Cycling involves severe thoracic (upper back) and lumbar (lower back) flexion (rounding) leading to shortened abdominals, lats, and tricep. It involves humeral (upper arm) adduction (arms towards each other) and internal rotation leading to shortened pecs, internal rotators and biceps. Scapular (shoulder blade) protraction (pulled forward around the rib cage) and depression (pulled down) leading to shortened pecs, lats and long head of the tricep. It involves thousands of repetitions of repeated hip flexion and extension performed over a very small range of motion leading to shortened calves, adductors, and especially hip flexors.
What are the consequences of all these muscles being shortened for the prolonged periods necessary to train successfully for cycling performance you may ask? Well if these tightness’s are unaddressed they will lead to poor postures (and therefore inefficiency and increased injury risk) during swimming and running as well as cycling itself. The whole story of how these mobility issues manifest themselves in poor efficiency and increased injury risk for triathletes is outside the scope of this article as there are far too much factors in the equation and far too many angles to take. For the purpose of this article, we will briefly focus the thoracic spine and how mobility and function limitations in this area created during cycling (and also prolonged sitting of any type) can affect swimming performance and injury risk.
A tight thoracic spine is usually comprised of an overly curved and rounded upper back and is usually accompanied by tight pecs, lats and long heads of the tricep muscles as well as impaired function of the muscles between the shoulder blades such as the lower traps and rhomboids. Acquiring and maintaining thoracic spine mobility and function is imperative to swimming performance and injury prevention. This is because to swim efficiently you need to get your arm out in front of you and into the water while keeping your body as flat and long as possible so as to minimise drag forces. It’s simple biomechanics. To test your upper back mobility there is a very simple test:
- take a broom handle with a shoulder with grip and your elbows straight
- stand with your back against the wall and the heels of your feet 12-18inches out from the wall
- Get your entire spine flush to the wall so that there is absolutely no daylight between your spine and the wall so that your head, upper back and lower back is remaining fixed
- While keeping your head, upper back, and lower back flush to the wall simply lift the broom handle (with your elbows straight throughout) out in front of you and overhead in an ark movement trying to get the broom handle as close to the wall as possible without your back arching or coming away from the wall!
If you managed to get the broom handle all the way to the wall without your head, hips or flat spine coming away from the wall then congratulations you are obviously doing a good job of taking care of your mobility and upper back function so keep doing what you are doing.
If however you cannot get the broom handle all the way to the wall without any part of your back leaving the wall in this simple test then it is highly likely that you have insufficient mobility and function in your upper back to optimise performance and minimise injury risk during swimming.
If you were not able to complete this task then you may be wondering what this has to do with swimming. Well, what happens if you do not have sufficient thoracic spine mobility and function when you swim is that you end up with compensations such as increased anterior pelvic tilting and lumbar lordosis (tipping forward of the hip and arching of the spine with an example of why this occurs being tha fact that the only way you could probably get the broom handle to the wall in the test you have just done was to arch your lower back and let it leave the wall) and/or increase range of motion demands on the shoulder joint itself (which is highly unfavourable due to the delicacy of this joint and its surrounding structures such as the rotator cuff). Basically, your hand HAS to get in front of you and into the water in order to complete the stroke so your body will compensate for the lack of proper function in the upper back by arching the back and/or by asking the shoulder joint to work over a larger area than it should. Both of these incorrect movement patterns lead to decreased efficiency and increased injury risk. Not good.
At the end of the day you have to get on that bike and cycle in order to train for the sport of triathlon. I am not asking you to stop cycling. What I am asking you to do is to invest time in taking proper care of your body by undoing the mobility issues inherent with spending prolonged periods in the unfavourable positions necessary to cycle thereby maximising your efficiency in the water and also minimising your injury risk (these mobility issues affect the run too but that’s a rabbit hole for another day!).
To fix the aforementioned mobility issues you should focus on stretches and mobility exercises that target the lats, pecs, triceps, shoulder internal rotators and hip flexors as well as exercises specifically targeting the thoracic spine itself. On top of this you will need to do some strength work to target the muscle of the upper back and posterior shoulder girdle such as the traps, rhomboids and external rotators as it is all very well and good acquiring mobility but if you do not acquire stability to support that new range you will not be able to utilise it optimally.
Now get to work 🙂