Sunday, December 21, 2008
Economy of Movement
There is no science to this, just my anecdotal observations, so take away what you will.
During my whole time as an athlete I have always trained with better/fitter people than me. I have spent countless hours, running, cycling and nordic skiing behind, many other very good athletes - in some cases some extraordinarily good ones. A constant that I have noticed, particularly with the extraordinarily good ones, is an economy of movement - an efficiency and an ease to what they are doing. They can be going very hard - but all is relaxed and flowing.
I had been aware of this for a few years, but it all came together one day on a long bike ride with my tri training group in Vancouver when former Tour de France Yellow Jersey wearer and Team 7-11 rider Alex Steida showed up for the ride. I sat on Steida's wheel for a long time on that ride as well as riding side by side with him and chatting. What was remarkable is that he always looked the same. The pedals always kept turning over in a metronome like manner at the same cadence regardless of how fast or slow we were going, whether we were going up hill or down hill or big gear or small gear. His upper body barely moved. When he did shift his upper body or reach behind to grab a snack out of his jersey pocket it was all done with a totally relaxed ease of movement.
I noticed the same thing trailing very good runners - national caliber, sub 30 minute 10K, types. We could be going all-out, right at the limit, but they just flowed along eating up big chunks of ground and more often then not, pulling away from me as the run or the interval wore on! It was the same as sitting behind Steida - legs ticking over very effciently with a light touch on the ground and the upper body, other than the arm swing, all quiet and calm with no strain
Switch to nordic skiing - a much more technical sport where technique, whether skating or classic skiing is very important. However, beyond the technique, there was this same relaxed efficiency amongst the very good. I have skied many kilometers behind some very good nordic skiers (National team level), and that was a constant amongst them - they just flowed over the snow, like they were barely touching it. It was the same up hills and down, kilometer after kilometer.
Now, I was never a good swimmer, and what I have just written about is almost impossible to see when you are swimming with other people. The a-ha, moment with swimming came for me the year after I retired from serious triathlon racing. I was working with Steve King and the race announcing team at Ironman Canada. I was asked to follow the lead swimmers in a Kayak and report back what was going on by radio. What a different world out there with the lead swimmers. Very different from the mayhem of my typical 58 min IM swims - but there at the front was the calm relaxation and efficiency of movement that we are talking about. Bryan Rhodes, while leading the swim, flips over on his back starts doing back-stroke, and calm as day, starts up a conversation with me! Rhodes does this several times during the swim. Despite swimming at sub-50 minute IM swim pace, he was completely relaxed and calm about it all.
All this time following and watching these exceptional athletes has paid off for me. I am realizing now that I was a good mimic. People have often commented to me that I have a very smooth pedal stroke on the bike and that I look relaxed, calm and comfortable on the bike. They have said similar things about me skiing - yet I never took a formal ski lesson or training. I just started in skiing with very good people. I don't run much any more, but I was out running with my son recently and, a neighbor said to me that I looked like a really good runner - I thanked him and then told him that I had just run around the block!
Take aways: Train with better athletes at every opportunity. If they are very good and you can spend a lot of time training with them, watch carefully what they do. Try and mimic their movements in a general sense. Look for the things I pointed out above when doing the various sports. I realize that everyone has subtle individualities with their technique, but what is key amongst the very good, is how they all look, more or less the same - at that level the differences come from other factors.
Picture at the top, is at a rest stop on the big group ride up Mt. Lemmon at last year's TriFest in Tucson, AZ. This is actually one of those occasions when, triathletes of all levels can get to ride with some very good and strong pro triathletes and cyclists. Don't miss it, and pay careful attention to how they ride!