I have seen it mentioned a number of times lately that as triathletes, we are not cyclists. I would argue that we can learn a number of things from cyclists and cyclist related research. I couldn’t agree more, however when it comes to bicycle fit. Recent research has shown that triathletes have a different position on the bike compared to cyclists. The research looked at joint angles (e.g. ankle, knee and hip angles) of triathletes on time-trial bikes compared to cyclists on road bikes and so we would expect some differences. I would argue however, that for the purpose of injury prevention, triathletes set-ups need to be different regardless of whether they are riding a time-trial bike, a road bike or a converted road bike with clip-on aerobars.
In the early days of triathlon, the sport was promoted as having a lower injury risk due to the cross-training effects of training for three sports rather than just one. The idea of cross-training is that the heart rate can be elevated with the associated cardiovascular benefits, however the muscles, bones, tendons and cartilage that have been getting a pounding during regular training get a break.
For endurance athletes, ‘overuse’ injuries are the most common and also the most frustrating, tending to resurface again and again regardless of how thorough the rehabilitation plan. But why is it that some athletes seem to breeze through hours of intense training without anything worse than a little DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) while others seem to suffer from the injury curse?
I believe it all comes down to balance. Balancing the work that the different muscles are required to do and the strength of all the muscles too. Some people are naturally gifted with perfect biomechanics, however even these people can develop overuse injuries should they neglect balance. For those of us ‘blessed’ with unusual joint shapes, lax ligaments and quirky gaits, developing a balance that supports these unique traits is even more important (and perhaps luckily, more obvious). We can achieve great things against great odds, as long as we understand our limitations and work with them.
So how does your bike set-up come in to all of this? Many people when asked to identify the cause of an injury will report it to be running related. Don’t get me wrong, running is often the movement that leads to the pain and is most disrupted by an injury. Often these individuals have tried all the running related rehabilitation options with limited success. They have also kept up swimming and cycling where possible as we all try to do. No matter what distance you are training for, right up to ironman and for a few beyond, the amount of time we spend on our bikes far outweighs the time we spend in the pool or on the pavements and trails. The number of muscle contractions occuring over a week of training for cycling trumps both swimming and running.
In research, running gets the injury focus because the load (impact and tissue stress) put through the body can reach up to 6-8 times our body weight. Cycling on the other hands sits at a respectable 1-2 times and so it is pretty safe to assume that cycling is not going to load the tissues of the body beyond their physiological limits. I do not dispute that the loads of running are more likely to result in injury, what I would argue is that the way an athlete moves and their ability to accommodate the loads of running can be influenced by their cycling.
Over the past four years I have researched Achilles tendon injuries in triathletes. The research focus was the mechanics of running but when determining the reasons behind the different movement patterns observed, I kept coming back to muscle strength and muscle balance. Many of you will be familiar with rehabilitation exercises that require 10 repetitions and 3 sets a day. If large numbers of relatively minor muscle contractions over the course of a few weeks are able to improve muscle balance, then just think how great an influence cycling has on muscle balance.
Which brings me back to triathletes are not cyclists. Purely because cyclists do not also have to run long distances, and so it is important that the bike set-up reflects this. It is important to try and keep the legs a bit fresher for the run. It is equally important to ensure that we don’t over-strengthen muscles at the expense of some of the important running muslces. Over-strengthening can create imbalances. Imbalances can stress the tissues of our bodies beyond breaking point and start the chronic injury cycle. Maintaining the balance of muscular strength for both running and cycling is as important if not more than the balance between maximum speed and power on the bike and maintaining fresher legs for running.
A good bike set-up is paramount to maximising your triathlon experience. Done by someone who understands the differing demands of triathlon and the specific distance you are training for. And possibly even more important, a bike fit which is specific to YOU and all your strengths, weaknesses and quirky bits.
- Bini RR, Hume PA, Croft J. Cyclists and triathletes have different body positions on the bicycle. European Journal of Sport Science 2012;14(sup1):S109-S15