Thursday, June 16, 2011

Core Power or "Absorbed by Fat - the Elusive Properties of Training"

The Elusive Properties of Training
Over the past few months of working on fitness I can't say that there have been many moments where it has felt good. Most of the time it has been painful and difficult. Sometimes you have to ask yourself why you are doing this.

Occasionally there are some brief, very good sensations - glimpses at what just might be to come. Whether it is this small window towards the future, driving motivation - or whether it is just some form of blind faith - I don't really know. No doubt whatever it is, it is underpinned by hormones. Perhaps because I got fat over winter it has robbed me of much positive feedback from all the hard work. All the effort has been absorbed by the fat. Only now are there some slightly longer, stronger, more frequent positive physical feelings starting to appear. Feelings of power, speed , energy and being alive - instead of half dead.

What's great is that those feelings are not the exclusive property of youth, they are the elusive properties of training. 

Building on Experience
Saddle Height
Yesterday, building on Sunday's experience from the tough Mégève race I went for a shorter training ride to see if the same feeling of smooth power could be reproduced. Recognising that last year the real performance improvements had taken place when the saddle was raised higher and the pull-up on the pedal increased, I took the risk and raised the saddle 5mm. Riding with the saddle high last year had hurt my back - causing significant pain for a few months and a worrying start to the ski season - so any decision to raise the saddle has to be considered very carefully.

Dense Lactic Acid Brain Fog 
The saddle issue was only a side show to the body mechanics I'd be working on. Completing last week's race in a dense lactic acid brain fog, I wasn't able to fully analyse what was happening physically - but I was able to capture the physical feeling and be sure to remember how to reproduce it. It had occurred to me that just a slight raising of the saddle would help - but that I probably wouldn't return to wrenching my back again as the movement was different from that "yanking" up on the pedal that did the damage previously. Immediately on the bike I could feel the extra 5mm as the pedals seemed strangely far away - but that's just because the body is comfortable with an established set up. This is also why I think that any changes must be kept small and progressive to avoid injuries - perhaps not being progressive enough last year is what really injured me.

Core Power
It has finally dawned on me that the key issue in cycling is Core Power. This is what I unintentionally stumbled upon at Mégève. Last year I'd realised that the psoas muscle (which is a core muscle) could be used to yank up the pedal and compliment the other pedal being pushed down. This was crude however and led to injury. Lowering the saddle also lowered the potential to yank the pedal up with the more stretched out leg. I'd also played with rocking my hips on the saddle to try to get a bigger range of motion and this worked also - but it was all like one of those stereogram images that just wouldn't form in my brain - you know there is a proper message there but you just can't quite get it. I've now got it. It's all about Core Power.

Shift to the core instead of shifting gears
In this training ride I was able to use higher gears at every step of the way over 90 minutes - reducing my climb time by over 1 minute from the best this year so far - despite still being somewhat tired and having a strong headwind. This just doesn't happen by chance - something significant is working. The immediate feeling is one of power and strength. The large core muscles are being employed instead of (or in conjunction with) the smaller leg muscles. They just don't get tired so easily. Your focus shifts to the centre of your body - literally. Perhaps we are scared to do this because the centre of the body is such a sensitive area with our digestive system there and we are used to being very tender and cautious with that. It really feels like riding from the gut.

The Key
So what is the real key to all of this - what lets it happen? The key is the motion of the spine and pelvis. If you block this then you kill it all. All my life in skiing I've heard coaches say that the upper-body must be held still and all the work done by the legs - but this is completely wrong - an illusion and a fault. The upper-body plays an extremely active part (it's just hidden due to relative motion and actions being internal) - as it does also in running (look at a sprinter's body). The same mistake is repeated in cycling where any visible motion of the upper-body is considered an error - and so everybody tries to block any movement instead of experimenting with it naturally. What happened to me at Mégève was that I suddenly unblocked my upper-body - there was nothing left to lose I was so tired. In skiing also many breakthroughs are made in race training at the end of the session when the legs are exhausted - for the same reason. The freeing of the upper-body allows a range of motion that employs the core muscles - including the psoas and glutes - and alters the timing so that there is almost continual pressure on the pedals - a smooth power output. The feeling is great. You don't need the saddle high to feel this - you only need to free the motion of the upper- body and allow it to rock a little - just like the pelvis moves backwards and the spine twists slightly with the running stride as the foot goes behind the body. It's exactly the same motion as in running only the upper-body is tilted over forwards, which is probably why we miss it. That same motion in skiing is called upper/lower body separation - but it is not recognised for what it fundamentally represents. The appropriate degree of motion in the pelvis and spine seems to be about the same in all cases.

The workout was astonishing - power, power, power! The slight raise in the saddle did help to integrate the movement better and no back issues were felt. Now that the feeling is clearer it should be possible to fine tune the saddle height to that instead of some arbitrary nonsense referring to inside leg length etc. etc. (that works for nobody!)

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