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Sunday, January 19, 2014 I 2:02 AM   
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Flexibility First!

Faster with less fatigue starts with improved range of motion.

– By John Howard and Dr. Ernie Ferrel

One of the bittersweet ironies of life is that we use it up in learning how to live it. By the time we’ve matured into what we hope is deep wisdom, there’s not much time left. We’ve all heard variations of the "if only" statement, as in "If only I’d known, at age 20, what I know today." This irony plays out in an athletic career as frequently as it does in life itself. Many aging athletes, who take up the challenge of the metabolic barrier too late, end up singing the "if only" blues. The performance boost they begin to enjoy brings the realization, too late, that if they had used flexibility training to challenge the barrier at the beginning of their athletic careers instead of at the end, their performance achievements would have been far greater.

When we’re young, with power to burn, we give little thought to challenging the metabolic barrier. Since we seem to be gaining strength from year to year, we tend not to look too closely at our performance limitations and our diminishing returns. We think we don’t need deeper understanding of the inner world of high performance and thus we don’t seek it. Only later, when age begins to take its toll, do we feel ourselves up against that metabolic barrier. Only then do we begin to explore the inner realm, trying to compensate for diminishing power. In the process, we discover the central performance secret of flexibility training, and we realize belatedly that it would have made a huge difference in our younger years. If we had practiced flexibility training when we thought we didn’t need it, our performance peaks would have been much higher. Let’s take a look at the benefits of this training, with the idea of minimizing the likelihood of our singing the "if only" blues.

The training focus of most young cyclists is on developing a strong cardiovascular base. They are right to do so. There are many good reasons why this is central in traditional approaches to training. However, to avoid the "if only" blues, it’s important to go beyond this. While you have to develop your cardiovascular base if you are to actualize your inherited metabolic potential, it’s not enough. As with any type of repetitive training, there’s a point of diminishing returns. Mature, diligent athletes of any age will look deeper, and they’ll discover, in flexibility training, ways of breaking through the metabolic barrier.

It must be noted that increased performance gains are harder and harder to come by over time. With each small incremental improvement, there is an increased potential for negative cost. Ramped up metabolic training certainly offers slight gains in cardiovascular efficiency, but with a significantly greater potential for overuse injuries. This is especially true at the elite level.

With flexibility training, improvements in overall range of motion will ultimately produce a more effective and more powerful pedaling stroke. In our next article, we will discuss more precisely how that improvement in pedal stroke translates into a more effective set up for ultras. For now, let’s keep our priorities straight and dial in some greater range of movement first.

Instead of focusing entirely on developing the cardiovascular parameters for heart rate and recovery, cyclists need to also look at a strong precise flexibility program as part of any pre-training schedule. It is our strong belief that this is a necessity in any successful cycling program.

Analyze then Mobilize

In cycling, if you go five miles an hour faster, let’s say from 25 miles an hour to 30 mph, the increase in energy output is enormous. Yet a cyclist going 30 miles per hour still only outputs enough energy to fire a row of light bulbs. The solution is greater efficiency. How is this achieved? In the last issue of Ultracycling I presented Ian Jackson’s breakthrough BreathPlay Zooming CD (www.BreathPlay.com). In this issue I want to take a different but complementary approach.

First, let’s look at the obvious. We know that air resistance is a huge limiting factor to speed, so aerodynamic considerations are often critical. But many times the most efficient aero positions come into conflict with the individual biomechanics of the body. A cyclist who is basically stiff, with limited range of motion in the joints, will either be unable to attain an efficient aero position or unable to maintain it.

All the information we are about to present is based on our years of personal experience and experimentation. Over the last seven years we have been exploring new facets of performance through a combination of body and bike awareness. We want to give you a detailed overview of our process so that you can apply it to yourself.

In looking at the body it is important to determine the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. We start the process with the athlete’s own bike on the CompuTrainer, utilizing the Spin Scan program to get baseline data about the athlete’s power stroke. We ask about patterns of pain that may have become chronic, and whether the pain is constant or intermediate, localized or diffuse, etc. Many of the causes of these cycling problems will be obvious to us from watching Spin Scan.

The color bars on the Spin Scan bar-graph start bobbing as soon as the athlete starts pedaling. We warm our riders up and then take them to perceived anaerobic threshold, say 10-15% below max heart rate. At this level of exertion we get an accurate picture of their pedal stroke. We watch the lower valleys on both right and left sides, noticing the percentage of watts for each. A common problem is a lack of muscular force, and a lack of consistent force at the bottom of the stroke. We define this area as the recovery portion of the stroke, at roughly 6 to 12 on the clock face. This tells us the hip flexors muscles, primarily the Psoas and Rectus Femoris are not holding up their side of the muscular equation. The solution is to systematically stretch, then strengthen them with single side isolated pedaling or better yet, Power Cranks tm. As the muscles become more flexible and stronger, and the neuromuscular pathways are reinforced, a smoother more powerful stroke will result.

Another common related problem is the pattern of power spikes on the right and left sides at the high peak of the stroke, indicating a lack of smoothly vectored force to the pedals. These are obvious when the color bars are higher or wider at the peak on one side, at top dead center. This problem is usually brought about by a splayed knee, a tight external hip rotator, and or a tight I.T. band.

The next step is to create a personal protocol based on diagnosing the results from the analysis. Once we analyze the athlete’s muscular imbalance, muscular weakness, or leg length discrepancy, we formulate a corrective program. Finally, we provide a clear path for advancement in a set of prioritized stretches that may initially look like they have little to do with actually riding the bike.

Most of our clients are pro and amateur triathletes and cyclists. Some of them have either not stretched at all or have stretched very little. Many of those who have been stretching have actually increased their tightness by improper technique; hence, our first priority is teaching correct stretching technique. Usually we begin with some introductory movements to "wake up" the core muscles and elevate body temperature. We have found that this reduces both the exacerbation of old injuries and the creation of new ones.

We begin with a series of light active and passive isolated stretches that are derived from works of Dr. Ferrel, Bob Anderson—note his cycling series in the his book Stretching–Arron Mattes and his series of active isolated stretches. Massage therapist Doug Thralls, and Chris Maund, of the C.H.E.K. Institute in Encinitas CA. These are followed by a strengthening program, which is initially based on floor exercises using foam rollers and a large ball. Later, the progression is into a gym, and finally to the bike. This sequence is extremely important. If you make the mistake of strengthening the muscles before exploring their full range of motion, you are potentially limiting your power output. This work is a very individualized form of training, and it begins with personal observation and understanding from the initial position analysis on the bike.

The athlete must start with a pre-training stretching program. We feel the best time to start this is immediately and it should be maintained for life. The strength-training phase usually comes along in late October or early November. To be redundant, we want to make sure the inflexibility issues have been successfully acknowledged, understood, and treated before we start strengthening the muscles. We find there are some common denominators in the flexibility issues of cyclists, and the following stretches address these. Still, each person is an individual with slightly different needs, so the generic program is never fool proof.

The importance of Hip Flexors and Quads

Following the bio-kinetic chain, the first muscles we look at are the hip flexors and quads. One of the strongest hip flexors is the Psoas muscle. When the Psoas is properly engaged, it adds tremendously to pedaling power. The same is true when the vastus medalius is properly engaged. A stretching/ strengthening program at home and in the gym to mobilize and strengthen these muscles should be a priority. Simple exercises such as walking lunges with care being taken to place the knee in front of the ankle replicate the precise motor response of pedaling. In the gym, isolating the hip flexors–and hamstrings in the reverse position–with lower pulleys is a great way to power up the body for improved turn over. The on-bike drills, which usually include a series of specific hill repeats, integrate and fine-tune the muscles for a more effective transfer of power into pedaling. Next month we will discuss these in detail. Along with the vastus medalis, the other quadriceps muscles need to be trained through focused isolation exercises. If you can train these ancillary muscles, our experience is that you may or may not see dramatic increases in power and performance, but you will certainly have the ability to sustain more power for a longer period of time.

There are a few mechanical devices available that improve the pedaling stroke by activating the hip flexors. Dr. Frank Day’s Power Cranks is probably the best of the functional systems.

Hip Rotators

It is important to activate the hip flexors, but for the majority of cyclists, the five-muscle group that externally rotates the hips is probably the most troublesome, since it causes splayed knees. This problem is exacerbated by various causes, such as poor body biomechanics, bad habits and trauma. Their chronic contraction causes splayed knees and a consequent loss of power in the most powerful arc of the pedaling stroke. Splayed knees also create poor aerodynamics and a decrease in stability, especially on descents. Obviously, a seat that is positioned too low for the individual will also play a part in this condition. The ideal is to have the legs come straight up and down, like pistons in an engine, with the proper amount of flexion to maximize your power safely. See figure #

More on Stretching

Stretching needs to be a part of your life style. It is most effective right after a ride and just before bed. It is interesting to learn, as we get older, that the tendency of youth to devalue stretching is virtually universal. As we age, poor postural habits, past injuries, and increasing stiffness, sneak up on us. Finally, we can no longer deny what has happened to us. We move with a certain rigidity and we’re prone to injuries that are slow to heal.

Our focus at the School of Champions is to design personal programs that address each of the above issues. The emphasis is on using appropriate stretching techniques to restore proper biomechanics, to increase active range of motion, and to reduce the potential for injury. We modify each specific stretching program to fit the individual’s needs. We work systematically, analyzing from head to toe, slowly and methodically. Our intention is to prescribe the most individualized program for each of our athlete/clients. This therapeutic approach to mobilization and flexibility takes stretching to a new level. We are constantly reevaluating, changing and emphasizing different and modified stretches as our athlete/clients show positive progress.
In the next article I will discuss how we use Spin Scan to position our riders for maximum power, comfort and safety, and to test for changes in equipment. We will further explain how these changes lead us to develop our individualized programs for strength training.


SIDE BAR—–

Flexibility First!
Do all stretches at least 5 days per week. Make time to stretch, convince yourself to look forward to it and make it fun! *

#1

Trapezius/sub occipitals. Our objective is to balance and strengthen the posterior, thoracic muscles such as the traps, levator scapulae and rhomboids to increase the biomechanical efficiency and aerodynamics of the individual. Tuck the chin, find the bony lump at the base of the skull, and pull gently to the side. After several seconds, decrease the pull, and lift the opposite shoulder. Repeat 8-10 times for both sides, before riding. An excellent companion stretch is to simply hang from a chin up bar, both over and underhanded for 15-30 seconds for both.

#2

Foam Roller across spine. Counter stretches the spine, opens up the intercostal muscles of the chest, and helps avoid stooped posture from long hours in the saddle. Work the roll from T4-T12, spending 10-15 seconds per 5 sections of the spine. When finished roll off the side and avoid doing a crunch.

#3

Tight External Hip Rotators. Their contracture and reduced range of motion is one of the main culprits for splayed knees and a loss of power in the most powerful arc of the pedaling stroke. Splayed knees also create poor aerodynamics and a decrease in stability, especially on descents.


While on back, bend the knee and use a strap or rope to pull the foot across the body with the upper leg at 90 degrees. Run the rope under the calf to support the knee. 8-10 reps, both sides, before the ride.

#4

(# 3-6 are all performed while lying on the back.) I.T. bands. With torso and lower body straight run the strap under the calf to support the joint. With the hips flat on the floor, bring the leg low across the body and keep the toes pointed at the ceiling. 8-10 reps, one extended out-breath, both sides, before and after the ride.

#5

Bilateral piriformis stretch. Bring the knees together very slightly with the feet as far apart as possible. This is a passive stretch held for 15-30 seconds before and after the ride.

#6

Tight Hamstrings. When these guys are tight you will have a limited forward bend at the hip. The pelvis is pulled into a posterior tilt, thus countering your ability to flatten the back and sit low on the bike. Tight hamstrings also rob horsepower.


With a rolled up towel in the small of the back and the non-stretched foot straight against a wall. Anchor the strap around the ball of the foot and pull back 8-10 times—both legs–with a slow extended out-breath on each rep. Before and after the ride please.

Other areas of concern:

* Weak Vastus Medalius Obiques v.m.o. muscles. One of the primary quad muscles involved in smooth pedaling action. When the v.m.o. is weak, the knee joint can no longer track smoothly, thus contributing to knee pain which can quickly accelerate to chronic degeneration if left untreated. This problem is common among runners who take up cycling with no corrective strength training. An effective way to treat this problem is to repeat leg extensions working one side at a time with very gradual increases in weight. Point the foot in.

* Weak Core muscles. Abdominals, Obliques, Erector Spinae and Quadratus Lumborum. The Q.L. starts going south under pressure from big gears and low aero positions. Eventually the Q.L. fades out with a accompanying dull ache in the low back area that seems to never go away. The remaining core muscles are also compromised and become less effective. When this happens the Glutes begin to tire rapidly, and speed and power drop significantly.


* I want to refer again to Ian Jackson’s Zooming CD, which utilizes a specific breathing technique critical for activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Activation promotes a relaxed muscle release and blood flow, thus greatly improving the quality of the stretch. The technique will also add a surprisingly pleasant sensation to your stretching.

John Howard has been a competitive cyclist since 1965 and a cycling coach since 1982. His School of Champions athletes have won over 150 national and world titles including RAAM. Howard is a three-time Olympic cyclist with 15 national championships and an Ironman Triathlon victory to his credit. He is also a member of the USA Cycling Hall of Fame. Howard has written four cycling books: The Cyclist’s Companion, Multifitness, Pushing The Limits and Dirt!

[email protected] or www.johnhowardschool.com

Dr. Ernie Ferrel is the past Vice President of ACA Sports Council, Director of Chiropractic Services for USAT, Certified Elite Cycling coach and creator of Dynamic Motion Therapy. He can be reached at 805 963-3232

For more information:

Ian Jackson at [email protected] or
www.breathplay.comChris Maund for the C.H.E.K.
Institute: www.chekinstitute.com
www.CompuTrainer.com
www.powercranks.com