Unraveling the pros and cons of tri-training aids

Few endurance athletes fully understand the potential benefits -- and detriments -- of the array of training aids available to them.

While training aids may have positive effects on workouts, they may also be a hindrance. Learning to use these aids correctly will improve your results.

Don't assume that training aids will "make you do it right." Many training aids make incorrect technique more natural. Before you use a training aid, understand the desired benefit and potential pitfalls. Concentrate intently on the correct movement patterns that you are trying to establish.

Swimming

Pull buoy: Many triathletes swim a significant amount with a pull buoy, thinking it simulates wetsuit swimming. While this can be effective, it can also encourage incorrect body position.

A pull buoy, positioned between the thighs, lifts the swimmer's hips and legs. A wetsuit will create a body position that is higher in the water, but does not maintain a horizontal position like the pull buoy does. Keeping the upper body low in the water is still critical.

Many swimmers learn to carry their upper body too high while using a pull buoy. Be very careful when using a pull buoy to keep the head, shoulders, and lead arm low in the water to facilitate a naturally high hip and leg position.

Kickboard: Throw your kickboard away! Using a kickboard teaches a distorted body position and reduces the benefit of kick sets. Use kick sets (without a board) to work on core balance in addition to strengthening your kick.

Hand paddles and Web-fingered gloves: These can be useful tools to develop strength, and to develop the feel of attaching the lat muscles to the water and of pulling the body past a relatively stationary arm instead of pulling water backward.

The pitfall is that hand paddles decrease the penalty for dropping the elbows during the catch. A swimmer can use the increased surface area of the paddle by flexing the wrist, instead of keeping the elbows high and using the surface area of the forearm to anchor the arm.

When swimming with paddles, concentrate on a slow, high elbow catch and then accelerate through the pull.

Fist gloves: These gloves have no fingers and are made to slip over the hand while it is balled into a fist. Fist gloves remove surface area and feel from the hands, encouraging a forearm awareness that promotes a high-elbow catch and discourages accelerating too quickly before completion of the catch.

Cycling

Cadence monitor: Probably the most universally valuable and practical cycling training aid, cadence monitors enable greater precision in workouts designed specifically for high- or low-cadence work.

Many cyclists, even experienced racers, benefit from increasing cadence, and having objective feedback right on the handlebar makes that adjustment easier.

Powercranks: Powercranks, designed for training only, have a built-in clutch. This allows the crank to drive the spindle, but prevents the spindle from driving the crank, forcing the rider to pull up during the upstroke phase of the pedal stroke.

When pedaling with Powercranks, a rider must lift the weight of the right leg, foot, and shoe using muscles in the right leg; the left leg's downstroke cannot accomplish this. Riding with Powercranks is like one-legged pedaling with both legs at the same time, all the time. This is more difficult than it sounds, and even advanced riders often struggle to pedal smoothly at first.

This is an excellent tool to teach riders to unweight the pedal on the upstroke and to develop endurance in the hip-flexor muscles. The pitfall is that overuse of PCs may lead to underdeveloped downstroke muscles. Use Powercranks as a valuable supplement, but do most of your training on regular cranks. I have many athletes use Powercranks as active recovery on easy days.

Computrainer Spinscan: Spinscan provides graphic displays of power output throughout 360 degrees of the pedal stroke. Cyclists can learn to balance power output more evenly between left and right legs, minimize dead spots in their stroke, and create more power at that critical moment when neither leg is engaged in a downstroke. This can be a powerful tool for improving pedal mechanics.

Running

Metronome: A metronome is a small electronic device (about the size of a credit card) that beeps at whatever rhythm it is set to. I have my athletes use this to maintain turnover at optimal levels, especially on long, slow endurance workouts when turnover tends to be slower than desired.

Just as a good cyclist maintains about the same cadence on long endurance rides as on faster rides -- by shifting gears -- efficient runners maintain the same high turnover even on slow, easy runs. Using a metronome, which costs about $30 at your local music store, helps monitor turnover and makes the ideal rhythm more natural and maintainable.

Treadmill: A treadmill can be an excellent training aid, but incorrect use can be detrimental. A treadmill's bed is softer than most outdoor surfaces and gives at footstrike. This may be a benefit, but can also weaken the ankles and cause problems when returning to outdoor running. Be very conservative as you shift from treadmill running to outdoor running.

One of the biggest drawbacks to treadmill use is that the most efficient techniques for running on solid ground and the most efficient techniques for running on a treadmill are significantly different. Over-striding is efficient on a treadmill, but not on solid ground (because the treadmill bed deflects downward at foot-strike instead of the runner displacing upward).

When running on a treadmill, make sure to use exaggeratedly short, quick strides.

Overuse of training aids can lead to faulty mechanics and psychological reliance. Think about your movements while using them and make sure that most of your swimming, cycling, and running is done without training aids. Remember that using training aids will always be a supplement to basic training.


Ken Mierke is head coach for his company, Fitness Concepts, and Director of Training for Joe Friel's Ultrafit. Ken's clients include nine national champions, two Hawaii Ironman podium finishers, and 28 Team USA members. Ken has won two ITU World Championships (Physically Challenged division). Contact him at KMierke@erols.com.

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