Proprioception and its Importance in Triathlon

For as long as I can remember, I have played sports. From Tiny Tot baseball on an all-boys team to lacrosse, volleyball, and basketball in middle and high school. During those sports I honed my skills as a teammate and player but not until I was in karate and golf did I start to understand my body’s movements and where in space my body was in a certain moment.

I started karate at the tender age of six. I was given a choice by my parents to either try ballet or karate and being the big tom-boy I was back then I tried karate and never entered a ballet studio. Most kids love throwing themselves around on a padded floor, screaming “hi-ya” and throwing imaginary kicks and punches at bad guys. I learned a lot during my years in karate including balance and focus. I believe it was during those balance lessons I learned more about body awareness and movement than at any other time. It amazes me how many adults have no balance now and it shows! Go to a yoga class or the weight room and you will see people struggle with balance. I still struggle on my left side of my body (my non-dominant side) but ask me to stand on my right leg and I can go for hours.

proprioceptive-exercises

I ended karate the time I picked up team sports more regularly in middle school. I left with a black belt in karate and jiu-jitsu, becoming at the time, one of the youngest students at the school to reach that level. It wasn’t until taking up golf though that I truly became intune with my how my torso, shoulders, knees and head all connected together throughout the movement of the swing.

There were many Saturdays and after school sessions where I had private instruction with Jason from our home club. I learned best by watching Jason demonstrate both the whole swing in its entirety and then breaking it down into sections in slow motion. In my mind’s eye, I tried to emulate his body’s position and movement. As I went through the swing, I was pretty good at knowing whether or not I was where I needed to be in order to be on plane with my takeaway or hitting the ball at the correct angle.

Now this is not to say I mastered the swing or became an excellent player. Hell no, I became pretty good with lots and lots of practice but I had a long way to go. What I was good at was knowing where my hands were in relation to my hips and my hips in relation to my knees. I’ve learned that some people just don’t have this type of connection.

This type of connection is known as proprioception. In a post by the Learning Breakthrough Program they say “Effective proprioceptive processes are dependent upon the ability of the brain to integrate information from all of the sensory systems including feedback from muscles and joints, vision, the tactile sense (touch/pressure), and the sense of balance (vestibular system).” Source

I bring all of this up as it directly relates to my current Ironman training, especially my least competitive leg, the swim. I recently discovered the YMCA I attend has an on-going Masters-esque swim period three times a week with a coach named Katie. I think I had never checked out “Fit Swim” because I thought it was an aerobics water class!

Last Monday night I donned my new bathing suit, gathered my pool training equipment and headed to the Y for my first swim class with Katie. When I got there, the pool looked like it normally does, some kids playing in the near lane with recreational swimmers going back and forth in the rest of the lanes. I asked the lifeguard about the class and she knew nothing of it but said someone several months ago asked her about it. Not very helpful. I was almost resigned to doing my own workout on a whim when I spotted someone who looked like a coach at the other end of the pool. I made my way over, introduced myself and quickly fell into a swim workout with two other people, one of whom I had met previously at some local runs as he is training for Ironman Chattanooga.

During this swim, Katie would carefully critique and provide us feedback on our stroke. I was feeling a bit fatigued as Mondays are typically my rest days. I had done an hour of yoga in the morning for a work team-building session and had run 7 miles the day before in Orlando and had been out of town for the weekend. As I made my way up and down the lanes, Katie told me I was crossing my right hand on my catch whenever I took my breath (on my right). I was also moving my hips a lot, kind of independently of the rest of my body. It was funny to watch her imitate this movement on the pool deck!

swim form

I relayed to her that I felt all of these movements and could tell I was out of sync. What I was displaying was what I could see in my mind’s eye of what I was doing. The hard part, is fixing it. This being only my third swim since January 1, my body’s movements have definitely not been honed. It was frustrating knowing my hips were all over the place and throwing my rhythm off but I reminded myself that this is just the beginning of the swim training and it will only improve.

Fast forward to last Friday morning, I got my tired ass up at 5:30 am for a 6:00 am class with Katie and her 12 regulars. Time to actually swim with those who know what they’re doing! I was put in a lane with a lady who is a runner. As I started my warm-up, I started to pass her more often which was a nice change for me as I’m typically the one getting passed in the swim! My hips didn’t feel so loose as I rotated and my head wasn’t coming so far out of the water. Katie likens the breath movement as resting your head on the pillow which is exactly what I envision every single time I take a breath now.

Throughout the workout, Katie would provide tips here and there but said overall I have a very efficient stroke and a good kick, I just need to work on keeping that same smoothness when I try to go faster and build up my endurance. I’m encouraged by these two classes with Katie and am excited to have found a set time where other’s are doing workouts I’m doing and to have a coach on the swim deck to provide me feedback to either confirm what I was thinking I was doing or to point out something else.

Proprioception isn’t just important in swimming but is extremely important in biking and running as well. Both of these sports are highly mechanical. My run technique will always be a work in progress but I have a pretty solid form. Again, this certainly does not make me the fastest, far from it but as athletes, we need to have others look at form and technique to ensure we are not causing damage to our bodies or being less efficient in our movements than we can be.

run form

I know my friend Corey over at Schnoodles of Fun has been dealing with a collapsed hip during her runs, especially as she climbs in miles. Corey is extremely fast and has qualified for Boston. She does specific exercises and drills to prevent her hip from collapsing. She has written about this topic quite often and I enjoy following her progress to correct it through strength training and learning the feeling of when it happens. Thank you for Corey for sharing your technique! Here’s a specific post about the collapsed hip: Committing to Strength Training

Whether you are just starting out in running or triathlon or are a seasoned veteran, take the time to have someone look at your form and institute drills into your workouts to keep your technique strong. Watch others as they do a movement. I can still remember sitting as young kid and watching the “big kids” go through their karate movements and honing in on the best of the pack as a way to emulate their movements. I think its also important to understand how you learn and to apply that to your training. If you learn by doing, go do. If you learn by watching, as I do, watch as much as you can. If anything, being aware of where your body is during a workout, can be extremely beneficial. Here’s an article on proprioception exercises.

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