Core is Key

I am writing this article following a two week training block in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado intending to share some learnings about both the importance of core activation and engagement in cycling. Over 14 days, my husband John Bye and I swam, biked and ran close to 400 miles, training generally at a mile or two above sea level, and gaining over 25,000 feet in elevation in our various running and biking workouts. These workouts were hard – admittedly some much harder than others and not just because of the climbing involved. A lot had to do with how “well prepared” we were for each workout. You might be thinking “what do you mean prepared, it’s a workout, so don’t you just jump out of bed and go?” I certainly used to – that was possible until a few years ago when I both began to demand more performance out of my body and made my way into the masters category of racing. If you’ve found yourself struggling to execute on some of your training sessions at times with no logical explanation, or if you simply want to enjoy our sport for the long haul, keep reading.

Over the last couple of triathlon racing seasons, I recall shaking my head in frustration after failing various “functional movement screening” tests during a physical therapy session, especially during those training blocks where my lower back, hamstrings and IT bands seemed to be in a constant state of discomfort. I could never accept the diagnosis that “your core is weak”, but what I have finally learned is that regardless of how strong your core is, if you cannot engage it, you are simply out of luck when you need to dig deep to power your bike or your body forward in challenging situations and/or at top speed.

If you are in the early stages of your triathlon career, this may not resonate just yet – but trust me, the sooner you raise your awareness to this issue the more effective your workouts will be. The inability to engage the correct muscle groups wasn’t a problem for me (or some of my other MAPSO Kona buddies) several years ago, because as a high performing athlete, our bodies got extremely good at compensating, so if one muscle wasn’t firing the way it was supposed to, something else took over and while we might be uncomfortable, we could still perform fairly well. Now though, after racing for well over a decade, when things don’t work, sometimes the body just shuts down.

To illustrate how this played out during my training block in Colorado, let me tell you about a couple of the rides we did and what happened on these rides. The first ride of our training camp the day after we arrived in the Denver area took us up to the top of Lookout Mountain in Golden Colorado – one of Colorado’s beautiful and iconic climbs, a 46 mile round trip from John’s sister’s house, with 3,600 feet of elevation gain. The snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the distance, the foothills and Tabletop Mountain in our sights during ride were breathtaking. After making our way through the historic downtown Golden and upon making our right hand turn to start our ascent up the mountain, I spent much of the main climb a few meters back off the wheel of one of the local pro women. She was not very chatty, especially when John passed her and said hello, so we assumed she was taking care of business and was not out simply to enjoy herself. I was pleased to stay with her to the top, feeling great for the majority of the climb and optimistic that my body could handle the high altitude and tough training I was about to put it through for the next two weeks.

Well, two days later, things changed a bit. For our second ride of the trip, we rode from Idaho Springs (7.5K feet of elevation) to the top of Mount Evans (14K feet of elevation) over a mere 28 miles. This ride is one of the most challenging road rides in all of Colorado, based on not just the gradient but the logistics. Granted, it’s Mt. Evans, not Mt. Everest, but similarly, it’s one of those mountains that you don’t want to be stuck on above treeline after about noon when the storms roll in. We’ve been in situations on Mt. Evans before where we’ve gotten rained, snowed, and hailed on in the same ride where the sun was shining just moments prior. We now know better than to start too late in the day, and generally plan to be sagged at the top due to dangerous traffic, road and weather conditions.

We drove 45 minutes to Idaho Springs, jumped out of the car, onto our bikes and began to ascend. During the first seven miles out of Idaho Springs and up the mountain before the increased gradient and switchbacks started, I found the long, slow grind to be excruciating. My legs felt like bricks as I watched John Bye ride away early on in the climb, with no ability whatsoever to stick to his wheel, then after about 10 miles and now into the switchbacks, I watched Jenn Docherty do the same. My lower back was screaming and every time I tried to increase my wattage and/or cadence my adductors wanted to seize up. I was using all quads and little core. My power output was well below what I should have been capable of, yet I couldn’t do anything to change the numbers. Despite several breaks to rest, each time thinking that when I restarted things would feel better, I could not get the right muscles to fire. I could barely turn my legs over and if I went any slower I’d be going backwards. How is this possible? I just did a strong ride two days prior and now it seemed as though I’d never ridden a bike before. This continued on for several miles, and after the final rest stop before the most difficult half of the climb, I acknowledged to John and Jenn that “my legs are just not working” and they would need to go ahead without me while I slowly made my way up the mountain at a significantly reduced pace.

A couple hours into the ride at one particularly exposed switchback above treeline with the wind threatening to blow me off the mountain and a big storm cloud above my head, I called my sister-in-law, whose husband was sagging us. I told her to let Bob know to look out for me as he drove up, and plan to pick me up, as I would not be able to make the full ascent on this particular day. This mountain was like a tough race – unforgiving – and being at less than 100% trying to ride Mt. Evans is like showing up for the Ironman World Championship without bothering to train. Riding up the steep switchbacks into gusts of wind so strong they stopped your progress when you hit them head on, and they moved you as much as 3 feet across the road when gusting from the side, above 12K feet, on a narrow, winding road with no shoulder and sheer drops on each side leaves little room for error, let alone the delirious weaving back and forth across the road that I found myself doing.

The bad news for me coming from the call I made was that Bob had gotten delayed by an errand earlier in the day, so my choices were to continue another 10 miles or so up the mountain or turn around and descend (dangerously) as the wind continued to gust. I decided to continue, since it would be even more risky (and cold) to try to descend, and at worst, even if I was moving slowly, eventually Bob and the Suburban would come along and I could throw my bike in the rear and my broken body into the back seat to take a nap. Further, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy having lunch and a slice of homemade pie at Echo Lake Lodge because I’d be there all by myself, waiting for the others to finish the ride, and the thought of sitting there eating pie and feeling sorry for myself was more horrible than trying to fight through the pain.

So, I continued on, switchback after switchback, getting a push by the wind from behind at some, then facing a wall of wind on others, and despite my snails pace above treeline, I made it to the top before Bob did with the Suburban. It was sheer and utter agony most of the time – I could not remember a ride where I ever felt so bad, worse even than I felt after throwing up all over myself on the Queen K Highway at mile 90 of the Ironman World Championships one year. One of the mountain sheep that was munching on the side of the road looked at me, laughed and said, “you call that climbing???”

By the time I made it to the top of the mountain, passing one guy who had walked with his bike the last three miles, I found myself 35 minutes slower than the last time I’d done the same ride. Poor John and Jenn just about froze to death at the top waiting for me, and it was a good thing Bob and the Suburban showed up quickly because by the time we loaded the truck with all the bikes and people, they were in as bad as shape I was simply from standing around in the cold wind waiting for me and Bob to appear.

Reflecting back on the Lookout Mountain ride (albeit that ride was much easier than Mt. Evans), the main difference was in both my preparation that day, as well as the fact that I was likely a bit fatigued from the prior climb when I attempted the Mt. Evans ride. What I’d like to share is some insight with respect to core activation that might help you avoid a bad race or training day due to a lack of responsiveness, or worse, a shutting down of the key muscles that need to fire in order to perform.

Working with All-Pro Health, some of us have developed a series of exercises to do prior to training or racing in order to get the proper muscles to engage and to activate our core before attempting a workout. A contributing factor to the lack of performance on the Mt. Evans ride I just described was one of core activation and a failure to fire my glutes all day. I had nothing more to give on that ride and there was nothing I could do to change that – but by focusing on recovery, foam rolling, stretching and corrective/preparatory exercises for subsequent workouts got things back on track for the remaining 10 days of training.

 

 

 

What were keys to success?

 

  1. Massage – deep tissue massage at Devil’s Thumb Ranch Spa to aid in (both physical and mental!) recovery from my poor performance on Mt. Evans

  2. Yoga – 3 sessions of Vinyasa/Flow Yoga throughout the trip at our favorite Yoga studio in Winter Park – Mountain Moon Yoga - aided in stretching tight hips, hamstrings, glutes, calves and adductors

  3. Corrective/preparatory exercises – here is my routine that was developed with the assistance of All-Pro Health that I skipped on the Mt. Evans day but followed routinely after that:

    1. Foam rolling – focusing especially on upper quads, IT bands, adductors

      1. http://all-prohealth.com/node/92

    2. Lacrosse ball – focusing on hips, glutes, calves and adductors

    3. My top 10 corrective/preparatory exercises to fire the appropriate muscles, including:

      1. Cat/Cow

      2. Child’s pose, with hip circles

      3. Opposite arm/leg extensions on all fours

      4. Bridges

      5. Planks, lowering to “cobra” then “up dog”

      6. Toe touch/”yogi toe lock” to awaken hamstrings

      7. Forward lunges/lizard pose/Warrior 1

      8. Side lunges

      9. Forward lunge with torso twist (adding a resistance band)

      10. Pigeon to open up hips (although I will admit I hate doing this…)

Time permitting many of these can be tied together via a short practice of vinyasa flow yoga with sun salutations, warrior 1,2,3 and standing splits. Also, check out the exercise video library at:

http://all-prohealth.com/video-library

Activating the muscle groups critical to executing either a race or training session, especially those of us who are racing in the masters categories - is key. My training got back on track with a focus on these 10 exercises/stretches to activate my core muscles – and despite the fact that I could not get to All-Pro Health for the soft tissue work I have come to rely upon to keep myself moving well, I was able to self-correct some of the compensation related problems that were detracting from my performance. Diligently following a routine involving adequate foam rolling, stretching and muscle activation exercises before each training session makes a big difference. Try it—and see how you do! Hope this is useful – good luck in your training!