As a physiotherapy student, one of my goals for this blog is to pass along some general training and injury prevention tips to my followers. I’ll start with a disclaimer though – every body is different and if you ARE injured, the best thing to do is to seek advice from a healthcare provider who can assess and treat your specific concern. These tips are meant as general prevention strategies for healthy athletes wanting to avoid injury down the road.
To start, think of your body as a chain of connected parts. Everything has to be working properly in order for you to function well as a whole. Someone with knee pain may have functional knees, but tight or weak muscles in their hips. Someone else coming off a shoulder injury may suddenly have problems with their opposite shoulder from overcompensating while the injury was recovering. In keeping with this theme, one of the best places to target for injury prevention is right in the middle of the body – your core.
“Core” is not the same as “abs”. Your core is essentially the muscles stabilizing your torso – including your abdominals, back muscles and pelvic floor muscles.
Generally there are two steps to strengthening muscles that aren’t used to working during a functional activity: first you isolate the muscle and strengthen it on its own, and then you add functional movements while still keeping the muscle active. Using the example of the deepest abdominal muscle, the transverse abdominis or TA:
Isolate: You’ll be able to feel the muscle just inside the front of your hip bone. Lying on your back, sink your fingers into your abdomen and start counting out loud without taking a breath. Around 10 or 15 you should start to feel a deep muscle tighten under your fingers. Once the muscle turns on, hold for a count of 10.
Add functional movement: Keeping your TA active and your torso still, slowly lift one leg off the floor at a time. Only add this step once you have had practice isolating the muscle and can keep it active during the movement. You can also activate the muscle during daily activities - even sitting at a desk at school or work - to get it used to being active.
Having a stable core is very important for both performance and injury prevention. If the core muscles are weak it will take more energy to try to maintain a good posture during a key workout or big race, taking away from energy that could be used towards a better performance. As endurance athletes this is particularly important because we are asking our muscles to perform for long periods of time.
Also, having weak core muscles predisposes your body to injuries because each muscle you use for each activity has an optimal position it should be in to perform at its best - so if your core can't hold your body in a correct posture there may be unnecessary strains on your muscles that, when a movement is done over and over for the length of a triathlon (or any other endurance-type sport), may lead to an overuse injury. Aside from muscle injury, a strong core also helps to protect the bones and ligaments of the spine from unnecessary forces during activity that may cause injury as well.
Often, endurance athletes neglect strengthening exercises when they should be an important part of any training program. (Myself included - I just got back to my regular gym routine a couple weeks ago after a very busy spring. It happens!) But, if nothing else, if you devote a small portion of your training time to core work every day or every other day, it will help you perform better and prevent injuries in the long run!