Monday, September 26, 2011

Connections: Cycling - Running - Skiing

Back to confusion! It seems that the only mistake you can make regarding the human body is to think that you actually understand it. 

Yesterday I rode from Aime about 55km over the Cormet de Roselend (2000m) to Beaufort. I wasn't motivated - feeling typical End of Season Blues as autumn takes a firm grip on the weather. Predictably it got cold at altitude and rain from a few hours earlier had left the road wet enough to soak me through on the descent. The setting sun had reddened the remaining clouds and after passing the col the wind dropped so despite everything it was magical just being there. I felt physically fine on the climb - no fatigue!

So where is the confusion? Well, I thought that I'd figured out how the legs and core muscles coordinate but now I'm not so sure. For many years my understanding of skiing has evolved in this way - but skiing is obviously relatively complicated - nobody expects cycling to be complicated - at least I didn't, but then again I made that same mistake with swimming. 

When the workout started I put on some music - the same tracks that I've listened to for years and never get tired off - The Afro Celt Sound System (all five albums) - because on the way up to the Cormet you lose all communications so any radio and telephone signals are lost. When in a place with normal reception I currently listen to Internet radio - FRUKIE - Folk Radio UK - because it has a lot of original artists with something different to offer. It's amazing how we can now tune in through the internet on a telephone to radio stations anywhere in the world. At first I thought that this might kill radio but it's really just vastly expanded their broadcasting range. What an evolution since I bought the first ever Sony Walkman tape cassette player in my student years! (That got stolen going through airport luggage - some things don't change!)

Starting out on the ride I felt that despite not improving as much as I'd hoped for this season there was no obvious indication of what to work on. It's not just a case of increasing volume or intensity because you also need time to recover, though organising those things more efficiently can always help. Nutrition is another major factor. I've been losing weight slowly all  summer and wonder how much that affects performance. Much better to be at a steady "racing" weight and then not have to have a caloric deficit. There was nothing "technical " to obviously work on. Perhaps it's moments like this that are necessary because unconsciously you just start to listen more to your body instead of ordering it about. 

Over the years I've noticed that there are common connections between activities. There is nothing completely "different". Skiing might involve sliding - which makes it different from running - but there are many more aspects shared between the activities than there are separating them. Connections are great things to look for because they tend to inform you whether or not you are being efficient or wasteful and destructive. You don't spot connections without going though a long conscious/mindful process of building awareness. Part of building awareness however involves just observing and listening to the body - not judging it. Things taking place unconsciously suddenly spring out to your attention when a pattern is recognised - very much like a stereogram 3D image appears unbidden before your eyes. Yesterday the pattern that jumped out at me suggested that my entire coordination between spine, core muscles and legs was literally back to front. When you get a message like this, if you are honest with yourself, you never push it away. Once the door is opened it should never be closed until you have a satisfactory answer. Understanding the nature of science helps with this process. No scientific theory is a "truth" it is only a stepping stone towards a better and deeper understanding. You don't aim to stop, perched on one stepping stone forever. It's an unsettling feeling however to realise that you might be doing everything wrong - but it's this way that you open yourself to change and improvement.

The connection that I spotted relates to recent things I've learned from running "barefoot" (I say barefoot but mean mostly with minimialist shoes). One key to natural running is to extend the leg behind the body but not in front of it. In doing so the pelvis goes back on the same side - rotating in the hip joint and in the spine -  keeping chest and shoulders stable. The subsequent recovery of the leg uses the psoas and abdomen (core) muscles from a fully extended position. I noticed that when cycling, during the pull up - which corresponds to the leg recovery phase in running - that my pelvis was not in the right place to do the same job. During the "push" or leg extension, I've been following though with the pelvis on the same side. This is probably because in the bent over seated position the leg is actually being extended in front of the body and not behind it. Well, if optimum performance in running indicates that this is an error then perhaps it is also an error in cycling. To my horror I realised that I could extend the leg while simultaneously pulling the pelvis back on the same side - the horror mainly coming from the fact that I was unable to coordinate it at first, but also coming from the awareness that I'd gone all this time without seeing this before even once. This is supposed to be simple - but perception of the body is anything but simple. Initially I found that I could coordinate the motion by focusing on the left leg. Despite my left leg being considerably weaker than my right (due to accumulated injuries) and being right handed and footed, I always ski and perform complex activities much better with it than on the right leg. Perhaps that's because the unconscious mind gets more space to work and also that the left leg is coordinated by the right (creative/pattern recognition) brain. With a little bit of practice coordination started to come on both sides but could easily flip around. Many years ago I had a similar experience in skiing when changing timing from the standard "up/down" to "down/up". I'd be in a race course and suddenly the timing would flip back again. It took about 6 months to be able to completely consolidate the timing and years to be able to reproduce it in all circumstances. The shocking thing that happened next was that suddenly everything fell into place. The hip extensors could be used powerfully during the leg extension (push), the abdomen became much stronger and the recovery (pull up) felt easy instead of like a tug-of-war with the pedal. Fascinating! The adductor muscles more naturally brought the leg into alignment and kept pressure on the inside of the foot instead of letting it slip onto the outside (source of my chronic tendinitis). I could also see why when my performance and power has increased on the bike my back has started to develop niggling problems. I've been straining each side of the body against each other instead of working efficiently internally on each independent side.

Author Danny Dreyer in "ChiWalking" explains how he uses the power of the extension of the leg behind when walking up steep hills - "snapping the knees" is how he describes it. Personally I find that a bit less efficient that focusing on the recovery of the leg  - but the mechanics are basically the same. It was Dryer who brought my attention to the mechanics of this extension and how the power comes from the hip extensors. Likewise, if you follow through with the hip on the push down when cycling then you don't get the power of the hip extensors. This means that any improvement in power is coming from the pulling up on the opposite pedal only and that there is no postural protection due to an imbalance in muscle use. When you coordinate the same as for natural running then you feel the posture protection mechanisms kick in automatically. The same applies to running and walking with natural mechanics - the posture kicks in automatically and the difference is massive.

When I got the coordination right there seemed to be a real ease in generating power. It will take some work to consolidate this and see what the effect is on endurance.

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