Clinic director at Six Physio Fiona Troup explains why it’s time to reach for more than your toes.
Adequate flexibility is important for all disciplines of triathlon to allow full range of movement and to optimise muscle function. If muscles are too stiff, this can impact on force, power production and ultimately performance.
It can also place undue strain and load across the joints due to increased compressive forces, which increases the risk of over-use type injuries. It is also very important that your body has sufficient flexibility to comfortably achieve correct alignment.
Flexibility is only useful if you can control it well and move efficiently with the range of movement available. The key is to achieve balance in the relationships between different muscle groups, as the body works in an orchestrated fashion where timing and interplay are critical.
Over-stretching and incorrect stretching techniques can lead to an increase of soft tissue injuries in athletes. However, some triathletes are stiff in some areas but too mobile in others, while other athletes have more widespread stiffness, so it becomes critical to prescribe flexibility work appropriately.
There are many different thoughts and opinions as to how best improve flexibility, but most importantly it needs to be applied appropriately to individual body types. Some people are naturally very flexible or hypermobile, and they need to focus more on their control of movement and conditioning aspects and less on stretching. Often overloaded tissues feel like they need to be stretched but in actual fact may benefit from offloading, followed by conditioning work to restore the muscle function.
The more dynamic versions of stretching and mobilising tissues can be more helpful than static stretching. Foam rollers are hugely popular, and are a great self-release tool that works similarly to a deep tissue massage or myofascial release.
Rollers enable you to release tightness to allow both the flexibility to improve, and they also facilitate correct activation of the required muscles by switching off dominant patterns of over-activity and allowing the weaker or inhibited muscles to become more involved.
This is positive for improving both the quality of movement and the force and load distribution. However, you should avoid rolling around the lower back as this can cause over stretching
in an area which is already very mobile and prone to injury if it’s not done correctly. Swimming requires flexibility particularly in the shoulders, triceps, chest, upper back and ankles.
Stiffness in any of the areas of the upper body can lead to rotator cuff issues (swimmer’s shoulder), so it is vital to have a balanced program of dynamic mobility for the upper body and to have a fluid range of point (plantar flexion) in the ankles.
Often runners have restricted flexibility in their hips and ankles while cyclists have stiff hips and mid backs – this can be a predisposing factor for low back pain as it can cause an excess of movement in the lower back over time.
Yoga and pilates can be helpful to support your training program, provided they are well-taught and tailored to your body requirements, preferably in small classes or one-to-one sessions.
However, if you are hypermobile, care needs to be taken to not over-stretch.
Physiotherapist Gary Jones from Six Physio answers your question
Q: I’ve signed up to an Olympic distance next summer. However, every time I spend longer than 20 minutes in the pool my neck starts to ache and the pain goes down to my shoulder. How can I stop this happening?
Suzanne via email
A: You may be overloading some of the muscles that run from the neck to the shoulder-blade. This could be for several reasons. It would be useful to check how flexible your upper/ mid back is, whether your latissimus dorsi muscles are tight and also how well the deep muscles of the lower back are firing as they provide support for the spine to allow you to work your shoulder muscles from a stable foundation.
Next look at the endurance capacity of your rotator cuff and the muscles that support the shoulder blade. There needs to be a good balance between these and the bigger muscles around your shoulder. All this could be checked by a local physiotherapist. Don’t panic – you’ve got plenty of time to put things right.