It’s official: I’m a club cyclist! Joined up with Victoria’s Tripleshot Cycling Club. The deciding factor when choosing between clubs is that Tripleshot offers a lot of group rides. And the rides leave early in the morning (6AM!). One of my goals has been to get up earlier. The will to cycle seems more powerful than the languor of sleep, so might as well use cycling as motivation to get a jump on the day! It’s all psychological warfare.
On the longer rides (80+km)–even those done at a leisurely pace–the first thing to give out is not the legs or the lungs. It’s the lower back. It gets sore. Not a sharp pain. Rather a sort of a deep ache that takes the fun out of the ride. It’s sort of like having a headache: you’re not dysfunctional, but you’re not having a good time either.
Online searches suggested various solutions: get a bike fit, get cleats adjusted, or increase core strength. I’ve been experimenting with the bike fit (saddle height, fore-aft, handlebar height and angle). Raising the handlebar definitely helps, but at the cost of aerodynamics. I’d like to leave the handlebar where it is: just a little below the seat. I don’t think it’s the cleats. But the argument about core strength won me over. There were some basic tutorials online for various core exercises. And a book also turned up: Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage: Core Strength for Cycling’s Winning Edge by Danielson (a pro) and Allison Westfahl (a physiologist and fitness personality).
The library didn’t have the book. But the library does have a wonderful interlibrary loan service. I’ve been using it quite a bit lately. Books seem to take two weeks to come in. The books come in from all sorts of public and academic libraries in BC. If you’re looking for a book and the local library doesn’t have it, chances are you can find it on the interlibrary loan search engine. It’s fast and it works. That’s how I got to read Core Advantage: through ILLO or interlibrary loan. Try it.
Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage Back Blurb
Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage offers a simple, highly effective core strength program for cyclists. This comprehensive approach shows the 50 essential core workout exercises that will build strength and endurance in the key core muscles for cycling―no gym membership required.
Professional cyclist Tom Danielson used to have a bad back. He shifted in the saddle, never comfortable, often riding in pain. Hearing that core strength could help his back, he started doing crunches, which made matters worse. He turned to personal trainer Allison Westfahl for a new approach. Danielson and Westfahl developed all-new core exercises to build core strength specifically for cycling, curing Danielson’s back problems. Better yet, Danielson found that stronger core muscles boosted his pedaling efficiency and climbing power.
Using Danielson’s core exercises, cyclists of all abilities will enjoy faster, pain-free riding. Cyclists will perform simple exercises using their own body weight to build strength in the low back, hips, abs, chest, and shoulders without adding unwanted bulk and without weights, machines, or a gym membership. Each Core Advantage exercise complements the motions of riding a bike so cyclists strengthen the right muscles that stabilize and support the body, improving efficiency and reducing the fatigue that can lead to overuse injuries and pain in the back, neck, and shoulders.
Beginner, intermediate, and advanced training plans will help bike racers, century riders, and weekend warriors to build core strength throughout the season. Each plan features warm-up stretches and 15 core exercises grouped into workouts for injury resistance, better posture, improved stability and bike handling, endurance, and power. Westfahl explains the goal for each exercise, which Danielson models in clear photographs.
Riding a bike takes more than leg strength. Now Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage lays out the core strengthening routines that enable longer, faster rides.
The book is divided into lots of chapters but really it has two sections. The first half persuades you that core strength is the cat’s meow. It also explains the theory behind core training. In a nutshell, core strength is necessary because each time you press down on the pedal, your core (esp. lower back) has to counterbalance against the force of your foot pressing down on the pedal. So cycling uses the core but does nothing to strengthen the core. If your core strength is not up to the task, the back gets sore, your form goes to mud, and you lose power.
A good way to think of it is this: when you do a leg press on the machine at the gym, your back is supported by the backrest of the machine. So you’re using your legs and not so much the core, since the back is stationary. Well, you put out force when you cycle too. But when you’re cycling, you’re not leaning your back into anything. So the core has to keep the body stable as you press the pedal. That’s why the back gets sore. The back is actually doing quite a bit of work! Imagine how harder it would be to do the leg press without the backrest?
I like all the theory in the first half. Most of it is written by Westfahl. Every couple of pages there’s a Tommy’s Take, a few paragraphs by Danielson where he translates the theory portion into real world cycling experiences. It’s a good one-two combo. Westfahl perhaps goes a little overboard in stating the virtues of core training. She never claims that it solves world hunger and is a cure for cancer, but she comes pretty close. Undoubtedly, however, core strength is important. How many bodybuilders do you know who sweep the floor and put out their back? I know a few. It’s the weight machines: by supporting the core for you, it’s actually doing you a big disfavour as now your core strength is out of proportion with the strength or your arms, legs, and chest.
The second half are the exercises and the exercise regimens. The pictures are useful. Westfahl explains the exercises and which muscles they target. There are photos of Danielson doing the exercises to make it easy to follow along. Westfahl’s focus is on dynamic core strength. The plank is among the exercises, but she prefers ones where you are moving around exercises to static exercises: you’re also training your nervous system. This approach makes sense.
I’ve been doing the core workout for three weeks now. After week two I could do some of the more advanced exercises. I’ve also been riding the bike more and more. The lower back is still a little sore after long rides, but it’s getting a LOT better. I’m not sure if it’s the exercises that are helping or just putting the time in the saddle. Probably a bit of both.
One thing that I really like are the exercises that improve posture. On long rides, it always strikes me that the bike riding posture is just very, very bad. It’s worse than sitting in front of a computer screen. A lot worse. Now, I love
biking cycling, but the posture is just bad. There are exercises in the book to open up the chest and loosen up the back after it’s been hunched over for so long. I really appreciate those exercises.
So: I enjoy the exercises and plan on continuing to do them. This book is an in-depth look at core strength training and though it’s written for cyclists, really anyone can benefit from it.
One of the unfortunate things which I hope won’t tarnish the book is that Danielson was suspended for doping for six months in 2012-3 and was caught doping again in August 2015. It’s a great book but knowing about the doping makes it harder to read the Tommy’s Take sections. Those are the parts where he talks about how hard he trains and how core strength gives him the secret advantage over his peers. Reading those sections make you think: maybe it was the drugs?
But perhaps that’s harsh. I’m sure he trains hard, and that doing the core routine is an advantage. The drugs no doubt help as well. A comprehensive 2015 report costing three million Euros commissioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) suggests that doping is still rampant. It is available here. According to the ‘respected cyclist professionals’ interviewed, anywhere from 30% to 90% of the peloton is still doping.
That must be a tough question all pro cyclists face: to dope or not to dope? If you don’t dope maybe you never make it to the top. Maybe you don’t even keep your job! But if you do dope, you lose your reputation. And you bring down the people around you too. I’m sure Westfahl must have had second thought teaming up with Danielson on Core Advantage. Now her name is *gasp* attached with the doper. I don’t mind so much. But some people will.
I’m reminded of an old fable. Death, Love, and Reputation used to be great friends, journeying together everywhere. One day, they decided to spit up. Death said: ‘Friends, if you desire to see me, I can be easily found: go to the site of any of the great battles and I’ll be there’. Love said: ‘I can be easily found as well: you can find me in the castles and the courts where the princes and the ladies hold their balls’. But Reputation said: ‘Think twice before we part, because it is my nature that once I leave someone, they will never see me again’.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work.