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Triathlon Sport Analysis

An Athlete Case Study For The 2021 Season:

A needs analysis of the sport:

Triathlon is a multi-disciplinary sport made up of swimming, cycling, running and transitions between each discipline. There are lots of variables to consider including location, distance, terrain and weather, the distance we are looking at is sprint triathlon which is made up of a 750m swim (2.9% of total distance), 20,000m cycling (77.7% of total distance) and a 5000m run (19.4% of total distance) (What Is Triathlon?, n.d.). Time splits for each discipline on average (see Figure 1) for the top 3 at the European sprint triathlon championships are, total race time 62:02 minutes (+/- 4), for the swim 11:58 minutes (+/- 0.19s), transition one 1:09 seconds (+/- 7 seconds), bike 30:20 minutes (+/- 2:53), transition two 0:59 seconds (+/- 0.07 seconds) and run 17:39 minutes (+/- 1:49 minutes) (Triathlon, 2019.).

The percentile splits on distance are heavily weighted towards cycling, running, and then swimming. In terms of time the following disciplines account for the following percentages of total time, swimming 16%, transition one 1%, cycling 53%, transition two 1% and running 29% of total time (Triathlon, 2019.). Cycling still accounts for the largest percentage of total race time, followed by running and then swimming. Course considerations should be accounted for in the training programme.

The swim has a few variables to consider when training, the variables can be sea, lake, or pool swim, in which they have their own challenges. With a sea swim the athlete will have to consider currents, swell, sighting, and whether it is going to be a floating or beach/pier start, the same considerations will have to be considered for a lake swim although currents and swell will be less of an issue. Sea and lake swims will either be a wetsuit or non-wetsuit swim depending on if the water temperature is above or below 17̊c on the morning of the swim. Wetsuits can increase the bouncy of the athlete and improve swimming performance by 6%, some of these improvements are accounted for by improving the body position of the athlete in the water (Gay et al., 2020). Pool swims are much simpler to train and prepare for as there are not as many variables to consider. Transition from swim to bike is normally the longest transition depending on where the swim finishes. The main considerations need to be on the surface from swim to bike, how long in metres is transition, is it up hill/downhill and the potential air temperature? Will the athlete need to leave their swim cap on to keep the body temperature up going through transition or remove it to prevent overheating? Bike and run considerations will follow a similar process, is the course flat, undulating or steep vertical climbs? The local temperature expectations, wind conditions, altitude, surface under foot or tyre and location of the race. If the race is in another country the athlete may require an acclimation period. The different demands of specific races will influence how the athlete needs to train for their priority races and effect the relative intensity of the races.

The energy demands of the sport are predominately aerobic, however, the ATP-Pcr and glycolytic energy systems are used in varying degrees throughout a race. Endurance success is widely accepted to be reliant on the maximal oxygen uptake and the maximum fractional utilisation of the athletes (Bosquet et al., 2002), spikes in heart rate occur during sharp inclines, sprints and highly competitive stages in the race. It has been reported that during Olympic distance triathlon races (1500m swim, 40km bike, 20km run) in elite level athletes, they held a mean exercise intensity of 87% max HR during each discipline of the race (Aoyagi et al., 2021), this identifies that races have the capacity to become more anaerobic in nature. Athletes who have a capacity to work closer to their aerobic threshold and maintain power output have a stronger possibility of winning their race (Austin et al., 2018).

Biomechanically all three disciplines place different demands on the body. They all predominantly move in the sagittal plane with limited frontal movements. Swimming utilises upper and lower extremities to propel the body through water. Freestyle stroke can be broken down into two distinct phases, propulsion phase and recovery phase. The propulsion phase utilises the arm and shoulder mechanics to create a pull through the water, during the propulsion phase the shoulder goes through continual adduction and internal rotation, in the recovery phase the shoulder is continually abducting and externally rotating. The propulsion phase is where much of the forward momentum is created. Muscles within the upper back are primarily responsible for producing force in the pull phase of the swim stroke, this occurs when the elbow breaks to 165̊ immediately followed by a pull and a rotation of the hips and shoulders. The kick adds to the glide and body position in swimming with the force being generated from the hips to create a flutter motion to aid in horizontal propulsion (‘How To Swim Freestyle With Perfect Technique’, 2019). The arm and shoulder apply force through a transverse, sagittal anterior phase of motion. The body rotates in an opposing transverse motion during the stroke, utilising the flutter kick to create upward lift whilst also generating horizontal propulsion in the water, aiding in the aerodynamics and positioning of the body (Robinson, 1986).

Being a whole body dynamic sport the muscles used during swimming include muscles in the upper body (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, erector spinae, transverse abdominal, rectus abdominal, internal and external obliques, bicep brachii, triceps brachii, pectoralis major and minor, deltoids and muscles within the rotator cuff), muscles within the hip complex (psoas major, iliacus, tensor fasciae latae, pectineus, adductor longus/ brevis and magnus and piriformis.), muscles of the glutes (gluteus maximus/ minimus and medius.), and muscles in the upper leg (sartorius, rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, bicep femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus.). As with all sports there has been a great deal of research and advances made within swimming. A lot of these advances have come in the form of different materials for swimsuits or wetsuit designs to reduce drag in the water. There is too much information on advances in swimming technology for me to cover within the realms of this document. However, given the nature of sport and marginal gains can make a difference, this area should not be overlooked. From a skill and physical capability point of view, body position and the pull phase of the swim can have the most impact in swimming performance.

Cycling is predominately a lower extremity orientated sport with the legs travelling through a sagittal plane of movement and extremely limited rotation and transverse movement. The trunk and upper extremities remain relatively stationary throughout most of the steady state riding and are used predominantly for stabilisation. The upper extremities play a vital role in maintaining cycling position and pulling through the handlebars on ascents. Biomechanically cycling is a low impact circular motion with joint movements through the hips, knees, and ankles. The range of movement in the hips is largely dependent on saddle position. Normal hip angles are seen to be between 32̊-70̊, in the knee between 46̊-112̊ and in the ankle between 22̊ and -2̊ (Ericson et al., 1988). The ankles, knees and hips move through a varying degree of range of movement, the main factors affecting the range of movement is the flexibility of the athlete and the position on the bike, the type of bike that the athlete is riding can affect the range of movement through the joints as well. None of the joints involved extend though a full range. Cycling requires power to be applied through the pedals to create forward momentum, power is express throughout the whole of the pedal stroke with the peak of the power being applied when the knee is flexed to 90̊, although efficient cycling technique involves pulling through the up phase of the pedal stroke, this technique can positively improve the power generated. (Fonda & Sarabon, 2010). The major muscles involved in cycling are the glute maximus, glute minimus, glute medius, vastus lateralis, rectus femoris, gastrocnemius medialis, bicep femoris and tibialis anterior, some of the muscle in the upper body include erector spinae, transverse abdominal, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, bicep brachii and muscles in the rotator cuff (Fonda & Sarabon, 2010). Cycling as a sport is a power to weight ratio driven sport, the more power the athlete can apply through the pedals, the more speed they can produce. The power is heavily weighted towards the concentric push phase of the pedal stroke and requires an athlete to be able to repeatedly produce power for a substantial amount of time.

Running is the highest impact of the three disciplines and comes last in the sequence, running is predominantly a lower extremity orientated discipline. Endurance running is affected by various factors including age of the athlete, gender, air resistance, body temperature, air temperature, weight, stride length, aerobic power, muscle fibre type distribution, gravity and altitude (Kyröläinen et al., 2001). The lower limbs of the athlete must break various forces being applied to the body including inertia, gravitational forces and propel the body through a horizontal axis. The lower limbs will travel predominately through a sagittal plane of movement with some limited rotation as the body rotates over the limb in midstance and frontal plane movement. The torso of the athlete rotates away from the extended leg following newtons 3rd law of motion to keep the body balanced. In running there are two distinct phases, the stance phase and recovery phase. The stance phase is made up of, initial contact, absorption phase (eccentric loading), midstance (amortization) and propulsion (concentric) phase (Turner & Jeffreys, 2010). From the end of the propulsion phase (toe off) the athlete will start the recovery of the rear leg (Kyröläinen et al., 2001). It has been noted that distance runners with the ability to absorb and reuse elastic energy which is normally associated with stiffness of the structures in the lower body, have better running economy (Cleather, 2005; Saunders et al., 2004). During the stance phase of running, the athlete will first absorb forces eccentrically before concentrically producing forces in a triple extension movement of the ankle, knee and hip to vertically displace the body ready for the swing phase, the triple extension occurs as the foot travels under the hip (Bezodis et al., 2008). Running utilises all major muscle groups and in particular the muscles within the lower body, particular attention should be paid to the muscles in the hip complex (psoas major, iliacus, tensor fasciae latae, pectineus, adductor longus/ brevis and magnus and piriformis.), muscles of the glutes (gluteus maximus/ minimus and medius.), muscles of the calf complex (gastrocnemius, soleus, peroneus brevis, tibialis anterior, peroneus longus/ brevis and the calcaneal tendon.), and muscles in the upper leg (sartorius, rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, bicep femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus.). Due to the short contact time with the floor during the stance phase of running being around 0.892s (+/- 0.105s) (Purcell et al., 2005) highlights a need for rate of force development to be prioritised within the training plan.

Triathlon is a multi-disciplinary sport and as a result requires athletes to participate in a variety of training methods. In a meta-analysis of papers relating to injuries sustained through triathlon, they found that there were 17.4 injuries per 1000 hours of competition and 0.7 - 5.4 injuries per 1000 hours of training, although the number of training injuries is thought to be greater due to inconsistency of reporting injuries (Gosling et al., 2008). Most triathlon related injuries are related to the lower extremities and running accounted for more than 58% of all reported injuries (‘Triathlon Injuries’, 2006), the most common sites for injury are ankle, knee, foot, thigh and Achilles tendon. Most injuries in the lower extremities are highly associated with overtraining and the high impact nature of running (Spiker et al., 2012a).

Cycling does account for some of the lower body injuries in triathlon, these injuries are highly associated with overuse due to the long durations of time spent training, and some of these injuries can be traced back to poor bike and cleat set ups, they suggest that a 5% difference in saddle height can affect joint kinematics by 35% and moments by 16% (Bini et al., 2011). This can be due to the reduction of gluteal activation in the concentric phase of the pedal stroke, placing more demands on force production from the leg. Poor bike set up or excessive hill climbing has been associated with Patella-femoral joint sprains and strains, Achilles strains have also been associated with too much climbing and poor bike biomechanical set up. Impact injuries are common in cycling, they are normally due to collisions or crashes. The most common injury, apart from cuts and grazes, are broken collar bone from impact with the road. Cyclists with limited spinal mobility are more susceptible to injury, particularly through the lower back and neck.

Swimming comes first in the sequence of most triathlons, swimming accounts for a small percentage of injuries within triathlon and like cycling and running, the major factor involved is overuse. Swimming is a overhead sport in nature and due to this and the internal and external rotation of the shoulder joints, the rotator cuff is a common sight of injury for swimmers, particularly the supraspinatus tendon and the long head bicep are at risk (‘Triathlon Injuries’, 2006). Insufficient thoracic mobility can accentuate the classic swimmers posture and induce impingement problems in the shoulder (Richardson, 1986). There are few impact related injuries in swimming, but some have been reported, from a race perspective they normally occur in a mass start when athletes are trying to fight for position before the first buoy turn. Whilst swimming the foot remains in plantar flexion which can cause shortening of the soleus and predispose athletes to injuries in the later stages.

A needs analysis of the athlete:

Athlete A is a non-professional athlete, 37-year-old, 60.96 kg, 177.80 cm, with a lab tested VO2 max of 82.232 ml/kg-1/min, 4 years gym room training experience, 6 years competitive aquathlon experience and 5 years GB age group experience. They currently compete for the GB aquathlon team and will debut this season for the GB triathlon team at the European championships. Athlete A works full time 40 hours a week Monday to Friday so training time will be limited to a few hours each evening Monday to Friday, with more time available at the weekends when not in the competitive season. Training time needs to be divided between two strength and conditioning sessions, three swim sessions, three cycling sessions and three running sessions each week of varying time. Swimming, cycling, and running sessions to be directed by respective coaches. There are some other commitments that may be a barrier to training which will have to be considered. Athlete A is the head coach at Canterbury harriers which involves club training sessions and team races, home life is not a barrier to training according to the athlete, although, a healthy home life will aid in the phycological readiness of the athlete so balancing work, training, recovery and home life should be a priority when programming (Main & Grove, 2009).

Athlete A is an internationally experienced GB age group sprint aquathlon athlete (30-34 age group), comprised of swim (750m) into run (5,000m). They have vast competition experience including, world aquathlon championships (7th, 9th, 6th, 28th), European aquathlon championships (1st, 14th, 9th, 3rd), and national aquathlon championships (1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 3rd) and numerous local races and qualification races. This upcoming season will see Athlete A transitioning to sprint triathlon comprised of a 750m swim, 20,000m bike, and a 5,000m run. Qualification for the European triathlon championships has already been obtained, this is obtained by finishing within 120% of the first place athlete for European or 115% of first place for world championships within your age group in a qualification race (FAQs, 2021).

Athlete A has a few previous injuries that need monitoring and continual rehabilitation to prevent a recurrence. Previous left calcaneus tendon strain (Achilles) in 2017 and right medial gastrocnemius strain in 2019. Injuries were due to overuse because of too much running milage per week, gradual progression of running milage with frequent rest weeks have been implemented this season with close monitoring of the athlete. Rehabilitation protocol has been followed; however, the athlete still has a low tolerance level within the calf and Achilles’ complex to repeated high impact work including intense running, ballistics, or plyometric drills. Intensity of running and strength and conditioning need to be closely monitored and managed to prevent overload and create further calf and Achilles issues. Therapy staff have advised on prevention exercises to be included in all strength and conditioning programmes, weakness within the left glute medius has been identified which aligns with the movement analysis performed.

The initial movement analysis highlighted the following areas, upper thoracic and shoulder mobility limitations (Richardson, 1986), over compensation could result in shoulder impingement issues, an effective mobility programme with pre and post activation protocols will be introduced to aid in the progression of these areas of weakness. Imbalances within the hips and glutes, identified as over-active psoas, Iliacus and sartorius that need lengthening to prevent running or cycling related injuries (Paluska, 2005) and weak glute medius and minimus. An in-depth analysis of running technique should be undertaken regularly to identify if there are any biomechanical factors causing this issue. Reduced dorsi flexion in the left ankle has been identified, potentially increasing the stress in the Achilles tendon (De Cock et al., 2005). Bi-laterally the calves demonstrated a lack of strength capacity with the athlete achieving <30 single leg calf raises on each side, demonstrating a requirement to increase calf capacity.

Physical and technical areas of improvement have been discussed with the relevant coaches, transitioning from aquathlon to triathlon, mastering the bike is key for future success as demonstrated in figure 1. With extremely limited cycling experience, a specialised cycling coach has joined the team to provide efficient training drills and cycling specific programming. Increasing power output and power endurance has been highlighted as a requirement from the cycling coach. Injury prevention and increasing the bi-lateral capacity of the athlete’s calves and Achilles’ complex has been agreed with the running coach as a priority. Maintaining a good swimming posture has been highlighted from the swimming coach, inclusion of movements that reinforce anti rotation and flexion through transverse abdominis and posterior chain are desirable. The athlete’s personal goals for this season are, to finish in the top three at the European triathlon championships, from a physical perspective the athlete wants to increase power output and work on injury prevention.

An analysis of the rationale underpinning the exercise programme:

The macrocycle has a few different principles interacting together. For the sport specific programming, a undulated step loading principle has been programmed (Bompa, 2015), following through the phases of training, the athlete will start with a medium level of volume, at a relatively low intensity and as the programme moves through the different phases of training, the intensity and volume of work will step up with an unloaded week at the end of each phase. The strength and conditioning programme is following a sequential, undulated periodisation, utilising step loading principles. There are some differences, the loading design and qualities being targeted in the individual mesocycles are increasing in intensity whilst volume of work is decreasing. This is to redistribute energy to the more demanding areas of the whole programme, whilst being able to apply more mental and physical commitment to the strength and conditioning programme (Cormie et al., 2010). Building the intensity and reducing volume should aid in the athletes ability to maintain strength and power qualities obtained in the early phases of the macrocycle whilst not effecting the progression of sport specific qualities (Bompa, 2015). The strength and conditioning programmes are there to enhance the sporting ability and performance of the athlete and not effect their ability to make improvements within their chosen sport.

On a mesocycle level, the strength and condition programme follow’s two distinct loading principles. The general preparatory phase (GPP) of training follows an undulated step loading progression, and then the following phases follow an undulating loading scheme (Cormie et al., 2007). In the early phases, building a strong, robust, and balanced athlete is the target, as the programme progresses optimising strength and power qualities becomes the primary focus. Using undulating progression loading schemes has lots of research highlighting the benefits of this system in producing and maintaining strength and power qualities (Bompa, 2015; Gregory Haff et al., n.d.; Tang et al., 2008). Various load and intensity tracking systems are implemented to monitor for over training, with distance and speed being monitored for the three disciplines and volume and intensity being monitored for the strength and conditioning. A RPE system will monitor the perceived effect on the athlete (Cejuela & Esteve-Lanao, 2011; D. Egan et al., 2006). Fundamentally the data will provide a good observation platform to monitor for signs of fatigue, plateaus in progression and signs of over-reaching.

In the preliminary training phase of the strength and conditioning programme there are some concurrent qualities that will be targeted. The athlete demonstrated some mobility concerns and muscular imbalances which could be a contributing factor to future injuries (‘Triathlon Injuries’, 2006). The GPP of training is the ideal time to address any mobility and imbalance concerns before the volume and intensity of sport specific training increases, with the athlete having time restraints prehab and rehab protocols were performed pre and post sport specific sessions, utilising this otherwise deadtime to focus on mobility and activation. Bompa, (2015) talks about the principles that must be followed when periodizing a training programme, in the GPP the principles of developing stabilisers, developing joint mobility, and developing ligament and tendon strength are the primary objectives, preparing the athlete to train. In the phases that follow the following principles are layered over the top, developing core strength, train movement patterns not individual muscles, focus on what is necessary and periodise strength in the long term.

In the GPP anatomical adaptations were targeted (Frank et al., 2013; Nelson et al., 2005), the purpose of this phase is to improve neuromuscular coordination, muscle firing patterns and correcting physical imbalances within the athlete, building general strength, muscular endurance qualities, preparing the muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons for the following phases of training (Beattie et al., n.d.; Blagrove et al., 2018). Lots of unilateral non-specific strength work for improving muscular recruitment strategies, motor control, muscular balance and general athletic conditioning were deployed in the GPP phase of training, intermingling with the other coaches specific training plans for their respective disciplines (Cejuela & Esteve-Lanao, 2011).

The GPP phase of training followed a undulated step loading progression in three-week cycles, three weeks of increasing loads, decreasing repetitions, before repeating the sequence again (Main & Grove, 2009; Tang et al., 2008). Step loading is used to progressively overload the athlete, several qualities are being manipulated in the GPP. Having control over at what intensity at which the athlete is training at, and the volume at which they are achieving, will help prevent early over-reaching from the athlete. There is a one-week unloading at the end of the six-week block. This unloading week is to return the athlete to pre training homeostasis (Main & Grove, 2009; Tang et al., 2008). All loading percentages and target reps are prescribed in this period with a RPE system being used, the athlete is to report the RPE on their programme for monitoring (D. Egan et al., 2006).

The next phase is peaking strength, manipulating the strength qualities built in the GPP, moving into bilateral traditional powerlifting style movements with supplementary exercises to continue progressing imbalances. The peak strength phase manipulates the impulse of movements, the greater the impulse the greater the force at which can be produced (Stkren et al., 2008). Rate of force development has been shown to be a very strong contributing factor to sports performance, especially in running and cycling (Agaard et al., 2002). The development of maximal strength has a strong correlation with improving the athletes potential rate of force development (Wisløff et al., 2004). In maximal strength training, neuromuscular coordination and muscle firing sequencing, can have a profound effect on improving running economy and power production through the floor and pedal (Agaard et al., 2002; Blagrove et al., 2018), increased coordination of muscle firing sequences have been shown to be the primary reason (Cormie et al., 2011). The next phases of training follow an ascending, undulating periodisation loading sequence, further allowing the manipulation of not only load but also volume, managing the workload at which the athlete is under.

Following the sequential progression, utilising the maximal strength qualities built in the previous phases, the power phase begins to manipulate rate of force development. From the strength qualities expressed in the athletes most recent tests, the readiness to perform ballistic and plyometric exercise is acceptable (Cleather, 2005; Davies & Riemann, 2019). Introduction of weighted ballistic exercises, using derivatives of Olympic lifts such as pull one and pull two, hang power cleans and block pulls with low stress plyometric exercises such as ankle hops and A-steps in the power phase of training (Cormie et al., 2010). In the power phase, improvements in rate of force development are the key attributes the programming is trying to elicit. Moving from the lower intensity higher volume strength phases of the GPP and strength cycle, Suarez et al., (2019) states that the morphological adaptations that occurred during the GPP and strength cycle would of depressed the rate of force development qualities in the athlete, once the lower volume higher intensity strength and power phases are introduced it causes a rebound to beyond pre-training cycle values. The morphological qualities desirable to elicit this response include an increases in cross sectional area and individual muscle fibres, caused by an increase in myofibrillar size and quantity (Folland & Williams, 2007).

Athlete A has three main targeted peaks over a seventeen-week period in this season, the first peak comes after a long training period and the main strength and power phases of the training programme. The programme is undulated with unloaded strength and conditioning weeks and unloaded weeks of sports specific programming. The first taper is the longest of all the three being a fourteen-day taper. The athlete recovers quickly from training stimulus, so this is a long tapering period for Athlete A. The reason for the longer taper is to help the athlete fully recover ready for the competitive season. A step taper approach has been used for all the taper’s, reducing volume of work by 50% and maintaining the intensity has been shown to reduce the chances of de-training in the tapering period (Wilson & Wilson, 2008). Maintaining intensity and a reduction in volume has been shown to increase 8-9% increase in knee extension strength, 5-25% increase in swim power, 8-15% increase in muscle glycogen concentration and a 6% increase in V02 max (Mujika & Padilla, 2003; Shepley et al., 1992; Trappe et al., 2000; Wilson & Wilson, 2008). The following two taper’s will be utilising a step tapering system but for eight days as opposed to the fourteen days used for the first taper. There are a few reasons that influenced this decision to use a shorter taper, the latter end of the season is where the main targeted races are situated including the athletes A race. The schedule of races in the latter end of the season see’s a higher frequency over a short period, by utilising shorter tapering periods, combined with the reduction in volume and maintained intensity of work in the taper, will reduce the effects on performance through de-training. Following scientific research and an under pinning knowledge of the athletes needs, this is the most efficient and most appropriate periodisation plan to elicit the best results for this athlete.


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