Propelling ourselves through water and over land requires our muscles to contract and relax, again and again and again. Without specific training our ability to do this is limited to our own natural ability, which can last minutes or days, depending on the intensity of the exercise. This is why we go out and train each week hour after hour, to develop muscular endurance; to train our muscles to allow us to go further and faster.
Most of us get pretty good at this, at least the contraction part, and as humans we have managed to swim, bike, and run some amazing distances. Yet at some point in our training and racing we have all felt that little twinge in one of our muscles, letting us know that it was reaching a point that it could no longer continue at the same pace without some kind of relief. If we’re smart we pay attention to this twinge, and with experience over time we know that it’s time to drink more water, take on some more calories and electrolytes, slow our pace, adjust our stride, etc., so that we may continue on. This is also something we have to train our brain to do, to acknowledge and respond to these messages our muscles are sending us.
I’m going to suggest that if we learn how to relax more while we’re swimming, biking, and running, which may seem counterintuitive at first, that we can keep moving for longer periods of time. While one side of our body is moving us forward, the other side is recovering, getting ready to take its turn at moving us forward. It is our opposing sets of muscles that allow us to do this, which in fact means that we’re always working some muscle group while going forward, while another relaxes in a recovery phase.
As one hand is thrust forward into the water, reaching out and down to start your catch, the other hand is completing its push backward before being raised out of the water to begin its arc forward again. We focus on the effort required to grab the water, hold onto it, and push ourselves past it, with little thought to the effort required to return our hand and arm to the front. The same dynamic applies on the bike, where little thought is given to our legs as they complete the circle from the bottom of the pedal stroke to the top, where we again apply power, and so on while we run. With a little time spent focusing on these recovery phases, the opposing muscle groups, it’s possible to extend our ability to keep moving forward.
How to Relax During the Swim
To get the most out of our swim stroke we form a paddle with our hand, forearm, and elbow, pulling it under our body and back. Once we’ve completed our stroke we lift our arm up and forward, at which point we can relax our “paddle” until it is ready to enter the water again, yet most people swim with rigid arms all the time. A good drill to practice relaxing our arm on the recovery is the fingertip drag. The primary focus of this drill is the high elbow recovery, keeping our hand closely aligned with our body, not swinging out wide, and the hand entry straight out in front of our shoulder. While doing this drill you literally drag your fingers through the water to keep track of our hands position relative to our body.
When practicing this drill think about relaxing your forearm and hand, letting them hang limp from your elbow as soon as your hand exits the water. Just focus on relaxing your arm, being as relaxed as you can during the recovery, and don’t think about your catch and pull at all; we spend enough time doing that already.
Here’s a video with some slow motion segments that demonstrate the drill: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaHijrF0XPs
Relaxing on the Bike
There are two places on the bike where we can focus on relaxing, during the pedal stroke and how we sit on the bike. If you’ve practiced spinning circles, pushing down and pulling up with each leg, then effectively you’re relaxing your quads for part of each revolution of the pedals as you use your hamstrings to pull the pedal back up on that side, while the quads on the other side are pushing down. If you focus on completing the pedal stroke by dropping your heel (like you were scrapping something off the bottom of your shoe), and then pulling up, you actively engage the opposing set of muscles. I find that by concentrating on this when I’m starting to get tired or getting out of rhythm, my cadence naturally increases, my spinning form returns, and my speed creeps back up.
As far as how we sit on the bike, our upper bodies should remain “quiet”, i.e., not moving and bobbing around. Our pelvis should be rotated from the top forward, not backwards like you’re slouching in a chair, while you try to point your belly button towards the top tube of your bike. This creates a natural arch in our lower back, lengthening the muscles. From the head down, we should be leaning naturally forward, shoulders relaxed, shoulder blades down, with a slight bend in our elbows, hands lightly holding onto the handlebars. There is no need to clench the bars, which just creates tension up the arm, into the shoulders and back.
The other reason to relax your arms is that when you’re riding in a group, side by side, if another rider should hit your elbow the flex in your arm allows you to absorb the contact without transferring the motion into your handlebars, causing you to change your line, affecting the riders behind you or next to you. Relax your upper body, focus on spinning circles, and you’ll be riding longer easier.
Relaxing on the Run
Similar to what you think about while trying to relax on the bike, running with a slight lean in your body, leaning from the ankles, not from the waist, drop your shoulders, chest up, arms relaxed, not tense, swinging easily from side to side with each stride. Something to think about to help you relax is to periodically shake out your wrists, causing your elbows to relax and your shoulders to drop.
It’s not as easy to think about relaxing our quads as the opposing legs push-off, so instead think about pulling your knee up using your psoas, your hip flexors. Instead of pushing off to bring your foot forward, pull it off the ground. If you’ve never thought about this or tried this, you’ll find that by focusing on another muscle to do the heavy work, the muscle that’s cramping can relax and hopefully soon enough the cramp will go away and you can return to a normal stride.
If this sounds easy enough so that you think you don’t need to practice doing this, that you’ll just wait until you’re out training or racing and then deal with it, think again. The idea is to incorporate the feeling of being relaxed every time you swim, bike, and run. It’s not something that you just “turn on” when needed; it should be part of how you train all the time. As such you need to practice thinking this way until it becomes ingrained in your natural form. We all fall back to old habits when we get tired, so if you don’t practice these ideas, when you get tired and you try to relax, it won’t have the same effect.
If we spend some time focusing on the opposing muscles, train ourselves to relax during the recovery phase, we can prolong the time that we can keep moving at a given pace. Triathlon is a sport where people tend to start out at the shorter distances, moving up as our fitness and ability increases. Incorporating the idea of being as relaxed as possible while working out for longer and longer intervals, is just another tool we use to help us increase our ability to do longer distances races.