We talk a lot about the need for strength in this sport.
We talk about swim strength – being able to hold pace in the back end of the swim, or being strong enough to swim through the crowds at the start. We talk a lot about the need for bike strength – it is absolutely vital for racing 90 or 180kms; you need strength to push the effort on fatigued legs, and the same goes for running.
Strength is a vital attribute of this sport.
Naturally you are going to get stronger as a result of your combined training stimuli and recovery strategies. But how do you use that strength to create movement efficiency? After all movement efficiency is what endurance sport is all about. Movement efficiency drives strength.
Swimming isn’t simply swinging your arms faster, or harder through the water. Riding hard isn’t just about how hard you drive the pedals. Running isn’t just about fast stride rate. These are all very important aspects of each movement but they are also components of efficiency. You need efficiency in these movements to push the body for extended periods of time.
Which means you can be the strongest guy or girl on the course, but still move incredibly in efficiently – hence not necessarily the one who performs the best. So it’s not the strength that is inhibiting your performance – at least not in the typical definition of the word.
Your strength comes from your ability to hold form under duress – to maintain optimal movement efficiency.
It is all too easy in this sport to get caught up in the need to train the capacity of your engine. But you need to move efficiently to do continue using that engine. You cannot effectively train that engine if you move poorly. Movement creates energy, but if you are movements are inefficient then, where is that energy going? It isn’t helping you move the way you intend. It is wasteful and places unnecessary demands on your body- especially when you add repetition.
We know that in training we need to develop certain motor skills that enable to move more efficiently in racing. This is a major component of endurance training.
But what drives that efficiency of movement – how do we harness it when fatigue?
I am a big advocate of athletes using mental cueing: reminders that allow them to ‘switch’ into a better position – one that creates a more better movement and engagement of the required motor skills.
One of the easiest cues is “drive from centre“. Using the centre of your body (think of this like the mid-point of an X) to not only stabilise the co-ordination of your movements, but to also use to create power and drive force from. But you can’t SBR with a super rigid, perfectly contracted “X” – you need fluidity in your movements. Not isolation.
When we fatigue in the swim, we slow down because our movement becomes inefficient – this is due to poor body positioning in the water (you can have fantastic catch/ pull, whatever, but still have a bad poor body position). But learning to correct that position, as you move and as you fatigue, allows you to return to a more optimal position in the water and continue swimming at your desiree efforts. So your cue here would be to extend forwards from the centre – this is the middle of the top of your head (as it points forward). The rest of your body – shoulders, hips and legs will align with that. This allows you stay higher in the water, creating less drag – and in turn better stroke mechanics.
Mental cues on the bike can be a little bit trickier but the principles remain the same. A slumped, wasteful position inhibits how much power we can transfer into the pedals – especially when combined with excessive rocking motions. So here we are looking to stabilse the left to right movement – or rocking action – that pedalling creates. It’s not about being super rigid in your position (that is also very inefficient), but being relaxed and moving WITH the motion of your pedal stroke. This will produce some relaxed weight transfer across the shoulder girdle as you ‘power’ with the glutes and lower limbs. You are rocking SLIGHTLY, but the centre of your body is fairly still at it absorbs this rocking motion of your upper and lower body. Tensing up here is going to really limit your ability to breathe.
A lot of people try to run “tall” pushing their head and neck upwards – which can help as it stops you from running with your chin down (not great for effective breathing) or premature fatigue of the neck, back and shoulders. But a better way to think about efficient running is by leading through the centre – as if your were being pulled by a rope tied around the middle of your back. Of course a high stride rate and contralateral shoulder/ arms swing in relation to gait helps facilitate this but if you want to run strong then you need to use the centre of your body as the driver. This strong body position enables you to run with a better stud rate – which is more efficient. So rather than run “tall” I prefer to lower that COG a little bit and run through the hips and torso.
During training or racing most athletes will begin the early stages in a fairly efficient state – fatigue has not yet become an issue and you can move well at your desired pace. But as your efforts continue and fatigue start to take over, you begin to lose that efficiency and it compromises your performance.
Sure, you can swing your arms faster, or drive the pedals more or push off the ground harder, but you are really only going to fatigue even faster. If you drive from the centre – lead with it – in all of those movements, you ‘relax’ the strain on the body and can in turn focus on the appropriate motor skills.
Using your own mental cues to remain in an optimal position – or return to a better position when fatigued will help you move better in each of the component of the sport, and mitigate fatigue.
We have stood on the side of race courses and given these cues to athletes. The result is pretty instant. They go from a slumped, slouched (almost defeated) position to ‘tall’ and efficient. They look powerful when they correct that X.
Earlier this year in Cairns IM, as I went through a really bad space (more on that another time) I found my posture in absolute disarray. I was slumped, head down and fading quickly. There was nothing wrong with my physical strength – I was fine. But my posture – my body position, was terrible and it was affecting my ability to perform. Kristian – who was on the side of the course – saw this and promptly gave me the right cues – “shoulder back, drop them down, push hips forward”.
8 quick words that instantly had an affect on how I was running. And I kept those words going for the next 21kms. The result was much better than where I was heading before that!
There is no reason that you cannot apply these cues, or at least be constantly aware of your body position in training and in racing. It doesn’t take much focus to ‘switch on’ and think about moving from the centre, creating power from that “X”. And as things get tough (as they always do) then with that awareness and conscious thought you will find yourself able to move with a greater level of efficiency.