Being a triathlete is complicated enough, being a triathlete with RA is a whole new level of high maintenance. Note, I am not a professional triathlete, though I am a full-time age grouper whom races around the world and makes an income from my racing.
My story is not one based on results, rather it is a journey about being an athlete with a condition that is the #1 cause of disability in the US and regardless of this condition, forging ahead on my quest to not let this disease get the better of me.
When it comes to training and racing with RA, I literally must have every facet of my lifestyle and training dialed in, in order to perform without hurting myself. My body is sensitive to the point where if I sleep incorrectly, it messes me up for days. Bollocks, I know. I’ve gone over my nutrition, training plan and general lifestyle in some of my other blogs, in this blog I am going to go into how important the proper bike fit is.
When I transitioned from my road bike to a TT bike, I made a huge, aggressive jump. I went from a Jamis Ventura Femme Comp to an Argon 18 E-118. That’s like going from a Toyota Tercel to a 67 Shelby Cobra 427 S/C. Well, kind of. The 427 S/C is my absolute favorite car so I will use it for this analogy because it is the cream of the crop in my opinion, much like the Argon 18 E-118 is the cream of the crop in TT bikes. Non-bike readers, I went from a 2 to a 10, and a road to TT bike. So there was a huge shift in my riding position. For my non-tech readers, on a road bike you mainly ride holding the handles bars with your hands and on a TT bike you ride with your elbows and forearms tucked under you in a TT ‘Cock Pit’ to become more aerodynamic, aka faster.
Thankfully, with my amazing upgrade of my bike, I also trained under one of the best coaches in the industry at the time, Sergio Borges. Sergio was able to fit me correctly which lead to a smooth, though still rather dramatic transition from a ‘fun’ rider to an athlete with high aspirations. Looking back, I could have eased into it a little less aggressively but I eagerly wanted to start playing with the ‘big boys’, ha.
When my RA diagnosis hit, and I started treatment, I got the point 3 months after diagnosis where I was put on an array of medications and the side effects were so bad that I lost a substantial amount of my mobility and was ultimately left bed-ridden in pain, for months. I got to the point where I could not physically move my ankles on my own, I had to have my PT force them to move, (which was a joyful experience). I couldn’t make a gripping motion with my hands. I had to sleep with make-shift hand braces so my hands didn’t lock up in the middle of the night. I had to do water therapy to get movement back in my hips, I was just in a state of suck for a while. I had to completely stop doing any and all training and focus on getting back simple range of motion. So I did that. Physical therapy, new diet, basic mobility movements and got myself back to training in 6 months-ish.
When I went back to riding, it was actually very much a blessing that I had a TT bike because the only way that I could ride was in aero, I was unable to grip the bars with my hands, or make a squeeze movement and my arms were too weak to hold myself up. Stubborn as I am though, I set my bike up on the trainer in the garage and would peddle away on the easiest gear. Even though I had a good fit, we had to make modifications to work with my body because I had new limitations and issues to work around.
Sergio helped me and we loosed my fit to meet what felt confortable for me. Wasn’t the most aero but I wasn’t racing so didn’t matter; I just wanted to be able to ride.
Over the course of the next year, we would gradually make modifications to my fit when I made more progress with my range of motion. I was approached by a friend who asked me if I wanted to do a ‘Retul’ and body analysis session to see how power expenditure was. I said sure, though expressed that I was very happy with what my former coach set me up with so we can look at the biomechanics but I didn’t think much change was necessary. They said great, let’s get you in to see where you are.
I met with Greg Bourque and Aaron Hauck. I’ve known Greg for a couple years, I see him for acupuncture and sports massage. He lined this up for me to work with Aaron, the fit specialist. This was my first time meeting Aaron and I was very impressed.
The first action he took was taking complete hand measurements of my current bike fit while asking me about my history with the fit. He logged all that information. Next, we went into into a side room to do a full body assessment. Aaron had me doing a lot of range of motion exercises so he could gauge where my recovery was at, what my limitations are and what he could help me develop. Aaron has Bachelors in health science, currently works as a strength and conditioning coach, and works with Olympian, Tour De France rider and Tour of California winner, Chris Horner. When Chris has issues with his bike (like his knee injury this year) Chris’s Dr.s send him to Aaron to pin point if it caused by the fit he is riding, and adjust accordingly.
During my assessment, we discovered that my neck has range of motion limitations. I’ve worked really hard the past year with physical therapists on pretty much every part of my body, except my neck. I didn’t realize it was an issue until Aaron asked to see my movement, then we discovered it was very limited for what I need on my bike. He provided me with simple body weight movements for me to start doing that will loosen and broaden my range of motion.
Aaron took the time to sit with me and analyze every part of my body off the bike to see how it affects my performance on the bike. My physical therapists, Chris and Gino at Function Smart: Athletes Wellness Group and Aaron and Greg at Peak Performance are more thorough than any of my Dr.’s. They all show genuine concern for my challenges and progress with the RA and how it has affected my ability to perform.
Next Aaron hooked me up to the Retul and I spun around for a bit. Retul is a 3D computerized fitting system. The system uses precise three-dimensional motion-capture to get you a near perfect fit while you are riding on a trainer. The issue with Retul is that you need to have an experienced, well-rounded fitter that uses your body assessment in addition to what the Retul recommends for your body geometry.
The Retul showed that my fit and power expenditure were pretty dialed in. Aaron did recommend we make some minor adjustments to my cleats to tighten my float thus dialing in more power. We made those adjustments; I spun again and felt much better actually. I was surprised that I could actually feel more power control with such a seemingly small modification. (Also was the case last year when I changed my crank size).
In addition to Aaron being very well rounded, educated and focused on not just the Retul angle, not just my body geometry but also my biomechanics and RA limitations, he didn’t try to change what worked for me for the sake of making changes. That is huge. It is not uncommon for someone to try and change what works for the athlete in hopes of seeming more valuable to the athlete. We all recognized that I had a great fit from my former coach; the focus was to dial in my current fit more.
I feel like this is the last piece of my puzzle for my team that I need. I see Aquatic Edge founder, Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen, in Kona for my swim. I have worked over a year and continue to work with Chris and Gino at Function Smart Physical Therapy. They were paramount in helping me get my ankle range of motion back from the severe RA damage I dealt with in 2012. Gino has also been my go-to for my running form. I finally feel like I can run, and this has reflected in my consistent run performance improvement in my races. I attribute a lot of that to Gino teaching me how my running biomechanics works. Now, I have my bike team at San Diego Sports Medicine: Peak Performance. We have room to make my bike fit more aggressive when I am ready and we will tailor my fits when I start changing distances to help maximize my power expenditure for that distance.