Our Kinetic Chain: Putting it to work for better performance!
There is a constant among us all, sprint triathlete to marathon runner to Ironman alike – we all have a structural chain within us that connects each part of our body to every other part. This is our kinetic chain. We also have a connective blanket surrounding ourselves, and it sends messages along a complex highway in our bodies, letting our muscles, organs, limbs and bones all communicate with each other constantly. This is our body’s fascia (pronounced “fash-ee-ah”).
Both of these concepts are important in the big picture of training, because they impact our ability to train properly, and race strong!
In hopes to not bore you with a lot of scientific information, I’ll try to keep this as basic as possible but hopefully helpful too. And, I’ll only focus on the kinetic chain in this article. I’ll save fascia for another time. 🙂
Picture your body from toe to head. Wiggle your toes. Flex your ankle. Bend your knee. Flex your hip. Bend forward. Twist from side to side. Raise your arms up. Lift your arms to the side. Bend your elbows. Flex your wrists. Wiggle your fingers. Lean your head from side to side, and front to back. Simon says: Good job! (Just kidding!)
You’ve just activated all the various joints in your body that are working in tandem whenever we are swimming, biking, or running. And guess what? A weakness or imbalance in any of those joints will eventually lead to injury, or diminished performance. This is kind of a big deal. Actually, scratch that. That is a HUGE deal.
The reason I’m bringing this up, is that very few of us have been blessed with a flawless kinetic chain. And unless you’ve been sidelined due to an injury, and gone through several Physical Therapy sessions to get back into the game, you may not even know this concept is something to think about.
So, here’s what it boils down to. When push comes to shove, and fatigue starts to set in, out bodies can truly only perform as strong as our weakest link (or joint, or muscle group.)
Let’s look at some examples: Athlete A has a weak left ankle. This could be due to a past injury on that ankle. Or it could be due to tight calf muscles on the left leg. Or it could be because he is right-footed, and the left ankle has never learned to bear weight properly. Now Athlete A starts running with frequency. He doesn’t land firmly, or assuredly, on his left ankle, but he doesn’t realize that. Because this is how he’s always moved, it doesn’t register to him as an issue. Now the right ankle bears more weight. And the right knee starts to take more load then it can handle. This translates up to the right hip, which suddenly finds itself aching, a lot. And now the low back starts to develop pain, but Athlete A isn’t sure why. Best-case scenario: he works past it, and hopefully he gets through the race season with no issues. He compensates, but luckily his body adapts to the compensation without major issue. Likely-case scenario: after a season or two, this catches up with him, and he starts developing ongoing muscle pain that isn’t making sense. Workouts are hindered, and he isn’t able to reach his full potential in training, or worse yet, he is sidelined from racing.
Another example: Athlete B has a weak core, due to childbirthing. She bikes a lot, and finds that her low back hurts frequently when riding aero, and her power output isn’t what she feels capable of. She can’t quite get the power she wants on the downstroke while pedaling, and isn’t able to fully make use of the “upstroke motion” because her core doesn’t engage properly. She finds her hips moving slightly from side to side during hard intervals, because the core isn’t stabilizing her properly. This may not stop her from biking, but it keeps her from reaching her potential. It also hinders her run performance, as she is not able to stabilize her foundation from the “inside out” upon footstrike and paw-off.
Yet another example: Athlete C injured his collarbone and tore his right A/C joint (shoulder blade/collarbone joint) back in high school while playing football. While he has mobility in that shoulder, it’s never been as strong as the left shoulder since the accident. He’s currently training for an Ironman, doing some long distance swim sets on a frequent basis. His 100m splits, however, are stagnant. No matter how much he trains, he can’t seem to improve his swim time, and his right shoulder is bothering him on a routine basis, while his left tricep and rotator cuff region is starting to nag him without reason. The injury is inhibiting his kinetic chain, and his right arm swim stroke is weaker than his left—causing an imbalance that is stopping him from improving and fatiguing his left arm (from overuse and over-dependence) in the process. Eventually he is side-lined because he develops tendinitis in his left shoulder region.
All of these examples are not meant as doom and gloom. They are meant to show that each part of our body is very dependent on the other parts. Things that don’t seem like a big deal, can be a HUGE deal. High arches in feet, lack of flexibility in the ankle, old knee injuries, muscle imbalances in the hips, a weak core, shallow breathing (which hinders our neck muscles), clenching jaws….all of these things can throw our kinetic chain out of whack, and stop us from reaching our potential as athletes!
If you find that you are:
- Experiencing repetitive injuries;
- Not improving in times, despite your training;
- Experiencing nagging pain, or deep throbbing in muscles more than 24-48 hours after a workout,
It may be due to some break down in your kinetic chain.
Solution? Start by paying attention to each joint and muscle group while training, on BOTH sides of the body. If you have to think extra hard to focus on one region, it likely means you haven’t been using that joint or muscle group to its fullest. Here are some other easily implemented ideas:
- Swimming: Try thinking about both arms equally when going through the catch phase of the swim stroke. Human tendency may have us focus on one arm more than the other, eventually creating an imbalance in our swim stroke and kinetic chain. Try focusing on your right arm for one lap, then your left arm for the next lap.
- Cycling: Picture each of your legs in 2 equal slices, from hip down to foot. (So each leg is essentially broken into two halves.) While going through high intensity intervals on your trainer, think about the inside half of each leg working to create power on the downstroke. This will naturally help train your inner quad muscle (the vastus medialis muscle) to carry some of the load, which can help with imbalances that tend to occur from us favoring the larger outside quad muscle (the vastus lateralis muscle) and ITBand muscles (the tensor fascia latae and gluteus maximus muscles). This should help keep your knees tracking more evenly during the pedal stroke, too.
- Running: Think about your ankle acting as a hinge upon each footstrike. Focus on one foot at a time. Does one foot/ankle feel more stable and solid then the other? Do you feel like you are able to power off either foot equally, or do you find that one foot is a little more “timid” than the other? Now think about your hips and glutes. Are you able to pull back with both legs equally, or do you feel like one side is stronger than the other?
Physical therapists are excellent resources for finding the weak link in our kinetic chains. They can help train that link, and bring balance to your working muscles in a functional setting.
Massage therapy can help loosen up tight muscles, which can cause muscles imbalances. As training starts to ramp up in preparation for race season, make massage a regular part of your training regime.
Coaches can also help spot these imbalances through private consultations. Sometimes having a watchful eye critique your swim stroke, cycling form, or run gait can make all the difference in the world. Hire a coach for a private consultation if you find that you are not making any improvements in swimming, biking or running, or if you are finding that injuries or muscle aches keep cropping up.
Above all, don’t take anything for granted as you train. Recovery workouts provide some of the greatest opportunities to check in with your body, from toe to head. If something feels “off,” there’s a good chance it is.
But that’s far from the end of the world. Instead, it’s insight to use to your advantage. Grab hold of that insight, and use it to become a more balanced athlete overall. In the long run, it is time, thought, and effort well spent!
Sarah Farsalas is the Director of Cycling Programs and Massage Therapy with Experience Triathlon. She is a certified USA Cycling coach, USA Triathlon coach and Licensed Massage Therapist. Learn more about Coach Sarah, Experience Triathlon and Experience Massage at www.experiencetriathlon.com