Triathlon is a “Hip” Sport

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Ironman in SpeedoOk, so it is not necessarily “hip” in the sense that it is “cool” or “fashionable”…although it is certainly quickly becoming more and more “fashionable” to be a triathlete. What this post is really about, however, is how your success in each discipline in triathlon is highly dependent on how effectively you use your hips. I know….what a clever post title! What?…you are not impressed? Well, whatever…I thought it was good.

Anyway, let’s talk about how using your hips properly in swimming, biking, and running can increase your performance. Now, it could be that you already use your hips correctly in some, if not all, of these three disciplines. But, chances are that you could at least use a little reminder of how to use your hips for power and posture, and many of you could probably use a little “hip 101”. I won’t try to fool you into believing that I am the expert on this subject but I will give you what I have learned thus far and point you in the direction of some good resources that will show you what I am talking about.

Before I get started, I have to give some credit to my Dad for this post. I got the idea for this post while he and I were wakeboarding in Kauai in September of (2010). He tricked me by taking lessons in Florida before we went to Kauai and ended up smoking me out there on the water (what a cheater). The one piece of advice that he kept giving me was to push my hips out so that I wasn’t bent over at the waist…at the time, I didn’t realize that he was relaying advice that he got from the professional wakeboarder that he took lessons from in Florida (again I say, what a cheater!). However, when I did that, my muscles weren’t as tired, I had better control over where I was going, and I was more stable. My thoughts immediately went to my swim coaching with Total Immersion where I had learned about the importance of the hips in developing the freestyle swim stroke. As I began to think about it more, I realized that each sport in triathlon actually had quite a bit to do with how you use your hips (mostly about positioning them properly so that you can engage core muscles in the most effective manner). Not only that, but almost every sport or activity seems to be about how you use your hips. Just do a google search on swinging a bat or a golf club and see how much info you get about using your hips.

Swimming – Hip sport #1:

So, I will start with swimming for two reasons:
1) Because it is the first sport you do in triathlon…makes sense to just go in order.
2) Because that is where I am the most qualified to talk about proper form and the use of the hips since I am a certified Total Immersion swim instructor.

The role that the hips play in swimming:

1) Posture: The hips help align the body in the perfect posture (and streamlined) position. In order to be in a streamlined position, you need to align your body just as you would in creating good posture when standing up. You can’t do this if you pelvis is not in the right position. You can check this by looking to see if there is an arch in your lower back. If so, tilt your pelvis such that it removes the arch in your lower back and aligns your spine properly. You can try this standing up and then translate it to the pool. When standing up, work on making your pelvis level as if it were a cup that is holding water and you don’t want to spill any. This will often mean that you will need to tilt the front of the pelvis up by engaging your lower abs and pulling them in without clinching the glutes. Think of driving the belly button toward your spine. If you can’t feel this while standing or while swimming, try laying down on the floor on your back and pressing your lower back into the floor so there is no arch in your lower back and then try again standing up.
In addition to increasing your streamline, the perfect posture also helps you translate power through your body. If your body is in perfect posture, your bones create a solid column through which power is transferred without much loss.

2) High side potential energy: In Figure 1, you see what is known in Total Immersion swimming as “skating position”. I often stress when teaching lessons that this is the most important position to imprint for any swimmer because it is where you spend most of your time as a swimmer (on one side or the other) just like a speed skater spends most of his or her time on one skate or the other. The speed skater simply shifts weight from one skate to the other and adjusts the amount of glide to fit the type of skating he or she wants to do (usually faster weight shift tempo and shorter glides for sprinting and slower weight shift tempo and longer glides for distance skating). You can think of swimming the exact same way…simply shift your weight from one “skate” to the other and adjust your tempo and your glide for the type of swimming you are doing.

Figure 1

Skating Position

One of the keys to doing this in swimming is maximizing your weight shift to take full advantage of the potential energy available so that you don’t have to use as much muscular force. The skater does this by leaning forward. This helps the skater take advantage of gravitational potential energy.

Figure 2

Swing Switch

For the swimmer, it is not as easy and intuitive. So, how do we maximize the potential energy available for the weight shift in swimming? In Figure 2 above, let’s call the extended arm side of the body the “low” side and the recovery arm side the “high” side. There is potential energy stored in the “high” side that we can convert into forward motion. How? Notice the steep angle of entry for the recovery arm in Figure 2. When I enter at a steep angle that more closely matches the direction of gravitational potential energy, I am able to spear forward while I drive the hip down and convert some of that energy into forward motion. This is not possible if I allow my arm to flatten out and reach over the water before entry. Terry Laughlin explains pretty much the same and more in the video below:

So, you may be wondering why I just went through all that talk about skating and potential energy in a post about how to use your hips in triathlon. I hardly even mentioned hips. I know. Well, I had to go through all of that to get to the connection with the hips. You see, when you are swimming with maximizing your potential energy in the weight shift, one of the most effective focal points is to visualize driving your “high” side hip down at the right moment. Next time you go swimming, think about driving your high hip down on every stroke just as your hand enters the water and spears forward. It makes a difference.

Biking – Hip Sport #2:

1) Hip Angle: In the swim section, we talked about leveling your pelvis to remove curvature in the lower back and therefore create a better streamline and posture. In cycling, the angle of your pelvis or hips in that same plane plays a huge role in the power you can produce. Specifically, let’s talk about hip angle on a triathlon specific bike.
Unlike in swimming, I don’t have a whole lot of training in bike fit or even specific cycling technique. I have, however, done some reading on the subject and found some pretty useful stuff.
This article from Dan Empfield, founder of Quintana Roo and Slowtwitch, explains the F.I.S.T. (Fit Institute Slowtwitch) method of fitting triathlon bikes to their riders. In this article, he talks specifically about a narrow range of hip angles (95 – 105 degrees) that almost all riders naturally choose when being fit to their triathlon bikes. Most riders can feel what allows them to apply more power and what is just uncomfortable. Dan’s method simply involves lowering the aerobars in 1 cm increments and asking the rider if it is “better” or “worse” and then adjusting from there (more details in the actual article). This entire article on the F.I.S.T. method is worth a read. I am personally thinking of getting certified as a F.I.S.T. bike fitter in the near future.
Obviously, just from this article it seems apparent that the angle of your hips plays a role in your power production in the saddle to such an extent that you can feel the difference as the angle is changed by only 1 cm drops in the front of the bike.

2) Posture in the saddle: So, now you have your bike setup with the hip angle that gives you the most power, but what happens if you don’t sit in the saddle with the right posture? Joe Friel talks a bit about that in this blog article. If you don’t know who Joel Friel is then you almost can’t call yourself a triathlete…OK, so maybe that is not true but Joe Friel wrote “The Triathlete’s Training Bible” which pretty much has been known as exactly what it is titled….the Bible for triathletes. Even the online training log program I use for all of my athlete’s plans as well as my own (Training Peaks) is designed around the ideas from Joe’s book.

3) Pedaling from the hips: It has been suggested that pedaling your bike “from the hips” is the most efficient way to pedal a bicycle. Unfortunately, I cannot reproduce any of the articles that have said such things. I believe I read it in Bicycling magazine and I believe there was also another Joe Friel blog on the subject but I cannot seem to find them. Regardless, I think it is at least something you should give some thought to next time you are on your bike. I like it as a cue when I am riding because it seems to help me think of a more complete pedal stroke rather than just mashing the front end of the stroke with my quads and forgetting about the top, bottom, and back of the pedal stroke. Give it a shot.

Running – Hip Sport #3:

1) Posture: This point is almost exactly the same as it was for swimming. To help perfect your run posture in the hip region, simply engage your lower abs and level your pelvis as if it were a bowl full of liquid that you don’t want to spill. This does a couple of things: a) It helps create your posture column as described above such that your body is supported by your bones and not by your muscles. This saves valuable energy during your run by allowing the muscles that don’t need to be used to be “turned off” instead of being used to hold your posture. b) It allows your hips to move in a rotating fashion (with your spine as the rotation center) rather than moving side to side. Try it out: Let your pelvis fall forward so that it “spills”. Now, bend one knee and then the other (no, I am not trying to make you dance just to look silly). Your hips should move right and left. Now, do the same thing with your pelvis level. Your hips rotate around your spine and not side to side. This helps your hips move with your trailing leg when you run. Side to side movement of the hips does nothing for forward motion. Try it before and during your next run…level the pelvis to help create your posture column. For more on this, get the Chi Running DVD or book at www.chiliving.com

2) Land under the hips: In order to create a proper midfoot/forefoot strike while running, it is helpful to think of landing directly underneath or even behind your hips or your center of gravity. Most agree that it is not technically physically possible to land behind or maybe even directly underneath your center of gravity because you would simply fall on your face if you did so but it still works wonders as a queuing even if the actual result is that you land slightly in front of your center of gravity. Give it a shot next time you go running.

2 Comments

  • cory foulk

    June 23, 2012

    hey –
    good article, thanks!

    that is me with the beach cruiser – though i have switched to IM on a fixie the last four or five years.

    i had my right hip resurfaced in 2005, and before that was done i could hardly swim – people have no idea how much their hips come into play swimming until they injure one. wow what a difference it makes. i have 14 IM finishes and 9 ultraman finishes on the new hip, and my swim is back to normal. cool. or hip. whatever!

    aloha,
    cory foulk

    • BASEtraining

      June 24, 2012

      Cory! That is awesome! Glad you found the blog. Hope you don’t mind me using the pic…didn’t know how to find you. Great pic! You are one amazing guy. Are you on Facebook too? If so, friend request me at facebook.com/xtricoaching!