The idea for this blog post has been rattling around in my head for years. I think about it while I'm running and riding but for some reason it's never made it's way onto "paper".
Our bodies, while very complex, can be described for the purpose of this article as two planes. Imagine taking a guillotine and slicing your body in half, dividing it into two parts - The Front Body and The Back Body.
I spent 16 years as a Sports Massage Therapist and a Medical Massage Practitioner when I lived in Texas. I studied a lot of postural analysis, something that I still do to this day. It's pretty much impossible for me to ride or run with others and not analyze their movements, figure out what they're doing right, and what they're doing wrong. I have a hard time biting my tongue when I see someone that I think I can help.
I want you to think about little old men, the ones that you see walking slightly bent forward at the waist with their pants hitched way up in front. Why do you think they stand like this? It's because their "Front Body" muscles are short and strong. What does that mean? Think about most people's daily lives - they sleep typically curled on their sides in somewhat of a fetal position, they get up and sit at the kitchen table and have breakfast, they drive to work sitting down, they get to work and sit at a desk all day, they come home and sit some more for dinner, and maybe later watch some tv. Their bodies stay in a seated position most of the day. The hip flexors - the illiopsoas and the illiacus are the two muscles largely responsible for keeping people in an upright seated position, the rectus femorus (a quad muscle) and the tensor facia latae are also involved. When you keep these muscles in contraction they become strong - and shortened. Daily activity for most of us works these muscles constantly.
The body is made up of opposing muscle groups. Antagonist muscles. Think about the upper arm, your biceps and triceps. When one is in contraction it is impossible for the antagonist muscle to fire. When one is firing the other is stretched. When you get a cramp in your calf what do you do? I see people trying to "walk it out", the best thing to do is fire or contract the opposing muscle group - the anterior tibialis. The calf is made up of the gastrocnemius and the soleus, they are both responsible for plantar flexion of the foot; the gastrocnemius is also responsible for flexion of the leg at the knee. The anterior tibialis muscle on the front of your lower leg is responsible for dorsi flexion of your foot (bringing your toes toward your knee). The best thing to do when you get a calf cramp? Fire your anterior tibialis, either by just pulling your toes toward your knee or better yet have someone add slight resistance against the top of your foot. The calf can't fire/contract if it's antagonist is being used, and this will help your cramp dissipate. Same thing applies with your hamstring/quad - cramping in the hamstring? Leg extension from a bent leg position, with gentle resistance if possible.
So back to the little old man - what do you think happens to the opposing muscle group, the one that is not short and strong? The opposing muscle group becomes overstretched and weak. So how do we remedy this situation? Strengthen the Back Body and stretch the Front Body.
I practiced massage therapy for 16 years, I started all of my clients face up. Most therapists start their clients face down and work on the back first. The logical thing is to open up the front body, the pectorals and shoulders before turning them over and working on their backs. Why would you work on an overstretched muscle before loosening up the tight ones so their shoulders could move backwards naturally? It doesn't. The same thing applies to the neck, loosen up the scalenes, the sternocleidoimastoid (muscles on the front of your neck) and their attachments at the clavicle before moving on to the back of the neck.
I had a lot of clients who worked at a desk, and were on a computer all day long. They were hunched over at the shoulders and neck looking at the screen. I advised these people to get the screen up at eye level, so they would be sitting up straight, at the front of their chairs with the screen at eye level (think stack of books if necessary). I had so many come back and let me know how much this helped their neck pain. Pain resulting from forward neck position, which overstretched the back of their neck and the attachments at the occipital ridge on the back of their head.
What does this all have to do with a post for triathletes? We swim, we run, we ride, all mostly utilizing so much of our front bodies. See the runner with the rounded shoulders? I want to tell him to stand up straight and pull his shoulders back, open up the chest cavity - but maybe he can't because he's so tight from hunkering over the handlebars in the areo position (All actions using more front body). Same with swimming, mostly front body - what stroke do you think we swimmers use in between sets to loosen up and recover - Backstroke. Makes sense doesn't it? Utilize the back body and allow the front body to stretch and recover.
So here is what I suggest you try. Spend some time lying backwards on a Swiss ball - lay your head back, lay your arms open wide to the sides, open up the hip flexors. I used to tell my massage clients this: when you wake up in the morning roll onto your stomach and press up on your elbows gently, lift you face slowly toward the ceiling, if you are flexible enough move up to upward facing dog position, do it slowly because most likely you've been in a curled up position for 6-8 hours. Open up your front body.
Oh... one more thing - ever been driving for a long time and your back starts to hurt, we usually think we need to stretch our back, right? Try this - do some isometric contractions of you low and upper back. You'll feel some immediate relief.
Strong and Short - Overstretched and Weak.
I'm borrowing this expression from a friend, I like it: "Do The Work!" Take care of your body!
See you at the races!!