Friday, August 16, 2013

Evolving Cycling and Running Technique

It’s odd how personal perception gradually shifts over time with regards to the mechanics of any physical activity. Whether this is sport, musical instruments or a craft it’s the same process of skill building that can’t be rushed. Perhaps the process can be sped up a bit by working at something 6 or 8 hours per day – but the accumulated time on the activity is probably the same. There seems to be a gradual awakening or growing of awareness, which although it can’t be rushed can certainly be slowed down or stopped altogether. You know when you are on the right track when things keep on evolving and leading to new and unexpected doors opening.


Watching how Christiane successfully used Chi Walking technique to protect her knees when hiking led me to spotting another aspect of mechanics that is normally invisible. By pulling her hip backwards as she climbed a step – rotating at the base of the spine – her goal was to pull her femur and knee into a better alignment – instead of her tendency to collapse the knee inwards. Watching this process it became obvious that the reason this worked was partly because while the hip moved back, effectively moving the head of the femur slightly inwards in line with the knee, this left space for the knee to extend – but in a backwards direction. In a sense the leg was being “pulled” straight. The knee extends backwards, the hip extends backwards and momentum meanwhile carries the centre of mass forward while the upward power comes mainly from the hip extension. Getting the hip to move backwards effectively places the joint behind the centre of mass – yet most people instinctively do the opposite! Most people try to extend the hip forwards – compressing the knee (collapsing inwards) prior to extending everything forwards (compressing the abdomen and base of the spine) and leaving the centre of mass trailing slightly behind. Inverting this and getting it the right way round reduces the effort required enormously – it’s dramatically more efficient for climbing anything and protects the joints.

Evolving Chi-Cycling Technique

Apply the above observations to cycling and quite a lot can be explained. Most cyclists are not really aware of using any particular muscles or muscle groups – at least until cramp strikes. They just “pedal”. Advice on the subject is sparse and not very helpful – especially regarding seriously confusing information about seat heights – which is usually to set the seat far too low. The standard advice is to be able to place your heel on the pedal at the bottom of the stroke with the leg slightly bent. The problem is that if you extend your ankle at this point – which is a very good thing to do – then you will need to raise your seat by at least 5 centimetres. Clearly the issues involved are not as simple as certain standard formulas suggest.

Good cyclists do not just rely on using the quads to push down on the pedals. Isolating the quads to push down on the pedals would rapidly lead to knee injury as well as muscle tiredness. The normal way to include the hamstrings in the stroke is to flex the ankle as it goes over the top of the stroke (the dead spot) and this redistributes some of the load to the hamstrings. If the seat is set quite high – so that an ankle extension is used at the bottom of the stroke, then this flexion at the start can be easily varied to move the load around on the legs according to needs and tiredness. Climbing, in particular,  without the hamstrings and glutes is going to wear out the quads very quickly.

The one thing you will never hear about in cycling however is the involvement of the hip in all of this. The accepted “wisdom” is that everything from the pelvis upwards must remain still so that the legs work against the upper body. Where have I heard this complete nonsense before? Oh yes, skiing! Watching the recent Tour de France the winner Chris Froome could be best described as moving in a fish-like manner with his entire body as he wriggled up the hill blowing away all of the competition on Mont Ventoux. There was nothing “fixed” or stationary about his upper body. The point is that it’s not just the ankle that is involved in deciding how the hip extension is executed, but the spine, pelvis and hip itself.  Pulling the hip backwards during the “push” allows the knee to extend and the hamstrings and glutes to be used. This also gives the massive benefit of activating the core muscles – stretching the lower abdomen instead of compressing and weakening them. If only the ankle is used to move between muscle groups there is no reflexive activation of the core muscles. Things start to get really interesting when both the ankle action and hip action are used consciously.

There is also commonly heard advice to “not flex” the ankle during a stroke because it is apparently inefficient. I suspect that this has to be considered but also weighed against the need to use the main muscle groups efficiently. Too much ankle flexing is definitely going to be inefficient and certainly ending the stroke with the ankle flexed makes no sense. In running the flexing of the foot and ankle happen (ideally) in a fraction of a second which causes the tendons to store and then release energy incredibly efficiently – but a cycling stroke would be much slower than this so flexing must absorb and waste energy as heat – so this must be accounted for. It would seem that movement at the hip is a better choice all round – especially as the bigger core muscles become active as a result and it’s not just a “resistive” flexing as happens at the ankle – in fact it’s an extension, an opening up over a short range of motion.

Concentrating on the knee pulling backwards during the “push”, to extend the leg, is another way to re-focus on using the glutes and hamstrings. Each of the joints; ankle, knee and hip can therefore become the focus of attention.

I’ve noticed in contrast that some of the most powerful top track cyclists appear to do the opposite – they follow through on the “push” with everything – knee, hip, shoulder and entire body weight going into the stroke. This use of body weight does seem to give the greatest short term power for sprinting, but personally I’d reserve it for that use only. I’m not even sure if it is more effective because the difference between the skills for each technique is so big. Perhaps the counterintuitive Chi action is more powerful once it is well mastered. Time has shown that there is a great depth of awareness involved in the Chi coordination and there are many aspects to learn – so I don’t want to judge its effectiveness too soon in this context. Regarding endurance and health there is already no doubt of the superiority of Chi coordination. Training re-programs movements and converts them in automatic skills – unconscious habits. For me the successful development of Chi skill has meant the end to lower back pain in cycling  - and considering all the damage and surgery my back has gone through that is pretty significant. I can push the biggest and hardest gears possible to exhaustion on a short climb – with the core muscles contracting reflexively and no damaging strain on the knees or back – but only through using Chi coordination.

Oval and Dual Camber Chain Wheels

All of the above described actions of chi coordination appear to be enhanced with oval (Rotor) or dual camber (Osymetric) chain wheels. Those modified chain wheels greatly reduce the length of the “dead spot” between pushes on the pedals. This modification means that you get a feeling of connecting each push immediately with the previous one and the core muscles stay constantly engaged in the action. Notably the last two Tour de France races were won by Wiggins and Froome who both used Osymetric chain wheels. Wiggins used a standard Shimano compact (50T/34T) for the Italian Giro this summer – but that’s probably because the oval chain wheels can’t be made small enough for such extreme climbing – especially the Osymetric dual camber chain wheel which only goes down to 38T (equivalent to 42T on the push and 34T on the dead spot). I use a Rotor 36T oval for the small chain wheel and Osymetric 50T for the big one – which is still demanding but the mountain roads are not quite so steep in France. This technology lends itself incredibly well to the chi coordination.

Chi Running

In the past week the absence of bike races has let me focus on bringing running back into the program. There is a period of adjustment necessary when starting to run – due to DOMS – which is very undesirable during a bike racing program. The key to minimising DOMS when using minimalist shoes is to land near the front of the heel – and avoid both a forefoot or “back of the heel” strike. The chi running uses the same basic coordination as the cycling, exploiting the core muscles, glutes and hamsrings as the foot lands beneath the body and the stride extends behind. When climbing the leg simply lands vertically beneath the body in a short stride and when a rapid cadence is maintained (around 80 strides per minute) the elastic rebound of the tendons in the feet can be felt as an overall reduction in effort. It’s like going into bottom gear on a bike but with a boost that comes from the elastic efficiency of the tendons. The fact that the chi coordination is so efficient means that there is no real impact on the cycling that follows. The chi cycling should also ensure that running following cycling should be equally effective. Right now I need to motivate myself to run so it’s easier to run before cycling.

The issue of the “barefoot” aspect of running is still quite controversial. My own feeling is that we need to go as “minimal” as the terrain permits. Running on sand or grass barefoot would probably be ideal. Minimalist shoes need to be chosen according to the terrain they will be used on and how well the athlete’s feet are adapted. If grip is needed then a proper tread is required. If sharp stones will be encountered then some form of plate underfoot needs to protect the bones. Running on tarmac requires a small amount of cushioning for impact as well as tread for both grip and protection from friction, glass or metal. The main thing is that there is “zero drop” between the front and back of the foot and there is no excessive cushioning that raises the foot up of the ground changing geometry in any significant way. Getting the shoe choice right  would probably yield a similar degree of feedback from the ground in each case – not enough to cause pain but enough to solicit good reflexes instead of damping them and leading to injury or the encouragement of an unnatural running style.

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