*UPDATE* Psychological Effects of Heart Rate Monitor Use Study

12/21/2010: Preliminary results were reported at Indoor Cycle Instructor in October 2010. Manuscript in preparation. Once published, results will be made available on this site and at ICI.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

What We Can Learn from Pain

Pain can sometimes be a good thing, as it calls our attention to something -- perhaps subtle -- that is responsible for our pain, that we might otherwise not have noticed. Here are some common physical complaints amongst cyclists, and what they often mean. If you experience any pain during my classes, flag me over *immediately* - by the way.

- Are you leaning on the handlebars? Don't. Especially when the core is weak, we lean forward and make the upper body work wayyyyy too hard. Cycling is about your legs and your core - not the upper body! ARE YOU SHRUGGING YOUR SHOULDERS? I did for years, until the pain got so bad that I *had* to pay attention. Think: "shoulders ROLLED BACK and down, elbows point downwards towards the floor."

Lower back pain while riding - Are you arching your lower back, especially in Hand Position 3? Don't. (Ride beside a mirror to check yourself... or flag me over to come look!) Also might be your hamstrings just being especially tight, or even weak. The hamstrings attach at the lower back, so often lower back pain is not the back at all -- it's the hamstrings!
* Stiffness/soreness - Lack of counterbalancing training. Our proper cycling posture assumes a constant state of flexion, hinged forward at the hip and rounding the back out to lean over the handlebars -- so it's important to also incorporate balancing, counteracting movements (like backbends, which stretch/elongate the hip flexors and quads, too!)

* Pain on inner side of knee -
often indicative of foot misalignment. Make sure your heel is straight, not jutting out to the side
* Pain/burning on your outer side of knee -
usually the IT band (strip of fibers from your hip all the way down the side of the thigh to the knee). Means it's tight and unhappy with our current stretching regimen.
* Pain behind the knee -
Saddle may be too high or too far back, puts pressure on the tendons/ligaments behind the knees
* Pain in front of the knee - Saddle may be too low or too far forward, puts pressure on the knees

Pain -
often indicative of foot misalignment. If you ride clipped in, *check your cleat alignment* -- cleats shift over time! Pain on one side of your calf usually corresponds to the cleat being crooked, with the cleat being higher on the side of the calf that has pain.
If you ride in sneakers, check your overall foot alignment -

* Numbness - nerve compression, often indicative of your shoes being too soft. Cycling shoes with rigid soles should hopefully address this!
Pain in front of ankle -often you are inadvertently riding with your toes pointed down. Think: "heel down, scrape the foot straight backwards"
* Arch pain - you are riding with your foot too far forward in the pedal cages. Think: "ball of the foot over the center of the pedal." The balls of your feet can support your body weight; your arches cannot.

Hips, thighs, knees, ankles should be in perfect alignment -- all directly forward. Any deviation from this, and you run the risk of muscle imbalances. Any part that juts out to the side (due to chronic tightness, injury... or just plain ignoring my cues! Heh.) is *not* working as hard, and imbalances (and injury) are directly on the road ahead...

Let me know if you have any questions! Email me at melspin@gmail.com


"Prehabilitation" to avoid muscle imbalances!

I try to learn something from any unfortunate experience I go through, both psychologically and physically -- that's just the way I (try to) roll. Tearing my hip flexor, as it turns out, has been a most fascinating experience -- a true crash course in the intricacies of muscular anatomy. I've learned a ton, which I can now share with you...

First, some background: Simplified, we have two kinds of muscles -- ones that mobilize, ones that stabilize. The "mobilizers" are the ones that produce rapid/powerful motion at high force (but lack endurance) -- and over time and with repeated use, they tend to shorten and tighten. The "stabilizers" work against gravity and support the body in a given posture. These "stabilizers" tend to become weak and lengthen (which is bad for "stabilizers") over time. Ideally, "mobilizers" and "stabilizers" work together to both move and stabilize -- which is how they start out. But sometimes, "mobilizers" can actually interfere with "stabilizers" -- and can actually attempt to stabilize on their own. When "mobilizers" start to do all the work (both mobilizing and stabilizing... and perform neither particularly well!), that's how we get muscle imbalances.

How does this play out in cycling? Our tight quads and even-tighter hip flexors pull the pelvis forward (tilting slightly), which sets off a whole slew of other imbalances.
* Pelvic tilt --> increased arching of lower back
* Arched lower back --> overloads muscles of lumbar spine; lengthens/weakens the abdominals
* Weaked abdominals --> can't support our body weight, compensation occurs with upper body and hips (which is how we started this mess in the first place...)

Meanwhile, these overactive "mobilizers" quads/hip flexors are also inhibiting the action of the glutes as "stabilizers." The glutes are a major stabilizers of the pelvic region, and are supposed to be the muscle that extends the hip. Yet, with tightness and overaction of the opposing hip flexors, the glutes can become weak and underactive.
* Weak/underactive glutes --> hamstrings must pick up the slack to compensate
* Overworked hamstrings --> tight hamstrings --> hamstring/lower back pain!

What's compensation, you ask? When the hip flexors, for example, are shortened/tight/inflamed from overuse, some of our other muscles "step up to help" -- and they're not particularly good at doing the original muscles' jobs. Our quads tend to be more developed than the hamstrings -- so instead of pulling up with our hamstrings, we try to push down with the quads... and we get hurt. Our glutes/core tend to be weaker than our hip flexors, so we use our tight hips to stabilize our body over the saddle... rendering them even tighter/shorter.

In my case, for example, when my hip flexor didn't feel like 'coming out to play,' I suddenly started to experience pain and spasms in my quadricep, calf, and even my knee. Compensation injuries, all of them -- and muscle imbalances can result in injuries far more serious than mine!

This can also happen with the upper body, too. When we ride, we have a rounded upper back (we're supposed to, at least...).
*Rounded upper back --> shoulder blades raise and pull back --> chest muscles/upper trapezius get tight
* Tight chest muscles/upper traps --> leave shoulders hiked up/forward (which is why I often coach you more than 10x per class with "shoulders rolled back and down!" -- to counteract that natural tendency!)
and also --> weaken the mid-back/scapula stabilizing muscles and cause neck tension/pain!

If there were ONE posture criticism that I think I'd make for 85% of my 250+ students, it's the head. Head should be in line with your spine -- looking down, but with your chin off the chest. When you tilt the head hanging downwards even a little bit, it shifts the distribution of the head's weight so that the seven vertebrae in the cervical spine are NOT supporting the head evenly; rather, the vertebrae at the base of the neck are rudely taxed with far more force. This leads to calcium deposits and even arthritic symptoms in the spine -- not to mention tightness of the neck flexors and weakening of the neck extensors. Undue stress on the muscles of the back of the neck commonly causes neck pain and headaches!


So, now that we've covered how we GET muscle imbalances -- how do we prevent them, you ask? Let me introduce the concept of "PREHABILITATION" -- the steps to take to prevent injuries from happening, before they happen. The three things you should keep in mind are as follows:
1) Make sure you are using proper technique in the first place. Sometimes ineffective techniques are obvious -- when I see them, I correct them. Sometimes, however, they are more subtle. If you are in doubt, come talk to me before class and I'll pay very close attention to your technique...
2) STRETCH. STRETCH. STRETCH. STREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETCH. (Hint: the cool-down stretching at the end of class is totally totally insufficient!)
3) Strength-training! We need to strengthen the glutes (not just the "gluteus maximus" on the backside - but the "gluteus medius" in particular... that's the one on the side, a prime stabilizer that gets long and weak!) and the hamstrings. We need to strengthen the core muscles. Strength-training makes us better cyclists... and keeps us safe!

Email me if you have any questions... melspin@gmail.com.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Everyday activities that can make us better cyclists...

I live in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment. It sucks. After four years of living here, those stairs have not grown any less heinous; however, over time, I've devised several mind games to play with myself to get them to pass by in a slightly more tolerable way ("tricking myself that things are fun when they're actually wretched" is my default coping mechanism for life, by the way). Earlier this year, I began to appreciate that climbing these wretched steps can actually be used to improve my pedal stroke. 'Huh?' you ask. Fo' real -- it's an opportunity to perfect your hip and knee alignment, just extra practice to work on the same things you focus on in class.

In fact, there's a ton of other "everyday activities" that, just by cognitively framing them differently, can be used to help us improve as cyclists. Read on:

1. Climbing Stairs -- keep your hips square, lift your knees directly upwards towards your chest (think: "square hips!" every time you lift), keeping the knees parallel to the hips. Any time your knee starts to veer outwards towards the side, pull it back in towards center.
2. Walking (especially uphill) - visualize your hamstrings and glutes engaging, pulling your legs upwards (think: "lift!") as you go.
3. Ankle rolls: Under your desk, on the subway... wherever you want (and as often as you can!): loosen up and strengthen your ankles and calf muscles by rolling your ankles (clockwise, snap up and down, counterclockwise). You might feel some popping - that's ok, but stop if you feel pain. Any time you feel tightness, stop and hold that position. Resume rolling. Loosening up down here is going to help you keep your heels down while you're pedaling (when your muscles are tight down there, it's VERY hard to pedal correctly...). If you need a reminder on WHY we care about pedaling correctly, do click the links to the left on the "perfect pedal stroke" and "riding form."
4. Hip flexor stretches wherever you can fit them in! Lifting one foot onto a chair (the other on the floor) or a few steps higher than the other foot on a staircase, push all your weight forward onto your hip flexor (feel a nice strong pull in the front-top of your leg). When we cycle, our hip flexors shorten and we end up using other muscles to compensate for activities that require them... and we end up injured like me!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Iliopsoas Syndrome... what can we learn from my injury?

Good news and bad news. Saw a sports medicine doc today -- not a sprained gracilis after all. Rather, 'tis a case of "iliopsoas syndrome," a fancy term that means that I've stretched the tendon connected to my psoas muscle. This is actually the good news: I can ride, I can do anything I want... so long as it doesn't hurt. The bad news is that it *does* hurt, and it's getting a bit worse. Time to stay off the bike... I'm sure 5x of the 110 rpm 8-minute runs in "Be It. Own It. Control It." was not ideal for the muscle responsible for hip flexion!

Yes, it's nice to update you... but that's not why I'm writing. Just like many people looked quizzically when I dropped the "gracilis" bomb (as in: What the hell is the gracilis?), I'd venture to guess that the iliopsoas is another strange animal... and yet, very important for cyclists.

I found this particular article helpful when acquainting myself with my own injury:

The iliopsoas is actually two separate muscles (the iliacus and the psoas) in the front of the hip region, that start in different places (the psoas starts from the back; the ilacus comes from the hip bone) but both end together at the top of the thigh. That's where my injury is, and where most iliopsoas injuries occur.

When we overuse these muscles or do not stretch sufficiently (hint: the stretches we do in the last 3-5 minutes of Spin classes are not sufficient! We need to go outside to the mats and do additional stretching while our muscles are still warm!) or do not give ourselves appropriate recovery between workouts, our tendons can become inflamed. In the context of inflammation, injury can occur -- in my case, sudden contraction of the muscle... which made my tendon "snap." Yes, that room was too cold for stretching... but it's also because my hips were so darned tight.

Stretching is key!

To that end, coming soon to a Mat Near You:
I will be starting to hold informal guided group stretching sessions after the following classes:

Monday 7:00pm 23rd/Park
Tuesday 6:45am 59th/Park
Wednesday 7:00AM Varick
Wednesday 8:15PM 36th/Madison
(we started this last week, and it was awesome!)
Thursday 6:30AM 86th/Lexington
Friday 12:30PM Water St
Sunday 9:30AM 41st/3rd

If you're attending any of these classes and know in advance that you're going to want to stretch afterwards, do let me know at the start of the class... that will help me (at least for the first week or so, until it becomes part of my routine) remember to make an announcement after class that I intended to offer this extra freebie.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Interesting Questions I've Been Asked This Week -- Crazy Knees, Allergies, and... Ridin' in the Breeze

I've been asked a few particularly interesting questions this week -- and what I find MOST interesting is that I've actually never been asked ANY of them before this week. All are seemingly basic questions that I'd bet at least SOMEONE else has wondered at some point in their lives. In the event that the lack of frequent inquiry reflects a general discomfort/awkwardness on the topics at hand, I figured I'd clear the air...

Q: "I got new cycling shorts and they're so uncomfortable! I thought they were supposed to make riding more comfortable! What's wrong with them? Maybe they're too tight... I can see my underwear line, after all."
A: Dead give-away -- you've introduced a new element of discomfort: friction from the underwear. Good cycling shorts have a padded lining (many are made with specific antimicrobial material, and many have seamless designs for a completely smooth fit), and are actually -- believe it or not -- designed to be worn without underwear, believe it or not. Underwear is just another layer of friction. Friction = bad. Smooth = good. The goal is to have as much protection but as little friction as possible (friction can cause irritation, "saddle sores" -- blisters or boils -- which can open up for further irritation/infection). So, shoot for padded shorts with antimicrobial lining (worn sans underwear), ride away to your heart's content friction-free, and then get out of those shorts as soon as you can into something cool and dry.

To combat and reduce further friction reduction, many cyclists use sweat-resistant anti-chafing chamois creams/gels to be applied to irritated or irritation-prone areas. I'm a big fan of Brave Soldier (http://www.bravesoldier.com/1/p_frictionzone.php) - but there are tons out there!

Q: "You always tell us to lift our knees straight up. I can't keep my knees straight, they go out to the side... they just keep going out to the side. What am I doing wrong?"
A: It is my suspicion that your seat height is too low. When legs bow out to the sides, that's usually the culprit. Let's try re-aligning the seat by standing on the floor next to the bike and aligning the seat to be hip height. Lift one leg up to hip height (at a 90 degree angle to the floor) and the seat should be align with the "tabletop" your leg is making. Then, re-mount the bike. While pedaling, your leg should almost fully extend... but not quite. There should be a 30 degree bend in the knee when the foot is at its lowest point in the pedal stroke. If no bend or insufficient bend, slide the fore/aft lever to bring you forward. If too much bend, slide the seat backwards.

Q: "I have really bad allergies, and I can't breathe through my nose. You always say 'breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth' -- does this mean it's impossible for me to keep my heart rate down?
A: Not at all! Many people have great success controlling their heart rate through rhythmic, focused breathing efforts through the in-nose/out-mouth technique -- but that is not the only way to breathe. That technique causes a natural relaxation and a natural influx of energy and works for a lot of people -- but you can train your body to respond to a variety of other cues (including mouth-only breathing). Get a HR monitor and practice breathing deeply through the mouth and forcefully out again... and keep practicing until you can reduce your heart rate, as evidenced by the numbers displayed on your HR monitor.

You also don't have to live your life unable to breathe through your nose, by the way. Go see your doctor! Maybe a referral to an allergy specialist is in order...

Q: "Is it ok to wear my outdoor shoes on an indoor bike?"
A: Absolutely -- I do! There are two major kinds of cleat-compatibility on pedals -- SPD and Look. NYSC has SPD-compatible pedals, so as long as that is what your road or mountain bike shoes support... bring 'em in! You'll have a much more enjoyable experience in Spin class with your cycling shoes -- you'll have so much more power and control in your pedal strokes, and will be better able to focus on improving your technique!

Q: "My wrists hurt all the time. What's up with that?"
A: You may be leaning on the handlebars, forcing your wrists to support your body weight... which they're not meant to do. Try shifting your weight backwards -- when you're standing (both running upright or climbing out of the saddle), your butt should always be right up against the tip of the saddle. You should always be able to feel the tip of the saddle against your butt... but that saddle should NOT be all the way between your legs. While you're in the seat, you should be sitting back towards the widest part of the saddle... sitting on your hip bones, hinged forward at the hips but keeping all your body weight towards the back of the seat.

As I always say, "you will never ever ever ever ever take your hands off the handlebars in a Spinning class... but your touch should be so light that you feel as though you could!"
PS - Anyone who coaches you to ride with one or both arms tucked behind your back is in total violation of the guidelines of the Spinning program. Ignore them! You're not working harder... you're just more likely to get injured.

And last but not least, this last one I *do* get asked all the time... and it's just so important to keep answering and driving home!

Q: "How do I know when I am at 80% of my max HR?"
A: Three words: Heart Rate Monitor. That's it. There's no other way. Check out the Spintastic archives (menu to the left), and upgrade your life with a shiny new (and even possibly quite inexpensive) HR monitor! I'll help you set it up and everything.

Thaaaaaat's it for now! Any questions about these or anything else, feel free to email me any time at melspin@gmail.com. Nothing's off-limits and nothing's a stupid question. If I don't know something, I'll tell you so... and I'll do my best to get you an answer!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Wanna go for a run?

No, not THAT kind of run. I'm talking about a standing flat on a Spin bike -- one of the only moves we do on a Spin bike that doesn't directly come from the road outside, and a move that is guaranteed to strengthen your core muscles (and thereby improving your riding form overall). If performed correctly, your core will not only feel stronger -- but you will actually be able to detect an observable change in core appearance, with proper training.

A guy in my class the other night remarked that I do a lot of long runs in my classes, which struck him as counter to the notion that the "best" cycling training comes from long seated climbs. The best cycling training DOES come from looooong, slow seated climbs ("LSD Training" - long, slow distance... endurance work, which I obviously do a lot of in my classes). But one is not going to derive the maximum benefits from cycling unless or she has perfect form -- and we will never have perfect form without core strength and stability. Have trouble keeping your hips from rocking/swaying on standing climbs? Have trouble stopping your body from bouncing during seated accelerations or sprints? Insufficient core strength. And when we do run, see yourself in the mirror bouncing up and down? Also, insufficient core strength.

That's where "running" comes in. Beyond the mere mental/physical break from monotonous climbing, running builds core strength. Long runs REALLY build core strength. As the legs get fatigued, the core muscles have to work even harder to maintain form. The same thing happens when we run really fast. And what happens when we build core strength? Our entire overall cycling form improves.

Except there's one problem. Many people do not run properly, with form ranging from moderately sloppy to HORRIFIC. I intervene when I see any horrific form distortions that will result in injury, but I usually let the moderately sloppy "go" without individualized corrections. I give general posture cues to the class, of course, in hopes that individuals hear my words and adjust their form accordingly. There are those, of course, who are frustratingly refractory to posture cues -- but what can you do?

My new ride, "Be It. Own It. Control It." is the hardest ride I've ever designed and choreographed. I've been thinking about it for months, and tinkering with various training principles to get it to flow the way I intended it. I'm really quite proud of how it turned out.
"Be It. Own It..." is designed to FORCE riders to perfect their running form.

What is the perfect running form?
1) HANDS: Hand Position 2 - hands lightly on the horizontal portion of the handlebar, shoulder width apart. (How I often describe it: "You're never ever ever ever going to take your hands off the handlebar in a Spinning class... but your touch should be so light that you feel like you could!")
2) ALIGNMENT: Lower body weight balanced directly over the pedals. Butt is up against the nose/tip of the saddle.
3) FEET: Feet are flat. Ball of your foot on center of the pedal (no pressure over the arches).
4) UPPER BODY: Shoulders down. Elbows square alongside your torso, elbows bent to point DOWN towards the floor. Chest broad and "open." Head looking straight ahead
5) HIPS: Level. Not bouncing or twisting.

a run. Thaaaaaat's what's going to work and tone those core muscles.

If you want specific critical feedback on your running form, come talk to me before class and I'll pay specific attention to your runs so as to be able to do so.

Here's to strong cores and toned hips!