Tis the season! No, not for the holidays, but for LSD training.
No, not THAT LSD. I’m talking about long slow distance training, or base building for endurance athletes. If you’re not familiar with this, get on your bike for seven hours at about 50% of your heart rate max the entire time.
I’ve got several thoughts around this, but I’ll spare you the agony of what I think about long slow endurance activities turning your body into a fat storage machine. I’ll let Rachel Cosgrove tell you about how training for an Ironman triathlon caused her to experience this.
Go slower, break faster
Most people have desk jobs that force them to sit all day with the hip flexors in a shortened position. This can shut down the glutes and tighten muscles all over the musculoskeletal system by shear virtue of being in the seated positition all day.
They then take muscles that have been in a shortened position and put them through massive amounts of repetitive stress in a single plane environment shortening them further by riding, running or swimmin. This will make tight muscles tighter, and weak muscles weaker over time.
“The seated position also exacerbates the inactivity of the gluteals while riding and reinforces the degeneration of this muscle,” John Izzo (Pointing Out Gluteal Atrophy).
Keep in mind, if your core is weak, NO AMOUNT of stretching will relieve the tension on your hip flexors. NONE. All the hot yoga, hours of bar stretching, will NOT work.
Logic would dicate if you stretched something, it should lengthen, right? Wrong. How many people do you know that stretch around the clock, yet still have the flexibility of C3PO?
“So is the hip flexor tight because it’s short or because it’s responding to a weak core? Simply put, it’s typically a core dysfunction,” says Dean Somerset, BSc, CSCS, MES, CEP (Some Reasons Why You Should Stop Stretching Your Hip Flexors).
Somerset theorizes that if the core/glutes are strong, the tension on the hip flexors is released. Particularly since the psoas is a spinal stabilizer, and I agree.
“The core is weak, but it’s not simply an inability to do crunches and stuff like that. It’s the ability of the spine to maintain a stable and powerful foundation in a neutral pelvic position, and with fantastically awesome glute activation to drive the body forward,” says Somerset.
“The glutes’ main function of hip extension is as an agonist to the hip flexors, and they are also directly involved in low back stability, which means they help to pick up the slack for the core during movements, and helps reduce the impulse on the psoas, therefore reducing the “tightness.”
See, get stronger, get more flexible without having to stretch. Now, am I saying never stretch again? No, not at all.
What I am saying is if you do it, you feel that it helps and you’ve got the time, go ahead. Just know there may be a more efficient way to do things.
Plus, if all you do is stretch/range of motion related workouts, without strength training, you may be headed down the road of building mobility without stability. And that my friends is a recipe for an injury.
The one thing that never comes up
Now that we know that a weak core makes your hips/low bike tight, let’s take a look at something that doesn’t usually get brought up as why endurance athletes break.
Do something long enough like the type of training an LSD phase calls for, and you will begin to alter both the length tension relationships (the relationship between the length of the fiber and the force that the fiber produces at that length.) as well as force couple relationships (muscle groups moving together to produce movement around a joint). This is probably one of the bigger reasons endurance athletes break.
It isn’t uncommon to hear that “Runner’s knee” gets treated as a hinge joint issue, not something that realistically started higher in the hips because one set of muscles were weak, tightening another set which altered the angle of the knee coming out of the hip.
Same thing with “Swimmer’s shoulder.” I’ve worked with swimmers who were given traditional rotator cuff work to do. There’s a reason the shoulder heads get out of position, and more times than not a lack of mobility in the thoracic spine is the root cause. In my experience, once mobility in this area of the spine is increased, shoulders begin to feel better and performance goes up as well.
Now, can this issue begin in the shoulder? Sure, anything is possible when the body breaks. The reason I’m skeptical is any time a joint angle is altered (a segment of the spine), you will ALWAYS get additional joints (shoulders) pulled out of alignment as a result.
“When you consider the spine as 1 entity, 1 chain of links with regions that are easier to move than others, we should consider that whatever happens in one of those areas will be compensated or met with a similar position elsewhere,” Charlie Weingroff, DPT.
If a lot is good, more must be better!
Unfortunately for endurance sports, it isn’t uncommon for a mindset to set in where “more is more.” Meaning, the perception is you need to ride more, run more and swim more to get better at it. I believe this is inaccurate.
I’m not saying specificity of training doesn’t apply, because it does. What I’m saying is to get a car to go faster, you don’t drive it more, you give it a bigger engine.
You make the spine as stable as possible to allow you to produce more force, you don’t engage in more repetitive stress uniplanar activity. Since joint stability is the biggest limiting factor when it comes time to generate power, it is something that has to be addressed.
If the off season is the time to prepare you for the following season, then instead of putting more miles on the car with the wheels out of alignment, why not work on building more power under the hood and fixing the wheels on your own?
Restore your glute function. Build your core to release tight muscles as Somerset says. Do what you need to do to “undo” what you did to yourself the previous season to better prepare for the next one.
“Fixing your ‘force couples’ will give you the tools necessary to optimize your posture, training, and performance,” says Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.A.W. (Hips Don’t Lie: Fixing Your Force Couples). “By knowing how force couples work and which ones are affecting you, we can improve the position of your hips, and therefore improve the alignment of your entire body. Better alignment equals fewer injuries and better performance.”
I know this first hand, because I’ve “broken several times” in the last five years since I’ve started racing my mountain bike, and I’m a trainer! But all of the time in the saddle preparing to race trashed both my length tension and force couple relationships shutting down my glutes, tightening my hips and doing a number on my low back.
If most athletes knew these activities fast track the body breaking down, and that they will, not might, will, become injured at some point from only moving in one plane of motion, this population might be a lot smaller. Which I wouldn’t mind, it would make my races more fun!
We are meant to move in 3D
The human body is biomechanically engineered to move in a 3D plane with full body total joint integration to provide support to exert force. Not in uniplanar movement for umpteen hours at a time.
Keep in mind it takes approximately 3000-5000 reps of movement to correct dysfunction in the kinetic chain (Paul Chek, Swiss Ball for Rehab). Think about the 10’s of 1000’s of rpm’s you turn over in a week on a bike moving in the presence of muscle imbalances making it harder to make the correction. Pretty daunting isn’t it? Anyone want to go for a ride or run yet?
The Key to Survival: Functional Training
“Panjabi showed in Therapeutic Exercise for Spinal Segmental Stabilization that when the transverse abdominis isn’t working well after a low back injury, the psoas kicks up hard to cover the difference. This simple feat shows how much of a role the psoas plays in spinal stability,” Somerset says.
This means you need to spend quite a bit of time working on single hip strength and stability in addition to keeping your abdominal wall as strong as possible to keep a link in your kinetic chain from breaking. If you are going to be out on a bike, run or swim for multiple hours at a time, just know there is a price to pay if you stay on top of your strength work.
“When the glutes are shut off, not only is the low back called upon to stabilize the load, but it’s often thrown into the mix as a hip and trunk extensor as well,” says Robertson.