When you are in your best form in the pool and run and best position on the bike you should feel as though you are on a slight downhill.
The feeling of going downhill is achieved by activating the correct muscles and putting yourself in a position of optimal efficiency. In each discipline of swimming, biking and running there is a balancing point, like a teeter totter on a playground, and you want to be slightly to the downhill side of the fulcrum. The key to achieving this downhill feel is engagement of the lower abdominals and the pelvic floor muscles. Let's take a look at how to set yourself up to go downhill in each discipline of swimming, biking and running.
Swimming is all about balance in the water. The lungs are buoyant and the legs are not so the goal in swimming is finding the balance point to keep your hips and lower body at the top of the water. Because the lungs create an upward force, they become the fulcrum from which we must teeter over.
You may have heard to “press your T,” which means to push your sternum down as you bring your arm around during the mid- to late-recovery phase of the freestyle stroke. When doing this you are offsetting the upward force of the buoyant lungs and getting yourself on the downhill side of the teeter-totter. What many coaches fail to emphasize is that keeping good lower abdominal and pelvic floor muscle engagement is crucial to keeping your hips up and for power production.
Here are a few cues and tips about feel in the swim. During freestyle, maintain a slight chin tuck and elongate your neck. Your lower abs and pelvic floor should be engaged, which should feel as though your belly button is pulling into your spine. To engage your pelvic floor, contract the same muscles that you would to stop the flow of urine. As you bring your arm around to enter the water, press your sternum down. The thrust of the arm coming around and entering the water will also help in getting over top and on the downhill side of the teeter-totter.
Getting your body in position to get the feel of going downhill on the bike is all about getting body weight forward. Your chest should be over top of your pedals. You should be flexing forward at your hips and not through your lumbar spine. Engaging your lower abs and pelvic floor is essential to maintaining a flat lumbar spine. Also, with a stable lower core you are right in the wheelhouse to create maximum power through your gluteal muscles. You want your pedal stroke to be smooth and circular and oftentimes this may feel as though you are pressing your heel down at the bottom and upstroke of the pedal stroke. With your chest being overtop of your pedals and your core engaged you should feel as though you are dancing on the pedals. This should also give you the sensation that you are going downhill because your center of mass is tipping just over the fulcrum at the bottom bracket of the cranks.
The key to running downhill is a forward lean stemming from your ankles that utilizes the effects of gravity. To run in this position effectively you will need to elongate your spine to be as tall as you can and again, engage your lower core and pelvic floor muscles. Once you have this position, you can simply lift your heel toward your buttocks and let your foot fall to the ground. It should land just beneath your hips allowing all the propulsive forces of your push off to result in forward movement.
To achieve this feel, stand as tall as you can as if you were a puppet being pulled up by a string from the back of your head. You should feel the back of your neck elongate and your chin should tuck slightly. Engage your lower abs and pelvic floor and feel your belly button pull in and toward your spine. You are now ready to start running. All you need to do now is fall forward. You should feel as though your chest is leaning over a cliff. At this point just lift your heel toward your buttocks and let it fall to the ground. It may feel as though you are going to fall over but the circuitry of your neuromuscular system will do its job to get your foot underneath you. When in stance phase you also want to feel your gluteal muscles engage in order to create a strong propulsive force. You should not feel as though your hip flexors (front of your hips) are working very hard. If this is the case than you are probably fatiguing and your form is falling apart. It is probably time to reset and focus on the correct feel of running downhill.
Use these cues for downhill swimming, biking and running to improve your form and efficiency and ultimately your racing. While feedback from a coach or gadgets can be useful, the best feedback comes from our own understanding of our form.
Aaron Scheidies coaches for Team MPI and is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and licensed physical therapist. Scheidies is an 11-time World Paratriathlon Champion and has set the world’s fastest time for anyone with a disability at both the Olympic (1:57:24) and IRONMAN 70.3 distances. (4:09:54). He is a three-time Boston Marathon Blind/VI Champion and three-time Blind/VI National Marathon Champion. He is based in Seattle, Washington, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.