Once you get to the point in your training where you start to breach the threshold between “weekend warrior” and “athlete” you’re generally putting your muscles, joints, and limbs through more stress than they’re used to – especially as you get on in years like my buddy Sheldon (happy birthday buddy ;-). You end up sore more often and not recovering quite as quickly as you did when you were 18, and they just generally tend to put up a bit more of a fuss.
As your training load increases there are a number of things you can do to ensure that this increased stress doesn’t manifest itself as injury.
Take the Time to Warm Up
I usually don’t find this to be too much of a problem for cyclists – especially on group rides, when the pace generally starts slow and everybody is yakking away. But if you’re out for a ride on your own, or you’re doing some interval training inside and you’re short on time it can be a knee-jerk reaction to skip the warm-up and jump right into things… Big mistake.
Effectively, a warm-up serves to ramp your body up for performance by:
- Warming up your muscles and allowing your body temperature to rise
- Increasing your heart rate and respiration, and readying them for exertion
- Improving your range of motion
- Improving your body’s ability to manage heat
- Letting your mind ‘settle’ into the workout, so you’re able to focus appropriately on the task at hand
Usually a nice light aerobic workout is a nice way to ease into things – If you’re doing something endurance based, you can usually just start by gradually increasing your intensity until you’ve got a little bit of a light sweat going. Everybody’s warm up is going to be different depending on what you’re comfortable with, but bear in mind that you’re body is like a machine, it’s not going to perform, resist wear, or recover as well without a little bit of a warm up.
Remember to Stretch
For a long time I viewed stretching as an ‘optional’ add-on to my workouts – if something felt a little off I might do a quick stretch in that area, but I’ve since changed my tune. Now I use stretching as an intrinsic part of every workout and an import self-diagnostic tool. Regardless of when you stretch I would think about making it a part of your overall routine. In addition to lowering the chances of injury, you’ll increase your range of motion, increase the circulation of blood – aiding in removing toxins from within the muscles, and (obviously) reduce your muscle tension after a workout.
One quick note as you think about when to incorporate your stretching – whenever it is you’ll want to ensure that you’re stretching warm muscles. Stretching a cold muscle can increase the risk of injury from pulls and tears. So if you stretch before your workout ensure you take the time to warm up!
A number of good lower body stretches can be found here, though surprisingly absent are some of my favorite stretches that focus on the iliotibial band. Once you start stretching, you’ll be amazed and how much more ‘in tune’ your are with your body – you’ll know right away if things are feeling a little out of whack and be able to tend to them before the become a real problem.
If you’re looking to take your stretching even further, I might suggest looking into a yoga class.
Incorporate Cross Training
Let’s face it – If you spend the entire time on your bike it wouldn’t really be mountain biking would it? When I look at a race like the Transrockies I realize that there’s going to be a fair bit of hike-a-bike, stream/river fjording, bear wrestling, and who knows what else. To prepare for all these uncertainties I like to make sure I’m getting off the bike and doing other things every once in a while.
It can be as simple as going for a run, playing some tennis, chopping a cord of wood, or hitting a circuit at the gym. The benefit of forcing your body out of it’s cycling comfort zone is that these different exercises force your body to adapt and learn to cope with different stresses. The combination of all these elements add up to a better chance that when the conditions change, your muscles aren’t going to need to struggle as hard and so you can hopefully avoid any injury due to over-exertion.
Supplement with Strength Training
We all know strength training is important in, well… building strength. If you’re taking your training seriously you’re probably already doing a really good job at building the muscle groups you use on a regular basis, but in order to prevent against a muscle imbalance you’ll want to ensure that you’re supplementing the opposing muscle groups as well. Just like how a swimmer must focus on building back muscles to balance their highly developed torsos, so must cyclist focus on building up their hamstrings, glutes, and hips to counter their naturally strong quadriceps.
Obviously these aren’t the only places cyclist should concern themselves with, because of our sustained positions on the bike you should also be aware of your mid-back, shoulders and neck – You can read more about these muscle imbalances here.
Take it Easy
Whenever you’re gearing up for the season, be sure to incorporate sufficient recovery time between workouts. Your body needs rest to improve, and if you just keep on hammering you’re going to notice that you’re hitting a plateau to your performance fairly early (if not an actual decline in performance). I’m not saying that you need to counter each hard workout with 3 solid days on the couch, nor am I saying that you shouldn’t be tired (or heck, downright exhausted), but you have to be listening to your body and trying to determine where that ‘magic’ balance between good hard training and overtraining.
For those concerned that they’re treading on the threshold some indicators of overtraining are:
- Changed sleep patterns
- Excessive muscle soreness
- Decrease in mental focus & loss of motivation
- Altered appetite
- Frequent injury or illness
- Lack of physical energy (fatigue)
- Abnormal heart rate
I realize that for a lot of younger riders the above list will probably be more than enough to keep ‘the machine’ working in top condition, but as the years creep by there are times where a little outside intervention is required. Two things that I would definitely recommend looking into is finding a good massage therapist, and a sports-oriented chiropractor that specializes in A.R.T. As the cumulative effects of hard training start to surface, you’ll be signing their praises. Another thing to keep in mind is if you’re lucky enough to be employed by a company that offers a ‘health spending account’ I find massage and A.R.T. to be good uses of these funds.
Some people swear by weekly or by-weekly massages… I guess if you have the time and the money it’s worth a shot but for me I usually try to schedule an appointment once every 6 weeks or so to have any problem areas worked on. As you train, parts of you will get sore – that’s the way it is. I’m not really one that thinks you need a rub-down after each session – I’d much rather let a couple weeks slide by, and see which areas correct themselves and which ones persist, then when I finally do schedule and appointment I’m prepared with the real problem areas I’d like the massage therapist to work on. I’ve also generally found that a therapist knowledgeable in sports therapy is helpful, since I’m not really there for a spa treatment, I’m there to get things worked out.
The benefits of massage are oftentimes overlooked by a lot of people (especially men), and I find the benefits are compounded even more when it’s down to crunch time and you’re really pushing hard towards the big race. Some of the benefits include:
- Relax and soften injured, tired, and overused muscles.
- Reduces the risk of muscular strains as well as relieving repetitive strain injuries.
- Increases joint mobility and your range of movement.
- Relieves the stresses associated with competitive sports, work and family life – calming the nervous system.
- Speeds up the removal of toxins and metabolic waste.
- Revitalises and invigorates as well as relaxes (I find this to be one of the most beneficial elements of massage as race day looms)
A.R.T., or “Active Release Technique” doesn’t seem to be very well known to many of the athletes (or wannabe athletes, like me) that I’ve encountered, which I find somewhat surprising. Given the spectacular results I’ve had with it I would have thought knowledge of this service would have spread like wildfire.
Effectively A.R.T. is a method of treating injury by locating built up scar tissue in muscles, then applying tension/pressure to the scar tissue while lengthening the muscles, tendons and ligaments… In layman’s terms, it’s similar to a really deep massage, only you (or the therapist) moves the problem body part through it’s range of motion while pressure is applied. To be honest, it doesn’t feel awesome – a lot of people describe it as a ‘good hurt’, I think it’s almost like you can feel yourself getting better as the treatment progresses. After a few sessions the goal of A.R.T. is to return the tissue to its correct tension, texture, movement and function by which time you shouldn’t be having any more symptoms.
One of the main reasons I like A.R.T. so much is that I’ve found the rebound back to ‘healthy’ to be relatively quick, many times you’re pretty much ‘fixed’ after 3-6 sessions. So long as you keep up on your stretching, symptoms generally don’t seem to reappear for a really long time (in chronic cases), or sometimes at all.
Personally speaking I sought treatment for carpal tunnel about 4 years ago and went through a couple weeks of treatment after which I was given some exercises to keep things in good shape. I haven’t had a problem since. I also recently had my knee flare up (I used to have problems when I was younger) and within about 5 sessions I was rockin’ and rollin’ (though my symptoms improved by about 50% after only 1 treatment and I was back on the bike pretty much immediately).
I’ll get off my soapbox now, but before I do, I’d definitely suggest that anybody experiencing problems give A.R.T. a try. I’m sure there’s lots of great clinics out there, but I’ve had great personal success and can personally recommend Dr. Tony Gareau with Chiropractic Performance in Calgary, Dr. Doug Yee at Strathcona Chiropractic in Edmonton, and Dr. Henry Hwang at Performance Health in St. Albert.
Essentially my advice would be this: Listen to your body – This is something that I’ve got better at as I’ve aged. When I was younger I would just grin & bear it, and work through any pain or mild injury I had. Now I’m a wee bit more cautious about things. That’s not to say that I don’t train hard and push my limits, but if something seems to be a little out of ordinary (ie. excessive soreness, or worse yet, actual pain) I’ll take a quick breather to try and figure things out. Sometimes all I need is a couple of good stretching sessions and I’m back on track, but sometimes it’s something that needs a bit more attention. Often times it’s easy to get carried away with competition – who’s training more, who’s lifting more, who’s riding long… Focus on yourself and don’t over-reach your capabilities.