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Friday, September 27, 2013

How To Hold an Aero Position

Peter Sagan holding an aero position with minimal
compensation - Photo by Ezra Shaw Getty Images
There are climbs and then there are winds.  For many cyclists, riding into a strong wind can be more difficult than climbing, mostly because cyclists are required to reach a low aerodynamic position which can be uncomfortable, difficult or painful to hold.  Cyclists must demonstrate adequate hamstring and lower back flexibility to hold an aero position comfortably.  The flexibility needed to ride well in the wind can take time to develop, but with enough dedication and experience, anyone can become proficient at holding an aero position safely.  Here are some steps you can take to make holding an aero posture as comfortable as being on the hoods:

#1 LEARN YOUR LIMITS.
The worst thing a rider could do is force a low aero position and hope for the best.  With low back pain being one of the most frequent complaints among pros and recreational cyclist alike, the chances of long term pain- or injury-free riding are slim.  Develop the flexibility first, then shoot for the next lowest position you can hold with a neutral spine.


Notice how there's no compensation at the lower
or thoracic spine.  Photo by ratemyarms.com
Check your hamstring and lower back flexibility by standing with both feet shoulder width apart.  Bend at the knees around 20-30 degrees to mimic the bottom of the pedal stroke.  While maintaining this knee position, push the hips back and hinge only at the hips to lower the torso slowly towards the ground.  As you get lower, try your best to maintain a neutral spine while observing your back in a mirror.  Eventually, the lower (lumbar) or middle (thoracic) section of the back will start to bend to compensate for the lack of flexibility from the hamstrings.  Once you start to see the back bend, back it up a little bit until you get back into neutral- this is the lowest, comfortable position on the bike.  Record the hip angle from this test using a goniometer or take a picture for reference.


#2 UPDATE & REFINE YOUR BIKE FIT
The bike must be fit to the limitations of the body, not beyond it.  This may mean temporarily sacrificing some aerodynamics to protect the spine.  As flexibility improves, try lowering your aero position by making some simple bike adjustments.
  • Raise the saddle height:  Raising the hips relative to the handlebar will allow the torso to reach a more parallel-to-the-ground position.  Be careful though... the optimal saddle height for injury prevention allows for 25 to 30 degrees knee flexion (1).  Going above or below this range can lead to an overuse injury.
  • Tilt the saddle nose down:  Tilting the nose down will allow the pelvis to tilt forward and make it easier to maintain a neutral spine easier.  The optimal saddle tilt for low back pain prevention is around 10-15 degrees downward tilt.  Cyclists who compensate heavily at the thoracic and lumbar spine may benefit from a downward tilt.
  • Lower the handlebar:
    • Flip the stem:  If the stem forms an angle pointing away from the ground, removing the stem and installing it upside down will lower the handlebars.  The amount of drop depends on the angle of the stem.
    • Remove a spacer:  If you have a threadless fork/ headset, removing spacers is another option which can lower the handlebar height by 0.5" or 1" increments.
Bradley Wiggins compensating at the thoracic spine.
A downward tilt may help him tilt his pelvis downwards
to reach neutral while improving comfort.  - Photo by 
BAS CZERWINSKI/AP/Press Association Images
#3 WORK ON YOUR WEAKNESS.
While it can take weeks, months or over a year for an injury or reoccurring pain to develop as a result of faulty posture, it's not a risk that anyone should take, especially since it's preventable!  As long as the faulty posture wasn't caused by scoliosis or from the aftermath of a surgery, there are exercises which can improve the mobility of the spine and streamline your aero posture.  All you need is a floor and a foam roller.
Cobra Pose -
Photo by cope-stress.blogspot.com
  1. Riders compensating at the lower back:  Riders who fall into this category must work on improving lower back range of motion.  A simple yoga pose called the Cobra Pose can help improve flexibility specifically at the lower back.  Hold the pose for 30 seconds.  About 10-15 seconds into the stretch, try to relax and reach a deeper stretch for the remainder of the time.
  2. Riders compensating at the thoracic spine:  Riders who fall into this category lack spinal extension at the thoracic spine.  By performing a thoracic spine extension mobility exercise, eventually you can reach neutral and streamline your aero position.  With your back against a foam roller, do 15-20 repetitions of very slow and controlled extensions.  Target the entire thoracic spine by starting at the upper back near the lower border of the scapular, then shift the foam roller in small increments towards the lower back.  Do the same number of repetitions per downward shift of the foam roller.
Thoracic Spine Extension Mobility Exercise - Photo by Fitstream.com
Both types of riders must also work on hamstring flexibility exercises often as it is the major limiting factor to a safe, aerodynamic posture.  See my post on stretching for more information.

#4 REPEAT STEPS ONE THROUGH THREE.
Every week to two weeks, check your progress by retesting your flexibility levels.  As your body becomes more flexibile, reward yourself by adjusting your bike to allow for a lower position.  Keep working on your weaknesses until you can reach your lowest, most efficient aero posture.  Once you've met your goal, continue to do the mobility and flexibility exercises above to maintain your progress.

REFERENCES:
Asplund, Chad, MD, and Patrick, MD Pierre. "Knee Pain and Bicycling." The Physician and Sportsmedicine 32.4 (2004): 7. Print.