Functional Flexibility

The early part of the season is the perfect time to work on all of those “little extras” that tend to fall by the wayside once the hours of SBRing start to creep up. One of those little extras that is actually integral to achieving your season’s goals is injury prevention via appropriate flexibility training.

I use the words “appropriate flexibility” because our goal as triathletes is not to achieve yogi status (doing so will actually worsen our performance) but rather to achieve a level of flexibility that allows us to achieve the most biomechanically and aerodynamically/hydrodynamically efficient positions while swimming, biking and running.

I looked a little at how this concept applies to the bike with my series on anatomical considerations in bike fit. I want to expand on that a little in this brief article by looking at what is optimal rather than currently functional and by throwing swimming and running into the mix.

Let’s begin by taking a quick look at some of the most important joint functions for each of the sports.


  • Shoulder
    • Internal rotation: Allows for early catch in the water with the maximal surface area of the forearm pushing water back in the early part of the stroke.
    • Horizontal abduction: Allows for a more vertical upper arm during the recovery, minimizing lateral displacement of the body (“fishtailing” through the water).
    • Abduction: Allows for a longer stroke with entry directly in front of the shoulder.
  • Ankle
    • Plantar flexion: Allows for propulsive kick or, at the very least, a more streamlined “tail” to minimize drag.


  • Hip
    • Flexion: Allows for a lower front end (without thoracic compensation) improving both vision and aerodynamics. Also permits a straighter knee track, allowing for a more powerful and safer application of force.
  • Knee
    • Flexion: Allows for a more forward/low aerodynamic position without risk of injury. Also allows cyclist to use longer cranks to apply more torque.
  • Ankle
    • Dorsiflexion: Ties in with knee flexion – Allows the cyclist to adopt a more forward/aerodynamic position without compensation. Also allows cyclist to pedal more economically by exploiting the elastic energy of the Achilles tendon.


  • Hip
    • Extension: Allows for a longer stride and providing flexibility isn’t too great, provides an elastic recoil which assists with the recovery portion of the stride.
  • Ankle
    • Dorsiflexion: Allows for a more “forward” run stride, enabling the athlete to exploit the elastic properties of the long Achilles tendon and improve economy.

The optimal level of flexibility for each joint is going to be largely related to speed of movement, with a faster athlete requiring more flexibility to function economically and safely than a slow one. This is an important consideration because as an athlete gets quicker through the season or through their athletic development, if their flexibility does not also increase at a similar rate, they will be susceptible to injury. This is another reason that I am a strong advocate of a year round “complex” training approach where all speeds of movement from very slow to very fast are included in controlled portions throughout the year.

In the next installment I’ll look at some normative values for each of the above for “slow” and “fast”athletes respectively and we’ll take a look at how to assess if you may be lacking in a particular area and more importantly how to rectify it so that you get some “free speed” and have an injury free year. Until then…

Train smart.

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Alan Couzens

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