“They say the world’s most intuitive swimmers can sense the water catching in the whorls of their fingertips.”
Gold in the Water, P.H. Mullen
The concept of technique training applies equally to all strokes, strides, and swings. Be it a swimmers stroke, a runners stride, a tennis players or golfers swing, or as in this case a cyclists pedal stroke: the more fluid the movement, the more efficient it will be at utilizing energy (i.e. endurance) and more effective at generating power (i.e. speed).
Ever receive the training advice that its important to have a smooth cycling stroke instead of a rectangular (up/down) or square pattern?
Ever receive the training advice that in order to smoothen out your pedal stroke all you have to do is think about it, or do a few drills – e.g. one legged cycling – and the roughness will be worked out?
Its typical training advice, but as with most ‘typical’ advice, its incomplete or just incorrect.
To smoothen out a cycling stroke requires refining the movement to higher and higher degrees of quality. Higher degrees of movement quality depends on three biomechanical components: range of motion (ROM), flexibility, and mobility. If you do not have these three or if you are not training to improve these three, then there is no amount of repetition that will simply cause you to improve the quality of any stroke, stride, or swing. Case in point: there is no amount of riding on a flat tire that will make it full again; the problem needs to be corrected before you go any further.
To improve in technique starts with improving range of motion, flexibility, and eventually putting it altogether as mobility. The role of flexibility and mobility in sport specific technique can be illustrated using the following shapes…
Using the corners of each shape to represent one (1) joint and its surrounding muscles, we can visualized the role range of motion (ROM), flexibility, and mobility play in movement.
A triangle represents a movement which uses three (3) joints and the muscles surrounding those three (3) joints. For example, imagine that your cycling stroke is generated entirely from the following three (3) joints: the ankle, the knee, and the hip. The smoothness of that stroke can be visualized by imagining how well a three sided object – a triangle – rolls on the ground. Imagine you had a bicycle wheel shaped like a triangle… how much fun would that be to ride? Not much. Bumpy, rigid, uncomfortable, and on occasion rough enough that you could be thrown off.
If you pedal using only three (3) joints, if you are limited in your ROM, flexibility, and mobility such that you can only recruit the muscles of those three (3) joints, then can you see how training in the sport is guaranteed to eventually lead to injury?
Worse, despite being limited in movement, athletes train or are coached to train speed, distance, and worst of all, power. Imagine training on a bicycle which has triangle wheels and your coach instructs you to perform hi intensity intervals over and over. Besides being unsafe, what value is there to trying to hit higher wattage on triangle wheels when your competitors have refined their technique so they are riding on hexagonal or octagonal shaped wheels?
The fact that it may be hard training, and hard to train on triangular wheels doesn’t mean that the training is going to improve you as an athlete, it just means that you may improve your ability to ride on triangles. If that’s your goal, then great. If not, then who cares how much training you do, or what peak power data point you can generate on triangles. Its meaningless training, and meaningless data if your goal is to become efficient, because like riding on a flat tire, training power will never result in improvements in ROM, flexibility, or mobility (in fact, HiiT will slowly reduce ROM, flexibility and mobility setting you further back).
The outcome to training with insufficient ROM, flexibility, and mobility is predictable and consistent: gains, which require increasing amounts of effort to achieve and to maintain, eventually yield pain, injury, or illness (i.e. you decimate your immune system from the repeated HiiT sessions trying to achieve and then maintain a peak speed or power level). Time spent recovering from illness or in rehab results in the athlete losing the majority of the gains made. The athlete – who fails to resolve their ROM limitations – who returns to training repeating the cycle over and over, eventually becomes either so injured, so ill, or so disappointed and frustrated that they either change sports or quit sport entirely.
There is another way: its called smart training (aka technique training).
Imagine the athlete above who wants to improve their cycling and instead of fixating on power, finds themselves a coach – who knows how to coach technique, hence ROM, flexibility, mobility, core & breathing – and teaches the athlete how to add just one (1) more joint to the movement of their cycling stroke. Instead of a triangle (3 joints), the athlete now has a square (4 joints). A bicycle with square wheels is not amazing to ride, but it is way way better than triangles, and its a step towards learning how to round the wheel further so that it eventually becomes… a beautiful round smooth circle (as in a beautifully balanced efficient round pedal stroke).
From this example, can you start to see how progress in technique can make cycling, or any sport, easier? Can you start to see how grinding away trying to force more and more power from a limited number of joints and muscles (e.g. a triangle) is a recipe for disaster? Can you see how pointless all the recovery tactics, sports nutrition, foam rolling, and compression clothing are when you do not have proper technique? Of course you need it. Who wouldn’t need the full assortment of recovery tools after riding a bicycle with triangle wheels for a few hours, or swimming with a triangular stroke after a few thousand meters, or after running any distance with a triangular running stride. No wonder why you have DOMS, ache, suffer from chronic pains or injuries… simple, you do not have the ROM, the flexibility, the mobility to train in the way you are training, to train as hard as you train.
To elaborate on the concept of technique training, lets discuss power (i.e. watts) as it seems to be all the rage today amongst amateur and pro athletes…
Going back to our example of a triangle and a cyclist using just three (3) joints… if that cyclist is using only those three (3) joints, that means that all of the power, all the watts that that cyclist wants to generate has to come from just the muscles around those three (3) joints.
Stop and think about the ramifications of forcing just those muscles around those three joints to cough up more and more watts. Now consider an athlete of comparable conditioning but who has just a tad more flexibility and mobility and is able to use four (4) joints and the surrounding muscles of all four of the joints to generate power. See the problem? There is no amount of conditioning (i.e. hard training aka HiiT sessions) that the athlete with three (3) joints can do in order to generate anywhere close to the power the athlete who has four (4) joints (or degrees of movement) at their disposal.
If the goal of an athlete is to become a cyclist who can hold more watts over more distance or time, then training watts makes sense only after they have come close to reaching their full flexibility and maximum level of mobility. Meanwhile, countless athletes and coaches do just the opposite… relegate flexibility and mobility to the background as if it is backup training, or rainy day training. Yet it is just the opposite: any athlete without full range of motion (ROM), must have flexibility and mobility as their primary form of training.
Let’s use an example to elaborate on how range of motion impacts energy system usage, hence the ability to generate sustained power. Consider three athletes who all have the target of holding 300 watts x 3hrs (e.g. half iron distance triathlon bike split):
- Athlete ‘A’ has 3 joints (and all surrounding muscles available), so to generate a total of 300 watts they need to generate 100 watts per joint/surrounding muscles.
- Athlete ‘B’ has 4 joints, so they need to generate 75 watts per joint.
- Athlete ‘C’ has 6 joints of flexibility/mobility, so they need to generate 50 watts per joint.
Ever wonder how Olympic level athletes make their performance appear effortless? Having trained to generate movement across so many more joints and muscle groups than the average athlete, let alone average person, international level athletes simply spread the load across so much of their body, that the execution of their sport specific technique truly does become effortless. Its not talent that leads to the podium, its diligent consistent focused training of technique that creates consistent peak performers.
Of the three athletes above, who do you suppose…
- Will be able to sustain 300 watts for 3 hours with the greatest ease?
- Will come off the bike able to run with the greatest ease?
- Will be able to train more consistently without risk of injury, burn out, or max out?
Any question as to why training power without flexibility and mobility is a waste, why hard training is a waste of time, effort, and resources?
Any question why training hard, harder, and harder still is dumb, dumber, and dumber-er?
Now imagine if the athlete with 6 degrees of flexibility/mobility works on gaining even more flexibility and mobility… say 7 or 8 degrees of movement. They will continue to spread the workload of 300 watts over more and more joints and muscles, further reducing risks of injury, reducing the max effort any single muscle must give, increasing the wattage at which they hit lactate threshold, while simultaneously reducing the strain on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, increasing speed, endurance, and power.
Can you appreciate, that for the athlete who spreads the workload over more and more of their body, that performing their sport at higher speeds is easier, not harder compared to the athlete who has less ROM, less flexibility, less mobility! Not only is it easier, but the athlete with more ROM, more flexibility, more mobility has to put forth less effort in order to hold similar speed or even higher speeds than an athlete limited in their freedom of movement. You cannot compete with that by training harder; there is no amount of hard training that will level the playing field between two athletes who have different ranges of motion (ROM).
For any athlete serious about competing, serious about competition, and who has not considered the role of ROM, flexibility, and mobility on performance, this should be game changing. Yet, we have not even begun to discuss the impact ROM, flexibility, and mobility have on raising an athlete’s aerobic and anaerobic threshold!
Consider that the three athletes above all reach their anaerobic threshold at 75 watts per joint. If all three athletes are asked to produce 400 watts of power, how long will each athlete last?
- Athlete ‘A’ with three (3) degrees of freedom can only generate at threshold 225 watts (75 watts per joint x 3 joints), so they may be able to produce 400 watts for a few seconds, maybe half a minute.
- Athlete ‘B’ who has four (4) degrees of freedom can generate 300 watts of power, so they may be able to last for a minute or two.
- Athlete ‘C’ who has six (6) degrees of freedom can generate 450 watts of power at threshold, so to produce 400 watts is not an issue and theoretically, they could last hours.
Ever wonder how athletes like Phelps, Froome, the Brownlees, Jorgensen, Duffy et al. can dominate, I mean absolutely dominate for years with their next competitor nowhere close?
Because they aren’t obsessed with hard training. They train smart. They have always trained smart and they continue to train smart. Eventually, they just got so smart in their ability to move that they entered a league all of their own.
You know why Ironman World Champion Daniela Ryf doesn’t use a power meter while competing… because she doesn’t need one. She is nowhere close to redlining while biking at a speed which drops the entire field of pro women. What’s the point in weighing her bike down with a power meter? Ryf can cruise along on the bike while everyone else struggles, puts in a massive gap between her and her competitors giving her the freedom to run within herself. Now that’s training to win, vs hard training which is… training to suffer, to maximize pain, its training to lose!
If your coach has you participating in spin classes, all-out sessions on your trainer, doing hills repeats and track intervals until you puke or taste blood… still think it sounds all that smart?
Your current coach may be a ‘good guy or gal’, with good intentions, well meaning, they may even have built a name for themselves as a coach, but it doesn’t mean that they have any clue how to actually train an athlete to their potential, progressing them consistently while making them healthier and happier all at the same time.
Your coach may prescribe you hard, even insanely hard workouts, but I hope after this post you will appreciate if that is all that they know, it ain’t anything worth sticking around for as the results they can generate only lead to a dead end.
If you want to swim, ride and run with speed, then find a coach who themselves are not riding around on triangles in life. A coach who understands how to smoothen out wheels until they are round can teach you how to round out your own making traveling in sport and life, easier, faster, and way way more fun.
“They say the world’s most intuitive swimmers can sense the water catching in the whorls of their fingertips.”
Gold in the Water, P.H. Mullen
Think about that for a second… while swimming are you so aware of all your joints, all your muscles, all the movement happening in and around your body that you not only feel but understand the significance and meaning of each vortex coming off each finger?
What about while cycling?
What about when running?
Are you aware of the the vortices coming off you as a cyclist, and how changing your body position changes your drag coefficient? Can you change your position to maximize efficiency on the fly? What about ground reaction forces while running? Can you feel? Do you feel how to land on the ground so as to minimize braking and impact forces, instead maintaining momentum so that you glide, not plod or pound?
Its no different in any other sport. Swimming is not more technical than any other sport. Cycling, running, tennis, golf, the martial arts, all sports have nuances that the best of the best in the sport study and train so as to be able to execute in competition.
The opportunities are endless: with over 300 joints in the human body, synchronizing your body to operate in a manner never before considered is available to us all. The chance to create a new way to execute technique, tactics, strategy are waiting for those who want to be pioneers.
Question is… are you going to continue banging your head training hard, or will you open your mind up to training which challenges you to be smarter, even smarter than your competition?