Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Taking personal responsibility and strength training

Often when people ask me what is one of the key things to become a successful triathlete I talk about consistency in training, and in order to do that one thing that helps is to get a muscle balance assessment which will tailor make a strength programme for the individual which will help to avoid any potential injuries due to any weaknesses. So it is quite funny that for the last year or so I have avoided my own advice and let myself spiral downwards. Also, I have always been a person very high in taking personal responsibility in all aspects of my life and again over the last year or so I have not done so to the same extent.

I took my first steps into this sport in 2005, and before that I had no background at all in sport apart from a bit of swimming in school. I did my first ironman in 2007 and since then I have crossed the finish line 34 times with 13 victories. During this time I have had one injury (well if you can call it that, it was a niggly ankle for a few months towards the end of 2009 after tripping up on one of my off road runs) and so I have been able to have great consistency in training. After my niggly ankle in 2009 I had a muscle balance assessment done and had a strength programme tailor made for my weaknesses. This was done by Andrew Abakhan down in Christchurch who not only specialised in this area but was also a triathlete himself, so it was a very good programe. This worked exceedingly well and by the end of 2010 I had one of my best ironman victories due to an incredibly strong bike ride. I really could feel the difference in myself as an athlete. I then became pregnant and so never competed in 2011, but when I came back into the sport in 2012 and 2013 I followed this same strength programme which kept myself strong and injury free.

When I started working with Matt and Purplepatch in 2014 I stopped doing my tailor made programme and started the Purplepatch functional strength programme. There is nothing wrong with this programme, but it wasn't tailor made for me. Every Purplepatch athlete I believe was doing the same programme, and for those that have no mechanical issues or imbalance tendencies to one particular side of their body I think it would be fine, as it is a very generalised all over body type programme, and is good for maintenance. With the beauty of hindsight I can see how many warning signals I was getting that this programme was not working for me, and that I should be going back to my tailor made strength programme with more specific exercises. But never did I take personal responsibility of this. Although I was giving feedback in the form of comments of what was going on with my body during this time, I seemed to think Matt was a one stop shop and that he would figure out what I needed to do based on a few comments. It was like I was waiting for him to tell me to get a muscle balance assessment and focus on strengthening my glutes, when I should have known what was going on and taken personal responsibility in doing this myself.

So very briefly this is what happened to my body over the course of approximately 16 months without focusing on my weak areas of my glutes and in particular the left hand side of my glutes. I did my last race by my own October 2013 and then took 4 weeks completely off and started working with Matt in November 2013. In Feb 2014 I traveled to Hawaii for a training camp which was brilliant as I got hands on help. I was told there was something going on with my left leg on the bike and that I needed to focus on doing more with this leg as I cycled which I did for the next year. In hindsight I know how ridiculous this is. This should have been a huge alarm bell to myself to take personal responsibility, and get back into my specific exercises but I never did. I have absolutely no qualifications in sports, but if I can use a violin analogy to understand this. Say, I had a violin pupil who was having trouble consistently with playing double stop 6ths in tune. Then I would give them a specific exercise to do, or ask them to focus on their double stop 6th scales. What I wouldn't do, would be to tell them to try and focus on playing them in tune, I just don't think the body works that way. You need to isolate the problem, and then strengthen it to bring change. So things carried on for me, by July 2014 when I did Ironman Frankfurt the right hand buttock of mine was so tight and sore that I was having sciatica problems. I finished 3rd in that race the European champs which I am proud of, but during the race it was giving me considerable trouble and it was the first time people commented to me on how I looked like I was limping on the run. After this with the help of google I learnt it was my piriformis in my right butt that was the problem and discovered that using a tennis ball and sitting on it relieved the problem a lot. So I did this for the next few months which got me through my training. It was an ongoing chain. Train, sore piriformis, tennis ball, can train, train, tennis ball etc. It should have been an alarm bell to me that I had a weakness on my left side which was putting far too much pressure onto my right side, and to strengthen in particular the left, but it wasn't. Funny enough, over August and September my mileage was increased a lot and this had a good effect on my body (you would think it would be the opposite). It was like the extra mileage was enough to strengthen the muscles in this area to the extent where things came together for me somewhat and I certainly had a great run performance in Kona and no one commented on me limping. By summer however things really started to fall apart and I was doing a programme of very low mileage by my standards. Now I had a right piriformis which always was aching down my right leg, my right inner quad and knee area was incredibly tight and I had to tennis ball that constantly and now when I was running my knees were knocking together. Any race I did people would tell me I looked sore and uncomfortable on my run and that I looked like I was limping. I never felt this though. I guess the imbalance had just gotten to the point where it was noticeable to others but I was so used to the feeling by this point in time. Matt was able to see footage of me running at Auckland 70.3 and commented also that I was limping, and in Wanaka from the footage was able to tell me that the reason I looked like I was limping was that my legs were running two different lengths. One was pushing back more than the other. By this time however it was much too late to do anything about it and I saw the season out.

After racing in Taupo I had 2 weeks off and then when I began training no longer with the Purplepatch guidance, I finally took responsibility for myself and I knew this was the first problem I needed to tackle. I went to see my old coach Greg Fraine for a bike fit. We made a couple of small tweaks, but what I love about Greg's bike fits is that he doesn't just watch you on a bike but takes time to assess your body posture etc. Within minutes while I was simply standing he informed me of some weak areas on my left hand side. Once on my bike, he quickly saw there were more issues with my left hand leg. He asked me to do a single leg squat and I did it completely wrong utilising my hamstrings instead of my glutes. I was unable to do a single leg squat at all utilising the glute muscles. After this I went straight to a man here in Whanganui Terry Arbuckle who specialises in this area. He was able to watch me and make sure I was doing the exercises correctly utilising the correct muscles. This really is the key. Matt's programme was well set out, he had videos for each exercise which was brilliant, but if you are a learner like me that needs to "do" then it can be a problem. I can't listen and copy, I have to listen and try it, and then get told what I am doing wrong and try it again until I am doing it right. Sometimes I think it is worse to do a bunch of exercises wrong then to not do them at all. So anyway, Terry gave me a bunch of exercises to do, and I went away confident that I was doing them correctly.

So, so far I have worked for 3.5 weeks only. I am doing my old weights session from 2010 twice per week and I am also doing my specific glute and stabilising muscle exercises 2 or 3 times every day. I have only done just over 3 weeks but I am pretty amazed in the changes. The biggest is not in training at all but simply walking around. It used to be that I had what I call paralysed butt. I couldn't really feel my butt at all when I walked around. Now I can actually feel my glutes doing work at every step, pushing back, I guess this is what you call activated glutes! The other main difference is in my running. I feel centred and I can feel my glutes working. I can feel my legs pushing back and I can actually feel sometimes that both my feet are airborne at the same time which is kind of a new feeling. When it comes to biking I don't know I can really feel any difference as yet, but something must be working as for the first time in nearly a year I don't have the constant ache of my nerves in my right buttock down my leg. I am up to riding 4.5 hours now and I am somewhat surprised to not be feeling this. It's a bit like sometimes you don't know how bad you are feeling until you are feeling good and you can look back. Like before I started exercising at all, I was a bit of big drinker, junkfood eating person. I thought I felt healthy. But once I started exercising, eating healthy and no longer drinking alcohol I suddenly had so much more energy and I could look back and see how bad I actually was feeling before. It is like that now. I was racing and people were commenting on me limping about on the run and I thought I felt fine, I had a constant nerve ache on my right hand side and I thought that was ok, and now that I have finally done something to strengthen my left hand glute in particular I can look back and see how bad things had become for my body.

So the moral of this long winded story is to reiterate the importance of getting a muscle balance assessment done and then being able to have a tailor made programme for you that will strengthen your weaknesses and therefore hopefully avoid injury. I have no doubt that if I had let things go on the way they were for much longer something would have given in my body and I would have injured something. I always think there is no reason that people should ever get injured. Your body seems to send out so many warning signals before it gets to that point. If you get to the point of injury you need to follow the chain backwards and find out what you are mechanically doing wrong with your body to put so much pressure on the part of your body that has failed. For most of us it is our glutes not doing what they should be. My husband is a perfect example. For the last year he has been unable to run properly and consistently due to a knee injury. I told him that he should be doing a whole bunch of glute exercises, but he has ignored me, or he will start them, but not keep up with it for longer than a few days. He thinks it is nothing to do with his glutes. He is concentrating on fixing just the knee, but I feel (and I could be wrong) that if he focused on strengthening his glutes, it would take the pressure and the weight off of his knee and it would be able to heel in time. The other area of importance is what we expect of our coaches. If you are lucky enough to have a hands on coach in your local area that is perfect as they will easily be able to spot these kind of inefficiencies in our running or cycling before they get out of control. If not, then we can't expect our coaches to be a one stop shop. Seek support for strength and conditioning from elsewhere. It doesn't have to be a person with a vast knowledge of triathlon experience. I would say any person working in a gym would be able to give help in this area which could have a huge impact on avoiding future injuries.

For me next I go to the Sunsmart Ironman 70.3 Busselton. In the past I have raced the ironman in Busselton (Western Australia) on 3 occassions but haven't had the opportunity to race there since 2009. Busselton is a really beautiful place to travel to, and so I am really looking forward to racing the half distance event. I will be halfway through my block of training for Cairns and Roth, and so I hope it will give me an indication of how things are progressing. My biggest goal however, is that I run without looking like I am limping!! And I hope for no comments of such from the sidelines.