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Is your body alignment slowing you down?

Bad posture not only makes you look sloppy, it can also slow you down. Every triathlete knows the importance of body positioning for swimming, but muscle imbalances and tightness can also slow you down on the bike and run. Tight hip flexors from constant sitting (in the saddle or at your desk) can sap your power on the bike and inhibit your ability to take full advantage of your glutes to pedal. Rounded shoulders and a hunched spine will prevent you from achieving the forward body lean necessary for efficient running, and poor lower limb flexibility affects the range of motion in your legs and thus your gait. Rooting out body alignment problems and fixing them will turn you from a back-of-the-packer who moves like Frankenstein to a smooth, supple, efficient triathlete.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, in optimal postural alignment, an imaginary vertical line passing through your center of gravity should intersect the center of most joints, and distribute body weight evenly on each side. However, few people’s habitual posture perfectly balances their body weight. Improper posture alters spinal alignment and muscular balance, and impedes triathlon performance as well as daily activities, health and wellbeing.

Assessing Alignment

To assess your body alignment, you will need a digital camera, an assistant and a large grid such as the Posture and Body Alignment Grid™ or a tile wall. Take off your shoes and put on as little (preferably tight-fitting) clothing as possible--a tri-suit is perfect. Stand with normal posture, and have your assistant take a picture from the front, back, left and right. Once you view the photos, you will be able to trace the line of gravity and use the posture grid to detect any imbalances and misalignments.

From the Front

The line of gravity should bisect your body into right and left halves, and fall halfway between your shoulders (glenohumeral joint), elbows, wrists, hips, knees and ankles. Make sure that your head is straight, and not tilted up (from too much time in the aero bars), down or to the side. Check that one shoulder is not elevated above the other. The palms of your hands should be facing your sides. Check to see if you are bow-legged (genu varum) or knock-kneed (genu valgum).

From the Back

When analyzing your posture from behind, first look at your vertebral column to check for scoliosis (a crooked spine). Look at your shoulder and neck muscles to see if one side is more developed than the other (most people's shoulders are uneven). Check that the scapulae (shoulder blades) are not winging out due to tight chest muscles and weak back muscles. Rounded shoulders are extremely common in both cyclists and runners, and tight chests are a natural side effect of swimming. Finally, look at your feet to check for flat-footedness (“fallen arches”).

From the Side

When assessing the lateral (left and right) photographs, check that your head is not protruding forward or your chin tilting up. Your upper spine shouldn’t be hunched in an exaggerated C-curve (kyphosis) and your lower spine shouldn’t be excessively arched (lordosis). Assess whether there is any forward rounding in your shoulders, causing your arms and wrists to hang in front of your body like a caveman. Finally, check your pelvis to see if his bottom is sticking out (anterior tilt) or tucked under (posterior tilt). Your pelvic alignment is particularly important for proper running form.

Stretching and Strengthening

Luckily, postural abnormalities are reversible through a combination of strengthening and flexibility exercises. If the muscles on one side of a joint are chronically shortened and tight, the muscles on the opposite side of that joint will be permanently stretched and weak. For example, from sitting hunched over a desk, many people develop rounded shoulders as their chest muscles tighten and their upper back muscles stretch out. To correct the problem, a desk jockey should stretch her pectoral (chest) and deltoid (shoulder) muscles while also strengthening her back muscles. Strengthening the abdominal muscles while stretching the lower back helps to correct lordosis. A general flexibility and strengthening program may add another hour's training to your schedule, but it will pay huge dividends on race day.

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