Triathlon Success: Hamstring And Glute Togetherness
To keep a triathlete healthy and resilient, the hamstrings and gluteal muscles must work together as a team. The athlete fires the gluteals and hamstrings simultaneously to stabilize the pelvis and produce force through the lower leg. When you run, bicycle, or swim, these muscles work at a team to produce efficient propulsion and reduce stress on the lumbar spine and knee. A triathalon is the ultimate long duration physical endeavor. Triathletes need hamstrings and gluteal muscles that can stay on and strong for a long time.
Most fitness programs do not properly train the muscle of the posterior chain. Fitness center exercise generally involves training the hamstrings as knee flexors on some type of “leg curl” machine. Gluteal training rarely occurs past neutral hip extension, with little effort on improving overall hip range of motion. Any type of seated gluteal training is inappropriate for an athlete.
The term physical therapists and strength coaches use for butt muscles that are non- responsive is “gluteal amnesia”. Our sedentary lifestyle involves very little of the glute recruiting sprinting, deep squatting, and climbing that activates the gluteal muscles. We mistreat our gluteal muscles with hours of compressive sitting and little in the way of full range hip movement. Many fitness clients and most physical therapy patients need some remedial gluteal training. Give these three drills a place in your triathalon training program.
Single Leg Bridges
Lay supine with the arms braced against the floor to stabilize the upper body. Bend the knees and place the feet flat on the ground. Lift the right leg up off the ground. Using the muscles in the back of the left leg, lift the hips up off the ground. Push up through the heel of the left foot and drive the left hip into full extension. Hold at the top for three seconds and then lower in a controlled manner. Perform ten repetitions on each leg. Common mistakes are allowing the pelvis to tilt and not fully extending the hip. Hamstring cramping is an indication that you are not using the glutes enough and need to focus on creating a better mind to butt connection.
The squat movement pattern is a skill that is easier to teach if you add some load. You can use either a dumbbell or a kettlebell for this exercise. It has been my experience that the exercise is easier to learn with a kettlebell. Hold a kettlebell by the horns, with the elbows down, and the kettlebell close to the chest. Keep the chest proud and pull the abdominal muscles tight. You may have to experiment with foot placement as everyone has different hips. The position you would place the feet if you were going to jump is a good starting point. Initiate the squat by pushing back the hips. Keep the torso tall and descend. Let your pelvis fall between the hips. The elbow should drop down between the knees. Nothing will inhibit your progress more than thinking about how you are moving during goblet squats. Keep your brain quiet and get in some repetitions. Effort has amazing capacity to improve motor control. Perform ten repetitions.
Mini Band Monster Walk
Your will need a mini resistance band–a nine inch loop of resistance band, (two dollars from performbetter.com). Most fitness clients will do well with a green or yellow mini band. Place the mini band loop around both legs just above the ankles. Assume an athletic stance with the feet straight ahead, knees bent, and hips flexed. The band should be held taught throughout the exercise. Imagine your feet are standing on railroad tracks. Walk forward for ten steps on each side, keeping the feet over the railroad tracks. Walk backward for five repetitions on each leg. Try to keep the hips and shoulders level throughout the exercise.
Once you have mastered all three exercises, build your gluteal and hamstring performance by traveling through the program for two or three trips.
- single leg bridges R and L x 10
- goblet squats x 10
- mini band monster walk x 10 each leg
View video of the exercises here: https://youtu.be/QeteeLPF4AU
Kat Wood, DPT, ATC
Triathlon Success: Core Connection
In the fitness world core stability training has gained a solid foothold and more people are getting away from spinal damaging resisted twisting machines and the ever present sit up gizmo. Most people know how to perform a “plank” exercise and have added this drill to their fitness routines. Learning how to properly brace the core stabilizers and perform a sustained plank type isometric exercise will resolve back pain, improve the hip to shoulder girdle connection, and make you a better movement machine. The problem is most people never advance beyond the basic plank exercise. Triathletes need significant anti-rotation and anti-extension core strength and endurance. I have three drills that will help keep you strong and resilient in your quest to complete you first tri. Read the directions and give these activities a place in your fitness program.
Alternate Single Arm Planks
Position the body in a toes and elbows plank, but separate the legs so the feet are wider than the shoulders. Lift one arm up at a 45 degree angle in relation to your body and hold for five seconds. Lower the arm back down and try the other arm.
If you are unable to perform the alternate arm plank on the floor, regress the exercise by placing the hands on a bench in a push ups position. Lift one arm up at a 45 degree angle in relation to your body and hold for five seconds. Lower the arm back down and try the other arm. How many and much? Perform three to five repetitions on each arm. Work up to longer hold times instead of more repetitions. Five repetitions on each arm with a ten second hold is a good goal.
You need a cable machine or resistance tubing set at mid torso level. Position your body at a 90 degree angle in relation to the pull of the cable. Assume an athletic posture with the feet at least shoulder width apart and the spine neutral. Push the hips back a little and keep a slight bend in the ankles and knees. You should look like a tennis player preparing to return an opponent’s serve. Use a strong overlap grip on the handle and set the hands in the middle of the chest. Brace the midsection and hips and move the handle out in front of the body and then back to the chest. Select a resistance level that permits execution of all repetitions without losing the set up posture. If one side is more difficult, start the exercise on that side. Perform fifteen repetitions on each side.
Many of us have terrible respiratory patterns. We are unable to fully inhale and exhale when under any physical stress. The Pallof Press can be used to improve respiratory control. Use the same set up and press the cable out. Hold the cable with the arm fully extended while inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six seconds. Bring the arms back in and then repeat. Perform four of five inhale / exhale respiration repetitions on each side.
View the video here: View Video
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
Triathlon Success: Hip Flexor Function
Two of the most important muscles for efficient running and a pain free set of knees are not visible in the mirror. Most people have never heard the names of these muscles. Located deep inside the body, covered by innards and all too often, layers of mesenteric fat, these muscles labor unloved and forgotten. Triathletes interested in optimal performance and a body that remains injury free should give some attention to the iliacus and psoas muscles.
Five muscles flex the hip–bring your femur forward. Three of the hip flexors attach to the front of your pelvis and run down the front and sides of your thigh. They are the sartorius, tensor fascia latae, and the rectus femoris. Two of the muscles attach to your spine and posterior pelvis and travel across all of the lumbar vertebrae, the sacroiliac joint, and the front of the hip joint. They are the iliacus and psoas muscles. The sartorius, tensor fascia latae, and the rectus femoris can lift your femur to parallel, 90 degrees hip flexion, and no further. The iliacus and psoas are responsible for lifting the hip above parallel. Many people have very weak iliacus and psoas muscles and are unable to flex the hip above 90 degrees.
Multi Joint Control
“Hip flexor” is a very simplistic description of the function of the iliacus and psoas muscles. The iliacus and psoas flex the hip, but they also rotate the hip, stabilize the pelvic girdle / lumbar spine, decelerate hip extension and co-contract with a team of muscles to hold us upright. Properly functioning iliacus and psoas muscles keep the pelvis stable when you walk or run and this mitigates stress on the knees and lower back. When the iliacus and psoas muscles are weak, the pelvis tilts forward and backward. This rotates the femur in and out and twists the knee. Your knee joint likes to bend back and forth and dislikes any extra rotation. Extra knee rotation wears out the back of the kneecap (patella) and places stress on the supportive cartilage (medial and lateral meniscus) of the knee. A triathlete with a wobbly pelvis places significantly more stress on their lumbar spine.
Riding a bike shortens and neurologically anesthetizes the iliacus and psoas muscles. A tight psoas muscle compresses the lumbar vertebrae together and increases pressure in the lumbar discs. Athletes with “quad strains” often have pain in the sartorius and rectus femoris muscles that has been brought on by overuse of these muscle as they compensate for a weak iliacus and psoas muscles. Tight and inhibited iliacus and psoas muscles are responsible for the wobbly gait pattern you frequently see as the triathlete transitions from the bike to the run. Two drills that will improve the function of the iliacus and psoas muscles are listed below. Read the directions and watch the video.
Standing Hip Flexor Isometric
The Standing Hip Flexor Isometric drill functions as both an evaluation and a method of restoring iliacus and psoas function. If you struggle with this exercise, you need to spend some time and effort on improving the performance of your iliacus and psoas. Listed below is a description of the exercise and several activity regressions and progressions.
You need a box or exercise bench. The taller you are, the higher the bench. Six feet tall, try a bench that is 24 inches high. Five foot, four inches, try a twelve inch box. A mirror for visual feedback is helpful. Stand with the right foot on the bench and the left foot on the floor. Hold a pvc pipe, broomstick, or golf club overhead. Brace the abdominal muscles to keep a tall spinal position and tight lordosis (inward curve) in your lower back. Lift the right foot off the bench by pulling the thigh up with the muscles in front of the hip. Hold the foot off the bench in a solid and stable position for five seconds and then lower. Do not let the position of the spine change. Do not bend the left knee or tilt the pelvis. The only joint that moves is the right hip. Athletes should be able to lift and hold the right knee 30 degrees above waist level. Start with sets of three repetitions and alternate sides. As you get stronger, increase the duration that you hold the foot up to ten seconds. If one side is weaker than the other, perform more repetitions or an extra set on that side.
Bench Assisted Hip Flexor Stretch
This drill will improve hip extension range of motion and enhance mobility in all of the hip flexor muscles. Bicyclists often have very flexed lumbar spines and limited lumbar and/or hip extension. This mobility exercise is the antidote for the physical restrictions created by too much time in the saddle.
You will need an exercise bench or a padded chair that is 12 to 16 inches tall. Place a cushion or Airex pad directly in front of the bench. Set up with the left foot on the floor in front of the Airex pad and aligned with the left hip. Place the right knee on the Airex pad and the front of the right foot up on the bench. Stay tall through the spine and hold the position for twenty to thirty seconds. For many people this will be enough stretch. If you are able take the arms overhead. Work further into the movement by bending the front knee and moving forward. Repeat on the other side.
Video of these exercises can be found here: View Video
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
Triathlon Success: Foot Fitness
Foot and ankle injuries are the number one problem in the sport of triathalon. The thousands of spins on the bike, impacts on the run, and kicks with the swim can take a toll. Some preventative training can help speed tissue recovery in your feet and safeguard the ankles.
The foot and ankle are made up of twenty-six bones that are controlled by an elaborate combination of intrinsic and extrinsic foot muscles. A web of fascia interconnected to the muscles creates a dynamic sling that gives our foot form and acts as a spring to propel the body through space. Our feet evolved to guide us over an ever-changing environment of varying surface with minimal support from footwear. Modern footwear, deconditioning, and prior injuries can all take a toll on the functional mobility and strength of the foot and ankle. Preventative exercise activities can go a long way to prevent painful injuries in the lower leg and foot. Watch the video and give these activities a try.
You can perform this exercise throughout the day and it will help keep your feet healthy and strong. Point the foot (plantarflex the ankle) and flex all of the toes. Draw the foot up (dorsiflex the ankle) and keep the toes flexed. Extend the toes while keeping the foot pulled upward. Point the foot downward while keeping the toes extended. Keep the foot pointed and flex the toes. Move through this exercise in a steady and deliberate fashion. Take time to feel the muscles activate and stretch in the foot and lower leg. Repeat the “foot wave” for five to ten repetitions.
Short Foot Drill
The muscles on the bottom of the foot are called the foot intrinsics. The foot intrinsics function in a manner similar to the core muscles of the torso. Their job is to brace the foot so it can transfer forces through a stabilized series of boney arches. Weak or slow to respond foot intrinsic muscles impede the foot’s capacity to decelerate forces. The short foot drill will improve foot intrinsic muscle performance.
To perform the short foot drill on the right foot, place the right foot flat on the ground and place the left foot back. Bend the right knee about 20 degrees and lift the left heel off the ground so more weight is on your right foot. Lift and spread the toes of the right foot. Lower the toes back to the ground and grip the floor with the big toe. Contract the muscles on the bottom of the foot. You should feel a lifting of the foot arches. Tighten the muscles of the right leg from the calf to the hip and lift the pelvic floor. Hold this tension in the foot and leg for ten seconds and then release. Perform five repetitions.
Soft Tissue Mobilization
Treat the soft tissue structures of the ankle and foot with a consistent program of massage. Three or four times a week, take five minutes and perform some massage stick work to the muscles of the lower leg. Find a tennis ball and roll out the plantar aspect of the foot. Deep soft tissue work helps improve circulation, prevents aberrant scar tissue formation, and promotes tissue elasticity.
Age brings lower leg arthritic changes and circulatory deficiencies. These can create pooling of inflammatory byproducts in the feet and ankles created by a week of triathalon training activity. Cooling the feet and ankles in an ice bath can help break the chemical cycle of inflammation and enhance recovery. At the end of a training day, fill up a bucket with water and lots of ice. I like to get most of my lower leg under the water. Try fifteen to twenty minutes every other day.
Watch our Foot Fitness video for demonstration of these exercises: View Foot Fitness Video
Kat Wood, DPT, ATC
Triathlon Success: Movement Prep
Limited mobility is a fairly common finding among recreational runners, bikers, and swimmers. Very often, the deficits are worse on one side of the body. A movement asymmetry makes any triathlete more susceptible to injury. As a group, triathletes benefit greatly from the diligent application of a simple movement preparation program. Movement preparation drills help prevent and/or train away mobility impairments.
Movement Prep is Superior to Stretching
For athletes, movement preparation drills are more beneficial than static stretching. Movement prep improves postural reflexes, deceleration skills, standing balance, and coordination. Any extra mobility you achieve with training must be controlled by your neuromuscular system during varying level of fatigue. Movement prep develops all aspects of athleticism. The two exercises I recommend for endurance athletes are the moving posterior lunge and the world’s greatest stretch.
Moving Posterior Lunge
Most runners and bikers have tight hip flexors, weak lateral gluteals, and limited lumbar extension range of motion. This exercise will improve all of these areas.
Stand tall and step backward with your right leg. Try to get the right knee close to the ground, stay balanced, and keep the torso tall. At the same time, bring your arms overhead. Push up with the left leg, lower the arms, and return to standing. Repeat with the left leg and move down the track with alternating posterior lunges. Perform ten repetitions on each leg. Perform five times on each side. Common mistakes are allowing the torso to tip forward and caving inward of the front knee.
World’s Greatest Stretch
Running, biking, and swimming are primarily single plane motions. Runners do little in the way of rotational motion and often have restricted thoracic spines. The world’s greatest stretch opens up the thoracic spine and will reveal any limitation in movement capacity between the right and left legs.
You need about ten yards of open space. Stand tall and step forward with the left leg. Place the hands down on the ground and attempt to lower the pelvis to the ground. Pause, support the torso with the right hand, and turn toward the left leg. Reach the left hand to the sky and pause in full rotation. Return the left hand to the ground outside the left knee and gently attempt to straighten the left knee and then pause. Bring the right leg up and return to standing. Repeat the drill with the right leg stepping forward. Perform five times on each side. Many mistakes are made with this drill. Please persevere as it is worthy of your efforts.
View the video here: Movement Prep Video
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
Triathlon Success: Myofascial Management
Triathlon training is a vigorous and demanding athletic endeavor. The successful triathlete is often the one with the fewest injuries and the best recovery capacity. Soft tissue mobilization with a roller helps decrease pain, improve mobility, and will speed up recovery between bouts of exercise. Few of us can afford or dedicate the time to a daily massage. The roller is the best do-it-yourself method of enhancing myofascial recovery. Triathletes should begin every training session with five to ten minutes of roller work.
In the book, Anatomy Trains, Thomas Myers describes the interconnected webs of fascia and muscles that move our joints and hold us upright. The human body is not just isolated muscles, but rather a series of interconnected lines of muscles and fascia that are reliant on one another to produce efficient movement. The mechanical stress created by a roller keeps the tissue lines sliding and gliding across one another. It removes neural and mechanical inhibitors of movement and makes exercise easier.
More varieties of rollers have come on the market and whenever we are faced with a lot of choices, it becomes more difficult to make a decision. In this short presentation, I have some suggestions on the proper roller for the job.
Rollers are available in three foot and one foot lengths. I find the longer versions easier to use. Bigger and taller athletes generally do not do well with a short roller.
The best roller for you will depend on your tissue tolerance or how sensitive you are to the compressive forces of the roller. If you are new to foam rolling, a low density white foam roller is softer and will create less discomfort. As you develop better tolerance to rolling, you can progress to a firmer black foam roll. It has been my experience that the white rolls break down faster than the firmer black versions, so be prepared to replace a white roll fairly often.
Hollow, pipe style rollers are newer to the market and I have had good results with two products. The Grid Trigger Point roller is a cushioned hollow pipe with a grid pattern across the surface of the roller. Many smaller clients and patients report they like the short version of the Grid roller. Another hollow pipe version is the Rumble Roller. This product has a series of projections that extend from the roller surface. Self-soft tissue mobilization with a Rumble Roller is more uncomfortable than any other roller I have used. It is a more aggressive treatment, but I have found it works well for individuals with thicker and denser muscles.
So how often should you, a triathlete, use a roller? I like to stay active, pain free, and maintain my posture, so I use a roller every day. Physical therapy patients with painful myofascial restrictions may need to foam roll two or three times a day. Including five to ten minutes of foam rolling prior to a training session is the preventative medicine that will keep you on the road and out of the doctor’s office. Watch the video that accompanies this article and get going on a roller.
View video here: Roller Video
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
In the April 2018 issue, Mike O’Hara discusses the benefits of the farmer’s walk exercise. Jeff Tirrell tells you how to reduce injury to your ligaments and tendons, and tips are given for getting back out into the garden.
Preventing Gardener’s Trauma
After a long, snowy Michigan winter, the first warm and sunny day, we charge outside and clean up the yard. The months snow bound in the house have made the gardeners eager to start the spring clean up and prepare for the summer to come. Most of us will spend the winter in a fairly sedentary physical state and with no physical preparation to launch into hours of challenging outdoor work activity. Every year at our clinics, we treat patients with gardening and yard work induced injuries that could have been prevented with some modifications of activity and preventative exercise. These are my four hints to help safeguard my gardener friends from an unintended trip to the doctor’s office.
#1: Set a Time Limit.
Most of the patients we see with gardener trauma report that they worked “all afternoon” in the yard. It is not uncommon to hear patients report they were bending, pushing, or pulling for five or six hours. Use some caution and limit the duration of your weeding, raking, and shoveling. Set a time limit of two hours and then stop–the garden will be their tomorrow and you will be less likely to have to undergo a springtime MRI.
#2: Use Proper Ergonomics.
Many gardening tasks place your body in challenging positions. Ergonomic experts go to great lengths to eliminate forward trunk flexion and sustained knee flexion from industrial work settings. Pulling weeds and cleaning out flowerbeds combines both of these positions and can create mechanical back and knee pain. Avoid being in the “hands and knees” position for extended periods of time by changing positions frequently. Use knee pads to reduce compressive forces on the knee joints and purchase gardening tools with extended handles so that you need not bend as far or as often.
#3: Avoid Lifting Heavy Objects.
After a sedentary winter spent indoors watching television and knitting, the last thing you should attempt is to hoist the 40 lb. bag of fertilizer into the back of the wheelbarrow. Lifting injuries increase dramatically with loads greater than 25 pounds. Lifting any object from the floor to standing is risky, and carrying unstable loads that can shift around increases stress on the body. Divide heavy loads into smaller portions and avoid lifting directly off the floor. Get a bigger, stronger, and fitter neighbor or family member to help with heavy lifting tasks.
#4: Prepare For Battle.
Gardening and yard work are challenging tasks that should be met with a degree of preparation. If you want to work for five hours in the garden and remain pain free, you must train your body for that level of activity. I have selected three simple exercises you can do to get yourself ready for action in the yard. Simple modification of ergonomics, limitations on work duration, and preparatory exercise can prevent a summer of pain.
Getting Ready To Toil In The Soil.
These three exercises can help you avoid injury and make your spring gardening safer and more productive. Ideally you will perform these drills three times a week for two or three weeks before getting outside and working.
Hip Flexor Stretches
This stretch elongates the large muscle that runs across the front of the hip and attaches to the spine. This region tends to tighten with prolonged sitting and can restrict hip and spinal motion. Place one knee up on a cushioned chair and the other foot slightly forward on the floor. Keep the spine tall and bend the front knee to stretch the hip flexor muscles. Hold for five to ten seconds and repeat five times. Perform the stretch on the other side.
Four Point Fold Ups
If you are going to spend time on all fours, it is a good idea to train your body for this task. Assume a four-point position, knees under the hips and hands under the shoulders. Keep the hands stationary and drop the hips back toward the heels. Go back to the point you feel a stretch and hold–do not stretch into pain. You may feel this in your hips, shoulders, lower back, or upper back. Hold for five to ten seconds and repeat five times.
Gardening and yard work involves a lot of squatting. Being able to safely squat allows you to lift with better body mechanics. Simple bodyweight squats will strengthen the legs and trunk in preparation for these tasks. Place your feet at least shoulder width apart. Check the foot width with a full length mirror– most people squat with the feet too close together. Keep the heels flat on the floor and squat down by pushing the hips back. Work on maintaining balance and control during the motion. Practicing this movement pattern will also improve your flexibility. Perform a series of ten repetitions and then rest and perform another set of ten.
Michael O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
How To Start Working Out
*How to Start Working Out, is a great article by Anahad O’Connor. Most media articles on developing the fitness habit are fairly flawed, but Mr. O’Connor has done well. I am encouraged because he discusses two of the more important aspects of fitness success: process goals and strength training.
Developing and maintaining the fitness habit is a motivational mind game. Having a goal provides the emotional reinforcement necessary to be successful. Most fitness clients set outcome goals—they want to lose twenty pounds, get stronger, or run a 5 kilometer race in record time. Outcome goals are achieved through proper nutrition and consistent training. Outcome goals are achieved through the development of a better life process. I try to steer clients toward process goals—eat more protein, sleep better, daily mobility sessions, etc… Process goals are the building blocks of fitness success and focus on your life outside of the gym. Setting and achieving process goals creates the environment for achieving nearly everyone’s outcome goals. Stronger, leaner, pain free, and faster will all follow when you have better life processes working in your favor.
Every expert on habit development recommends a paper and pen. Writing it down is part of the commitment to fitness. Record your process goals in an exercise log book or a nutrition diary. Process goals that have worked well for fitness clients are listed below.
-Perform a daily five minute foam roll / mobility session for the next forty days.
-Weigh every serving of food you consume for the next two weeks.
-Take a thirty-minute walk for forty consecutive days.
-Get an extra hour of sleep every night for the next two months.
-Drop all sweetened drinks (juice, soda, sports drinks) for three months.
-Learn how to prepare a new healthy meal every week for six months.
Older, deconditioned, and metabolically challenged fitness clients will develop the fitness habit more readily with a dedication to process goals. Build on the habits created by achieving ever more challenging process goals and you will reach all of your outcome goals.
When you get stronger, the magic happens. It is really that simple. If you want to be leaner—get stronger. If you want to chase away the pain—get stronger. If you want to improve your performance—get stronger. If you want to prevent injuries—get stronger. If you want to be active and vital into old age—get stronger. The problem is that many barriers exist to the strength solution.
For best results, we need to start early. An adequate strength level keeps you functioning well for a lifetime. If in your early years, you were fairly sedentary, you need to get busy and strength train. As we age, we lose a portion of our lean tissue, and if you have less muscle and bone “in the bank” you will reach your fifties and sixties in a weak and frail body. Age related sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) is one of the primary drivers of metabolic problems such as diabetese, hyperlipidemia, and chronic inflammation. Today’s children are growing up with fewer episodes of bone and muscle building lifting and carrying activities. I see teens nearly every day with lower back, knee, and hip pain all related to glaring strength deficits.
A lack of proper coaching and progressive programming are barriers to your strength training success. Strength training is like medicine; given the proper prescription and dose, the results are consistently good. Many of the people that have tried strength training and had bad results have taken the wrong medicine at the wrong dose. They utilize advice from magazines, celebrity trainers, and the internet. They confuse pharmaceutically assisted bodybuilding programs as appropriate strength training for a forty year old. The best results are achieved when you work closely with a qualified coach who can monitor your results and teach you how to get stronger.
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS< CSCS
*New York Times, Health Section, Anahad O’Connor, How to Start Working Out. View here.
In the February issue of our newsletter, Mike O’Hara discusses ways to improve hip mobility and strength. Read Jeff Tirrell’s article on why dairy products may actually be good for you. Having back pain doesn’t mean you can’t have a fitness program.