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The Ins And Outs Of Mobility Training For Triathletes

All triathletes share one common goal: get from Point A to Point B as fast and efficiently as possible.

While it’s certainly more complex than this oversimplification may suggest, triathlon is truly a sport defined by forward motion. We’re always heading towards the end the next lap or the next mile, rarely deviating from the course — even while training. It’s repetitive, and the better and more practiced you are at these linear movements (i.e. swimming, cycling or running), the faster your splits and overall finishing time.

Unfortunately for triathletes, the human body was designed to be capable of more than just traveling through physical space in a straight line. The repetitiveness of swimming, cycling and running for weeks, months and even years on end can cause a lack of mobility and a whole host of related issues if not addressed.

Mobility has become a buzzword thrown around in sports and fitness more and more in recent years, but what exactly is it and why is it important?

Here we’ve enlisted the insight of Dr. Caitlin Glenn Sapp, a USA Triathlon Certified Coach, ACSM Personal Trainer and Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). She’s the founder of Crew Racing and Rehab, and, you guessed it, an all-around mobility nerd.

She defines mobility as active movement around a joint, and while about as straightforward as that may seem, she’d be the first to tell you it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mobility and mobility training for triathletes.

From what causes mobility issues and the effects of poor mobility, to exercises and stretches to keep you movin’ and groovin’ in the pool, on the bike and at the track, here’s everything a triathlete needs to know about mobility — and more.

What causes poor mobility, specifically in triathletes? 

Poor mobility can be caused by a multitude of different factors, including joint stiffness, tissue length, tissue mobility or if proprioception is impaired.

Proprioception is awareness of where the body is, and when impaired, usually needs a neuromuscular reset. Often you just need to change the perception of the muscle rather than the length, and this can be done, for example, through a dynamic warm-up.

How can bad mobility weaken performance and increase risk of injury?

Impaired mobility can weaken performance in a few ways. If an athlete has a mobility limitation that does not allow them to fully get through the needed range of motion for the sport, then the athlete will compensate with different movement patterns, recruitment of other muscles, and overstress the tissue.

Another way impaired mobility can increase risk of injury is by reducing mobility limitations but not stabilizing the athlete’s movement.

Let’s take a hip for example:

  1. Your athlete has had tightness in the front of their hip for a few months.
  2. The athlete is taught techniques that regain mobility and allow a full return of motion into the hip.
  3. The athlete is now pain-free and resumes normal training volume, but just because the athlete has full hip mobility doesn’t mean the new range of motion is controlled and stable.
  4. If the athlete doesn’t take the time to learn how to control the new motion, it is more likely he or she will sustain an injury.

Do any of the ACSM Fitness Trends for 2020 specifically help mobility in triathletes?

First, outdoor activities. As triathletes, we move in a very linear fashion. It’s so important to gain stability and dynamic control in all planes whether it’s vertical, side-to-side and linear.

These atypical movements to our sport can act as a supplemental, fun way to work on stability and control.

I always recommend my athletes to go play – a game of frisbee in the park, rollerblading, hiking, etc.

Second, yoga. Yoga does a great job with gaining body awareness, mobility, and has many mental health benefits.

How does proper mobility benefit triathletes? 

When a tissue is injured, the fibers that make up the structure are no longer aligned in parallel. When this happens, the body is unable to absorb the load that is being applied with training. Smooth, mobile tissue functions optimally and accepts the athlete’s training load. Proper mobility will result in proper movement and less risk of injury.

From a joint’s perspective, when the axis around the joint is able to achieve its full motion, the muscles around the joint work in unison to apply equal forces around the joint. If the joint in unable to achieve its proper mobility, joint health can suffer by changing the axis of the joint.

Quality movement is essential to quality racing and training.

What are a few exercises or stretches that help promote proper mobility? 

1. Banded ankle dorsiflexion

While in a lunge position, with band attached behind you, bring the shin over the ankle until you feel resistance. Pulse in and out of resistance. 1-2 sets of 30 pulses.

2. Banded hip flexion

Go into a kneeling position with a band around the hip of the leg you’re kneeling on. You should be facing the anchor point of the band. Maintain an upright position of the torso, perform a small posterior tilt of the pelvis while allowing the band to pull the hip forward. Hold for three minutes.

3. Foam rolling and TriggerPoint balls

This tissue gliding technique works to lengthen the tissue by realigning the fibers that have undergone injury due to excessive scarring. You can do this in any area of the body with the same principles — find an area of soreness, apply pressure, move the joint below the muscle back and forth to break up the knots.

4. Twisted Warrior

In a lunge position with one arm on the ground, reach up towards the sky with a straight arm. Focus on rotation the thoracic spine.

5. Thoracic spine mobilization

Laying on a foam roller perpendicular to the spine and moving up and down. Or put the foam roller at the bottom of the thoracic spine, extend backwards while holding for a brief second, then repeat up the spine.

Are there any tweaks while swimming, cycling or running that can improve mobility? 

Yes, try a dynamic warm-up: this can include a light jog with form-focused drills, jumps and quick, dynamic stretches.

These dynamic movements change the perception of the muscle rather than the length, causing the individual to feel looser and more prepared to run.

What are some daily habits that negatively/positively affect mobility? 

Posture! It’s possible to optimize movement for sport just by changing your posture throughout the day. Practice ways to change your postural perception.

For example, if you find you’re sitting slumped or standing with an excessive curvature of your low back, correct that position to allow a better tolerance to loading the body optimally.

When we learn to move correctly in a static or low load position, such as sitting, standing, or walking we will have greater awareness of where our body should be while we run.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to share so that others can find it, too.

Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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