The best* make it look easy. Or perhaps, more specifically, they make working hard look easy. There are some exceptions, of course, but in general by the time the very best look stressed, ragged and tense the rest are nowhere to be seen.
Even in non-technical endurance sports like running and cycling, where fitness is king, good technique can still make a big difference.
But what is good technique? There are no style marks, there is no tariff that rewards the risk takers, and there are no judges.
Fundamentally technique is good if it makes you go faster, saves energy or saves time, though it might do those in indirect ways – for example by saving you from injury, reducing the amount of time that you have to spend training or increasing the time that you can spend training.
In endurance sport (whether you’re doing it competitively or not) good technique also allows you to keep going. Ideally you want to be limited only by your energy. In reality you’re quite possibly limited by pain: maybe the pain of lactate build up but often pain in an annoying little muscle in your back, or your arms or your neck.
Lactate pain is ‘good’ pain. Lactate builds up in muscles which are working hard and there’s nothing that you can do about that. But in this case you can have too much of a good thing. If lactate keeps building up you soon tie up …and slow down. That happens to the best – just watch final of the Olympic 400m on the athletics track.
This is a blog, not a physiology paper, so I’ll stick to simple models. Lactate is created in muscles which are working hard and is reprocessed in muscles which are relaxed. If the reprocessing is keeping up with the creation you’re operating below your anaerobic threshold and your limiter is your energy store. The point at which reprocessing fails to keep up is, by definition, the anaerobic threshold. Above that point, instead of being energy limited, you’re lactate limited.
So the more reprocessing you can do the more lactate you can clear. And the more lactate you can clear the harder you can work without crossing your threshold. The best athletes make working hard look easy. Staying relaxed at high intensity is great technique because it allows you to keep going for longer.
When you’re running or swimming your movement patterns, and therefore your technique and your ability stay relaxed are entirely down to you: Your skill, your strength, your training, your discipline. When you’re cycling, however, your movement patterns and your weight distribution are largely determined by the setup of your bike. If your setup does not allow you to relax when you’re riding you’re going to be lactate limited before you need to be.
A key aspect of a good bike setup is getting rid of unnecessary tension – enabling the best muscles to work hard and the rest to stay relaxed. There are several ‘sophisticated’ bike fitting systems around that try to fit a computer generated approximation of a skeleton. It beats me why a good coach or fitter needs a computer generated stick figure on a screen when there’s a real person right there on the bike. Once the set up is nearly right the final touches are all about movement and muscle activation; about tension and relaxation; about feeling equally good on the drops, the tops and the hoods (or the tribars of course); about understanding how the bike will feel and handle on the road – smooth road and rough road, uphill and downhill, in the wind and with people and maybe traffic around. Fundamentally bike fitting is about enabling good technique.
* There are some philosophical points about how we might interpret ‘best’ when talking about athletes in this way. Arguably the best are those with the best physiology – and great physiology allows them to do well with relatively poor technique. Only when they are close to the top does poor technique impact their ability to win – by which time change is very difficult (both to do and to countenance). However, performing at the highest level in a competitive environment requires so many aspects to be ‘best’ that physiology alone is now rarely enough.