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Optimizing Athletic Performance – Identifying and correcting shortcomings for runners and cyclists

May 26, 2011

Every sport creates areas of strength and areas of imbalance and weakness for the athlete.  This is mainly due to a select group of muscles working repetitively, depending on the sport or activity.  Many times, these imbalances impede the athlete’s performance and can also cause injury.  While many people are committed to their gym and training routines, most are not exactly sure what will benefit them the most.  In this article, we identify specific syndromes for runners and cyclists.  Whether you are a weekend warrior or a competitive runner/cyclist, understanding and correcting these issues will help you have your best season yet!

Runners

1.  Weak Hip Flexors

Low back pain can be common with runners.  The main reason is weak psoas muscles (hip flexors).  The psoas is nicknamed “the runner’s muscle”, and a long, powerful running stride is contingent upon the psoas muscles firing properly.  When the psoas is weak, the quadratus lumborum (QL) and hip adductors are compensating and overworking, causing the spine to lack neutrality.

WHAT TO STRETCH?  (Do These First)

 

Low back muscles (QL): In a seated position, with the back tall, reach the left arm up to the sky and lean to the right, making sure to keep both cheeks planted on the chair, holding for 30 seconds.  Repeat on opposite side.

Hip adductors: Sit on the floor with legs spread as far apart as possible, without bending knees.  Keep the back straight and lean forward.  Hold for 30 seconds.

WHAT TO DO NEXT?

Lay on the floor on your back with the left knee bent.  Rotate the bent leg outward to a 45 degree angle.  Slowly raise the leg off the ground until the knee is directly above and in line with the hip.  Do 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions.  An advanced progression of this exercise is to add a 5 lb. ankle weight.

2.  Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS)

An overworked IT band is more common among distant runners.  The IT band is a thick band of fibrous tissue that connects at the top of the iliac crest and Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL).  It then runs down the outside of the thigh and inserts into the outer surface of the Tibia (shin bone).  When the TFL is overworked, it causes the IT band to shorten, which can cause hip and knee problems and can also adversely affect running performance.  An overworked TFL many times compensates for a weak psoas and weak gluteals.

WHAT TO STRETCH?  (Do This First)

Stretch the TFL by lying on your back with legs long and arms out to the sides in a “T” position.  Extend the involved leg up toward the ceiling and let that leg drop ACROSS your body toward the floor.  Your upper body stays on the floor, as you are rotating from the waist.  Hold for 30 seconds.  To enhance the stretch, press down on that leg just above the knee as you stretch, bringing it closer to the floor.

WHAT TO DO NEXT?

Strengthen the psoas muscle as previously described.  For the gluteal muscle, kneel on the floor and place hands or elbows/forearms on the floor.  Extend the right leg out so the knee is straight and the leg is parallel with the floor.  Rotate the leg outward from the hip.  Contract the glute and raise the leg up higher without hyper extending your low back.  Do 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions.  An advanced progression of this exercise is to add a 5 lb. ankle weight.

3.  Plantar fasciitis

The main culprit of plantar fasciitis is a tight calf muscle.  Many runners have tight calf muscles without any pain at all, and their performance can be impacted as a result.  Often, the tight calf muscles are compensating for weak gluteals or low back muscles.

WHAT TO STRETCH?  (Do This First)

Calf Stretch:  Stand facing a wall.  Place the ball/toes of your left foot on the wall and the heel on the floor, keeping the leg straight.  To increase the stretch, push off with the right foot.  Hold for 30 seconds.  Repeat for right leg.

WHAT TO DO NEXT?

Strengthen the gluteals as previously described.  For the low back, lie down with your stomach to the floor, keeping your arms and hands flat at your sides and legs extended like in a standing position, but lying down.

Slowly raise yourself up from your torso (using your lower back muscles) as far as you can go but do not over-extend yourself (about a 45 degree angle).  Remember to tighten your buttocks when lifting yourself from the ground and concentrate on working the lower back. Hold this position for about 3 seconds.  Slowly lower yourself back to the floor in the same manner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cyclists

 

1.  Over-developed quadriceps (quads)

Cyclists are notorious for having very tight quads, which are the primary muscle group involved in cycling.  Tight muscles do not perform nearly as well as elastic muscles, so keeping them flexible is essential for maximizing your wattage output.  Many times, the tight quads are usually compensating for weak gluteals.

WHAT TO STRETCH?  (Do This First)

 

Quad Stretch:  Lie on your side and rest your head on one hand. Keep your knees together and gently pull your right heel towards the buttocks until a stretch is felt in the front thigh (quads). Hold for 30 seconds.

WHAT TO DO NEXT?

 

Perform gluteal exercise as previously described.

2.  Imbalanced quad muscles

Many cyclists have an overdeveloped vastus lateralis, or lateral quad muscle, which is compensating for a weak vastus medialis or medial quad muscle.  This usually results in a pedal stroke that lacks fluidity and proper alignment of the hip, knee and ankle.  The patella does not track straight as a result, which can result in chronic knee pain and cartilage damage.

WHAT TO STRETCH?  (Do This First)

 

Massage the outer part of the quad (vastus lateralis) using your hands or use a foam roller.

WHAT TO DO NEXT?

 

Strengthen the vastus medialis:  Standing, rotate the left leg outward from the hip and stand with all your weight on it.  Your toes should be pointing out.  Perform a single leg squat.  You should feel the vastus medialis working if done properly.  Do 2-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions.

3.  Weak adductors

A strong pedal stroke requires the cyclist to keep the legs in during pedal movement, just brushing the top tube of the bike with the inner thighs.  This requires strong adductors, which on many cyclists are weak because of tight piriformis muscles.

WHAT TO STRETCH?  (Do This First)

 

Stretch the piriformis:  Lay on your back with both knees bent, and rest your left ankle above your right knee.  Grab your right knee and slowly pull your leg toward your chest.  Hold for 30 seconds

WHAT TO DO NEXT?

Lay on your left side with your bottom leg completely straight with the body, and the knee fully extended.  Cross your right leg over your left and place your foot flat on the floor in front of you.  Then lift your straight leg up about 8-12 inches, pause, then lower.  Do 2-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions.

David Priest, LMT and Nancy Sinchak, LMT are licensed massage therapists and co-owners of West Hartford Massage Clinic located at 45 South Main Street in West Hartford.   For more information, call (860) 756-5560 or visit www.westhartfordmassage.com.  See ad page…

 

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