March 7, 2013

The Science of Sitting on a Saddle: Rebound Physical Therapy

Last week, I made an appointment with Jay Dicharry, at Rebound Physical Therapy.  I came prepared to have my bike adjusted so I brought  a new saddle, new cleats and some very tight quads. While I thought I made an appointment for a bike fit, what I came away with was much more. I left with a complete biomechanical evaluation and the knowledge that my posture on the bike has the potential to generate significant improvement for me as a cyclist.

"A bike fit really isn't about adjusting the bike. It is about adjusting you on the bike."  Adjusting the bike would be a whole lot easier.  

I met with Jay on a Friday morning, at 8am.  I was at Rebound for more than two and a half hours.  I did lunges and squats and single leg rotational things. We didn't even talk about my bike.  We talked about riding single track and backcountry skiing and compared the social expectations between the East and West Coasts.

Everything was going well, I thought.  I was strong and solid and could do all the exercises Jay instructed me to do.  

Little did I know, Jay was taking an inventory of all my movement patterns.  Not if I could do a squat, but how I did a squat.  Not if I was strong enough to an exercise, but what muscles were overcompensating for the weaker ones.  

"Now it time for the lie detector test." Jay said.  
"What?" I began to get nervous.
"Yes, you heard me correctly, the lie detector test."

This was the test of truth.  This was when the pieces of my strong, athletic self started to crumble.  With just one seemingly simple exercise, so many weaknesses were exposed.  Weaknesses I was not even aware of.

I didn't know how to engage my core.! 

"You are strong," Jay said. "But a six-pack is only good for one thing. The beach."

 We worked on exercises that would help me overcome these weaknesses and teach me how to engage my core.  This was the start of a lot of concentration and hard work, but the results would make me a better cyclist, my ultimate goal.   

I could become a stronger cyclist by just learning how to engage my core while on the bike?  

Brilliant.  Really Brilliant.  How could I have been blind to this knowledge for so long?  

Finally, it was time to get on the bike.  As expected, it was not the bike that needed to be adjusted, but my position on the bike.  We put on the new saddle and new cleats and made a few minor adjustments - and that was the easy part.  

Now it was my turn to adjust how I held my body on the bike.  This, on the other hand, was not easy.  It was not easy, and that was to be expected.  I have been sitting on a bicycle in exactly the same position for years.  I have logged hundreds of hours hunched over, over utilizing my quadriceps, underutilizing my core and glutes, and putting unnecessary stress on my neck, shoulders, and lower back.  In a nutshell, I have been doing it all wrong.  

Jay was patient with me as we worked together to make small adjustments.  He gave me queues to remind me of the correct position.  A lot of mental concentration is required to overcome years of muscle memory.

I left Rebound with some black and white copies of my prescribed exercises and a green sticky with some friendly reminders of what to work on.  I walked out the door overwhelmed with the changes I had just committed to making.

Overwhelmed and excited.  All the training in the world can make you fast, but to be the best, it is the little things that make the difference.  I was going to work on the little things.

That afternoon, I went for a ride.  I road with a renewed sense of purpose . I wanted to make all the corrections Jay and I had discussed earlier in the day.

"Was I doing it correctly?"  I second guessed myself and corrected the corrections.  I shifted back and forth on the saddle, trying to be acutely aware of my body position; which muscles in my back and legs were engaged, how I was holding my head and shoulders, and tailbone.  Was I slouching over or engaging my core?  

And then, something clicked.  I found the right position.  When I engaged my core, my back straightened, I felt my glutes engage, I had no pressure in my neck or shoulders, and I wasn't utilizing my quads nearly as much.

"So this is what it feels like."  

Five minutes later, I was exhausted.  Holding a new position and teaching muscles to behave in a way they have never behaved before is difficult.  I started to regress to my old, hunched-over self, but I fought back.  I kept my core engaged, hinging at the hips with my shoulders loose.     

This is going to take some work", I whispered under my breath as I climbed out of Tumalo, "but I am up for the challenge."

I am excited to improve my position on the bike, and to utilize some strength that I have been overlooking.  

It is scary to hear about all the things that you aren't "doing right", but this can also be motivating; creating a focus to make improvements - I'm in the motivated camp! If any of this is of interest to you, I suggest seeking out your nearest bike/biomechanics fitter and cashing in on some underutilized potential.