Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The "Core Connection"

So what exactly is the connection?  Think of your body as one long chain with each muscle group representing a link.  The core muscles (rectus abdominus, obliques, transverse abdominus, latissiumus dorsi, hip flexors, and a few others) connect the upper and lower extremities and serve as an energy transfer segment from the one end of the “chain” to the other.During activity, a muscle lengthens before it contracts (shortens), which is called a transformational zone (TZ).

During athletic movements TZ are necessary for locomotion.  In the core, TZ are at the end range of torso extension, lateral flexion and/or rotation and it is very important to train through these TZ to minimize injury risk and maximize strength.

Practical Application
Envision a baseball pitcher – the legs and hips generate a great deal of force during the wind up which is transferred through the core to the shoulders and finally to the hand where the ball is released at high velocity. A pitcher further relies on the core to decelerate the arm and body during follow through.  Pitchers, therefore, must go through several TZ in one pitch, all involving the core to either enhance loading (lengthening) or unloading (shortening) of muscles in all three planes of motion. A strong core will maintain proper posture and maximize energy transmission, whereas a weak core is a poor energy conductor that compromises technique which further decreases pitch velocity or increases injury risk.  Also consider how often a pitcher stops moving all other muscles and performs an abdominal crunch motion.  This crunch, or any isolated muscle movement, does not occur in sport. Obviously, throwing a baseball greatly differs from running a marathon, but the concept of sports-specific training applies to all athletic movements.  During running, energy transfer works from the top of the chain down, i.e. the arms, shoulders, and chest generate force that is transferred through the core to the legs and finally to the ground.  Likewise a weak core, or a core with poor endurance, can decrease performance by compromising form.

When selecting core exercises, make sure at least 75% are ground-based (standing on your feet) and performed at speeds mimicking the sport (e.g. baseball and football players should perform core exercises explosively).  Also understand that numerous exercises will engage the core without isolating it – push ups, squats, lunges, standing shoulder press, and nearly any other ground-based, free-weight exercise requires core stability.

Yoga, Pilates, and Mat Exercises
Yoga has been around, well longer than you and me and maintains its popularity through improving mind, body, and spirit.  Similarly, Pilates improves core strength, flexibility, and mental focus but neither practice alone improves running-specific strength.  Has a running coach ever encouraged you to move as slow as possible as a Pilates instructor might?  Have you ever run while lying on your back?

Yoga, Pilates, and traditional “abs” exercises should account for the other 20-25% of your core training and are best performed on active recovery days or at the end of a workout.  They complement training well, but lack sport-specific adaptations.

Training the core involves a lot more than just working the abs. Crunches will increase abdominal strength and may help you get a six-pack, but as an athlete (elite or recreational) sport-specific strength should be the priority. To achieve this sport-specific core strength, perform the majority of your exercises:

1) While standing on the ground
2) In all three planes of motion (sagittal, frontal, transverse)
3) Through the full range of motion (into each TZ)

Mat-based exercises have their place in training, but alone are not effective in improving athletic movement.

Click Here for Exercise Examples (and print version of this article)

Justin Robinson, MA,RD,CSSD,CSCS,FAFS
Coach - Catalyst Endurance Coaching
Director of Strength & Conditioning - RU Sports Performance Center

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What Bike Should I Buy?

As a triathlon coach, I do my best to promote the sport - which often includes converting my personal training clients and runners into beginner triathletes.  In doing so, I have to answer a slew of questions - how much training does it take, how hard are they, how do I conquer my fear of open-water swimming  . . . all valid inquiries, and as you might imagine - I provide a slightly different answer for each person.

Lately, though, I have been bombarded with the question of "what bike should I buy?"  I initially provide my typical response to any fitness/nutrition question that "it depends."  And bike choice is highly dependent - bicycles can range from $50-$15,000 in price, can get you from point A to B, down the Kamikaze at Mammoth, or 112 miles across the Hawaiian desert.

To better answer the question, though, I ask a few questions myself:

1) How much do you have to spend?
When discussing price, I recommend to set two limits: a "soft" limit (how much you would like to spend) and a "hard" limit (the amount you absolutely can not exceed).  These limits are imperative when walking into a bike shop - in fact, this will be one of the first questions they will ask you.  Some aspects of a bike are more more important than others; for example, it's worth spending a little extra money on the components (brakes, gears, shifters) than on race wheels.  In short - select a bike with Shimano 105, Ultegra, or DuraAce components or any SRAM components.  Shimano Tiagra and Sora components are of much lesser value.  And for an entry-level bike, either an aluminum or carbon frame will work well.

Good bicycles (worthy of triathlon races) start around $1,000, but if you want a competitive bike that will will be happy with for multiple years, expect to spend in the $2,000 range.  The good news is that is somewhat levels off from there - the difference between $1,000 bike and a $2,000 is pretty significant; however, the difference between a $2,000 bike and a $10,000 bike is rather small (unless you are an elite athlete).

Note: do not forget to consider sales tax, pedals, shoes, and helmet when planning your finances.

2) What distance of triathlon do you plan to do?
If you want to just try out a triathlon and plan to do one sprint-distance race (bike course is 15 miles or less) before committing to anything else - a mountain bike (or borrowed road bike) will service you just fine.  If you do race on a mountain bike, though, it is well-worth spending $30-$40 on "road slicks" (smooth tires) as they will save you a considerable amount of time and energy.  If you plan to compete in an Olympic distance race (or greater) or try a season of triathlon racing - you will need a road or triathlon bike (more on those differences below).

3) What other riding do you plan to do (bike racing, century rides, commuting)?
This question has to do with the type of bike you purchase.  The three main types of bicycles are Mountain Bikes, Road Bikes, and Triathlon (aka Time Trial or TT bikes).  Mountain bikes are suitable for short commutes or off-road riding.  Road bikes are the most versatile - they built for a combination of comfort and speed ("comfort" is a relative term, especially if you have never ridden a road bike) and can be used in a triathlon or road race.  Triathlon bikes are built for speed, but are not legal in road bike racing and might be uncomfortable for longer rides (over 70 miles).  Frame geometry is the main difference between road and triathlon bikes.  If you are unsure what you want to do - buy a road bike.  If you know you only want to race triathlons and want to go as fast as possible, buy a triathlon bike.  Most enthusiasts, though, have at least one of each, so if you get bit by the endurance-sport bug, chances are you will have three+ bikes within three years.

4) How long do you plan to keep the bike?
This question related to the price question.  If you are satisfied with upgrading to a new bike in a year or two - it's okay to spend $1,000 or less (for a used or new bike with lesser components).  For the average athlete, spending $2,000 will get you a ride that you may never outgrow.

Most Important Part!
Above all, the absolute most important factor in bike selection is the "Bike Fit".  A carbon-frame bike, with SRAM Red components, and Zipp 808 race wheels is useless if you are uncomfortable on it.  Getting fit to a bike is much more complicated than standing over the top tube and making sure you have 4-fingers of clearance (frame size, in fact, is only a small consideration of the fit).  A bike fit (by a certified professional) should be the first step in selecting a bike.  Most shops can narrow your choice of bikes to 3-4 based on your fit and price range.

San Diego has a plethora of quality bike shops - I recommend two: Moment Cycle Sport (Point Loma) or Nytro (Encinitas).  Browse through either of their websites to read more about bike-fitting philosophy.

To summarize, selecting a bike depends on a number of factors - the two most important are your budget and the bike fit.

I hope this helps - the discussion of how to get into triathlon is a lengthy one, but the coaches at CEC are always happy to offer advice.

Good luck!

Justin Robinson, MA,RD,CSSD,FAFS,CSCS
Triathlon, Running Coach

Catalyst Endurance Coaching