role in the development of injuries down the road by placing excessive, uneven stress on structures throughout your body, especially structures most exposed to the demands of your workouts. It is important to note that these compensations are rarely “just the way you are” but rather are a form of adaptation which decreases your optimal performance and, if not treated, often lead to frustrating, lingering injuries.

If you currently have an injury, have been injured frequently in the past or simply want to make sure your alignment is optimal, you should consider seeing a medical practitioner — a physical therapist, chiropractor or osteopathic doctor — who takes a whole-body approach to restoring optimal biomechanical alignment within your body and has a proven hands-on therapeutic approach at releasing soft-tissue restrictions. These approaches get at the root causes of most injuries and with successful treatment make you much more injury-resistant.

Smart Training

With high levels of health and optimal biomechanical alignment, you are well on your way to keeping injuries away. You can add a layer of injury-prevention security with each of these smart approaches to training.

Strength-Power
Developing high-levels of athletic strength-power makes you injury-resistant. Incorporate strength-power workouts into your training plan. Use free-standing, total-body, integrated exercises that train movements not muscles. Exercises like all forms of squats, lunges, step-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, standing pushing exercises, standing pulling exercises, Olympic lifts, medicine-ball throws, plyometrics and similar exercises are ideal for developing athletic strength-power and will enhance your injury resistance. Keep workouts focused on strength-power, not endurance. To do so, do three or four good exercises, do 10 reps per set or less, and take rest intervals of 2-3 minutes between sets.

Technique
Incorporating drills to improve your technique in swimming, cycling and running also helps keep you out of the physical therapist’s office. In swimming, work on establishing a balanced, streamlined position and a strong high-elbow pull. In cycling, work on your bike-handling skills as well as pedaling skills. In running, work on establishing an efficient mid-foot landing under your center of mass, as well as a quick, rapid turnover where you are light on your feet while keeping your stride compact in both the front and back. A coach can help identify the best drills for you to be doing and can help you via video analysis of your technique and group or individual coaching on your technique.

Appropriate Workout Load, Ideal Weekly Workout Patterns, and Rest Weeks
Workout stress, in the presence of the opportunity to recover from, adapt to, and grow stronger from that stress, is what training is all about. For many driven athletes, the middle part of this statement (the part in italics) is omitted from their thinking. To them: Workout stress is what training is all about. This leads to the mistaken belief that taking on as high of a workout load as they possibly can is what will bring them their best results. This is only true to the degree that they can recover from, adapt to, and grow stronger from that stress.

Instead of trying to do us much as you possibly can, create an appropriate workout load for yourself. This is one that challenges you, but allows you to thrive, not merely survive in your workouts, weeks and training phases. Your workout load is appropriate if you are seeing steady, modest, yet continual improvements (or at least maintaining your ability for already-very-fast athletes or older athletes). If you are digressing, despite your hard work, your workout load is too high for you. Pay attention to signs of chronic fatigue. These include, among other factors, higher resting heart rates, poor sleep (especially waking up in the middle of the night), frequent illness, and the most obvious sign: feeling tired.

Most triathletes in most situations should take at least one rest day per week. This is a day where you do no workouts (including swimming, strength-power workouts or any other workouts). Also, use swimming workouts to your advantage. Because of its non-impact nature and reduced involvement of your legs, swimming is a great way to get a great endurance workout, while giving your body a break from the high-impact nature of running and the high amounts of stress placed on your legs from both cycling and running. Consider workout patterns that alternate days of cycling and running with rest days and days with swimming workouts. The following tables give you an example for a triathlete who has the ability to workout twice per day or once per day on weekdays. 

Sample Week of Workouts for an Athlete Who Can Workout Twice Per Day

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

Swim

Bike

Run

Swim

Bike

Run

Swim

Brick

Rest Day

Sample Week of Workouts for an Athlete Who Can Workout Once Per Day

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

Bike

Swim

Bike

Run

Swim

Brick

Rest Day

In addition to rest days, you need rest weeks. Take a rest week every 3-5 weeks based on how frequently you need one in order to keep improving. Younger, fitter, and/or less-stressed athletes tend to be able to go 4-5 weeks. Older, less fit, and/or highly stressed athletes tend to need a rest week every 3-4 weeks. In a rest week, cut your workout load in about half and don’t do any long workouts or anaerobic-intensity workouts. Don’t think you can avoid taking rest weeks. There is a common expression in triathlon: “Either you rest now (when you choose to) or you rest later (when your body makes you because you are injured).” This could not be more true!

Bike Fit
Being well-fit on your bike means a lot more than being as aerodynamic as possible. It means being on a bike that is right for your body and it means being positioned to most comfortably and most powerfully ride. Being well-fit to your bike assures that you are utilizing your muscles well, while placing the least stress on your tendons, joints, and other injury-sensitive parts of your body. You should make sure you are well-fit to your current bike by working with a bike fitter experienced in fitting triathletes. Also, if you are considering a new bike, your absolute first step should be working with a bike fitter who can help you select an appropriate frame and components for you that can be used to build a bike that is well-fit for you before you buy anything. The time and money invested will go a long way in keeping you injury-free on your new bike. This allows you to have a bike that is fit to your body, instead of trying to make your body fit a given bike.

Buying a bike first, then going to a bike fitter, can be a frustrating exercise because you may find that some of your components cannot be adjusted in a way that is optimal for your body, or worse, that even with a lot of component-swapping, the frame will never really work well for you.

Running Surface
Although they are most convenient for most triathletes, running on roads can contribute to the development of injuries. Part of the problem is the unforgiving nature of road surfaces, especially cement. Another issue is the camber (sloping for drainage) of many roads. The unforgiving surfaces increase the stress on each foot strike. The camber places uneven stresses on your body. While running on cambered roads is unavoidable for many, try to do some of your running on roads that are flat (not cambered), on trails of different kinds, and/or on a treadmill.  

Running Shoes
Your body is made to run and you want to wear running shoes that allow your body to function as it is made. As a general rule, run in the simplest running shoes you feel comfortable in. Choose shoes that are light in weight, flexible and have thin soles with minimal height to the heel. Heavy, inflexible shoes with thick soles, high heels, and/or excessive motion-control structures are unnatural. These types of shoes frequently cause more problems than they purportedly solve particularly when the support of the shoes masks misalignment in your body. When you are optimally biomechanically aligned and running with good technique, your body is perfectly designed to run without any outside shock-absorption or motion-control mechanisms. Because they alter your normal movement patterns, over time these types of shoes tend to cause more injuries than they solve.

Stick with simple shoes that allow your feet and body to move as naturally as possible. Good options to consider are running shoes sold as racing flats or cross-country running shoes. Consult with a coach, physical therapist or a running-shoe expert if you need help in choosing the right running shoes for you.

Recovery Techniques

The use of specific recovery techniques can also assist in injury prevention. Consider these “icing on the cake.” Massage, hydrotherapy and napping are your best bets. Professional massage, self-massage (using any one of the several self-massage tools available) or a simple massage from a family member or friend are all useful. For hydrotherapy, a hot bath, an Epsom-salt soak, or a hot-tub soak while you are resting or a cold bath right after a workout can be very effective in enhancing recovery. Naps of 20-45 minutes after a workout (and after you’ve eaten) or while you are resting are simple and effective.

There are no quick-fixes or magic bullets when it comes to injury prevention. Take a comprehensive look at everything you do to stay healthy and see where you can do things a little better. Start with your health foundation and biomechanical alignment to ensure depth to your injury-prevention approach. Employ smart-training approaches to add an important layer of injury resistance. Use recovery techniques as icing on the cake. The reward is years of injury-free training and racing!

Learn more about Jason, Will, and their coaching company Tri-Hard at www.tri-hard.com.

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