By Rick Crawford
Balance is a concept that most everyone believes in principle. If you have it, things go along nicely. If you don’t before long things start to unravel. Balance applies to almost everything. As it pertains to cycling, it’s easy to take balance for granted until the unraveling starts. At first, we just happily pedal. Then after lots of happy pedaling, a knee will begin to hurt, or an Achilles will flare up. It’s never both knees, it’s always just one. It’s one side or the other. What went wrong? We just want to pedal. What’s the harm in that?
Balance is a subtle topic that becomes so important to the long-term outcome for the serious cyclists. Many riders don’t realize that they have a problem with balance until they have pain related to it, or they notice a decline in power output. If the imbalance becomes symptomatic, then the story of your cycling career may end like tragic disaster film with a bad ending … I hate movies like that. If a rider is proactive at achieving and maintaining balance, then you have the potential for another Rocky series where the good guy perseveres and always has a happy ending.
Everyone has a dominant side
Balance (and becoming imbalanced) has a distinct pattern in cyclists. Everyone has a dominant side, hence our universal tendency to be either left or right handed. Herein lays the villain. In our medium, we spin millions of circles in the same plane with very little deviation. In our quest to develop the form that will win races, we often neglect things on the periphery of our focus. In so doing we can become imbalanced. That dominant side will continue to dominate until it overwhelms limiters on the weaker side. We are right-handed or left-handed because we are wired to be more efficient on that favored side. It is a function of the central nervous system and our neuromuscular development. In cycling, with the power structure pivoting around the pelvis, the pivot begins to succumb to the non-symmetrical forces that are being continuously exerted on it. The dominant side becomes increasingly stronger than the less assertive side and as this trend continues, the pelvis will actually twist under these forces. This twisting creates biomechanical imbalances, and eventually it emerges from obscurity to become a painful issue.
Speaking generically, most cyclists have a dominant leg that is subservient to the other leg in the pedal stroke. Because the legs are working synergistically on each stroke by their connection through the cranks and bottom bracket, the quads on one leg are typically in synergy with the hamstrings and hip flexors on the other leg. Because of our tendency to favor one side, this relationship causes a disparity in strength and development of the musculature involved. This disparity manifests in sagittal imbalance and torsion which can, and usually does, become problematic. If your right quad is dominant to the left quad, then because of the unique synergy created by the bike, your left hamstring will be dominant to the right. This causes unequal force on the pelvis causing torsion, which will eventually lead to problems. Realize that the bike allows you to exert these unequal forces for longer than you could without it … so in a sense the bike is a tool to your destruction unless awareness and intervention are underway.
There are trends on the coronal plane also. Cyclists almost universally have short over-developed quads and long less-developed hamstrings. This causes the pelvis to be tilted forward, or anterior. To remedy this, quads need stretching, and hammies need strengthening to keep the pelvis in a balanced status. A program to that end will help the pelvis rotate to posterior toward the correct balance. Don’t worry that your quads will atrophy … they won’t … cycling is inherently heavy on the quads.
Put your best leg … to bed
Every cyclist has a dominant leg that drives the pedal stroke. It’s usually the leg with the bigger quad and sometimes that is pretty evident. If you find through observation or assessment that your right leg is the driver in your pedal stroke, the fix is to let the left leg do the driving to correct it. It takes mental focus to do it, and sometimes requires a repeating alarm to keep the drill on the front burner. Once there is awareness of the imbalance, a shift of consciousness to repair the imbalance is the first and most important step. The repair is quite logical as it is a mechanical one. Strengthen what’s weak. Lengthen what’s short.
The best-case scenario is to be aware of your dominant side (hopefully before you’re grossly imbalanced) and continuously maintain balance. This is assuming that you’ve always known how important balance is and you even realized how cock-eyed we can become if we aren’t pro-active. So you’ve spent a lot of time and effort to work your weak entities so that you have balance. In the off-season, you’ve kept the supporting actors strong that will help the pelvis resist rotational forces that are exerted by the top-billed actors. You’ve focused on giving the less assertive side some mental focus during workouts so that you are actually counterbalancing the dominant side. You have kept your core strong and balanced by doing ab and lower-back exercises. If you are the best-case scenario, you are in a good place. Stay with this forever more and your plot won’t be twisted.
The plot thickens
What if you are showing symptoms? Oh, the horror! But the good guys always win, right? The key is to first isolate the dominant side. This is usually very obvious, but if it’s not, get professional help. Once you have diagnosed it, start working on the weak side. You also need to avoid strengthening movements that will enhance the dominance of your strong side. Get yourself involved in programs that will focus on balance, like Pilates, yoga, and Swiss ball regimes. If you are on the down side of the efficiency curve because of imbalances it will help greatly to employ a professional therapist. I have had good luck with physical therapists who have worked with cyclists. As you are doing your workouts, be observant of which groups are carrying the greatest imbalances and work the weakest groups. I typically avoid prescribing exercises that feed the imbalance syndrome. No leg extensions for the stronger quad!
As you emphasize the structural weaknesses, and develop balanced strength, you will begin to bring your structure back towards a symmetrical status. Is perfect symmetry possible? Probably not, but if you don’t work towards it, you are headed toward a flop. We want to be a blockbuster! This will be one of those must see pictures with the hero overcoming adversity, going boldly against twisted forces, the underdog defeating the cruel dominator, winning the race, signing the fat contract, and living happily ever after. There will be many successful sequels, big bucks … a great family experience. I can’t wait until it’s out on video!
Editor’s note: Rick Crawford is Director of Coaching and COO of Colorado Premier Training. He is also the head coach for the Fort Lewis College cycling team in Durango, Colorado.