In the same way as you fine tune an engine, it is important to fine tune your body for performance. Tri coach Adam Kelly shows us how.

There are all sorts of gadgets and equipment designed to improve your outdoor performance and experience, but Outsider’s triathlon editor Adam Kelly believes the key to real performance and enjoyment comes from your own understanding of how your body actually works. He believes that most people understand the workings of a car better than what’s actually going on inside their own body. So here, he makes that comparison in a bid to help us understand our bodies better.

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1. Your brain = the engine control unit

The human brain is a bit like the engine control unit (ECU) or computer in your car. The stimulus for human movement comes from your brain in that you decide that you want or need to move. So the stimulus to move (voluntarily) must come from a decision from you. It’s the kick in the ass. It’s the motivator. If your car’s ECU malfunctions, it will often lock down, into ‘safe mode’ or ‘get me home mode’. It will simply limp home, in a very unhappy way. Many humans are actually, stuck in safe mode, fearful of challenges and gradually grinding to a halt.

2. Your cardio vascular system = the engine

Your cardio vascular system is your body’s engine. It basically consists of your heart and lungs. Your heart is a pump which pumps oxygen (air) from your lungs into your blood, around your muscles and through your arteries. It also collects waste carbon dioxide and pumps it back into your lungs and back out into the air.

The new oxygen pumped into the muscles is combined with glycogen (body fuel) to allow human movement or contraction of muscles. It’s much like a petrol car where the car takes in oxygen through the air intake and then forces it together with the petrol, and it ignites using the spark plug to form energy and movement. The waste and used-up air (carbon dioxide) are expelled through the exhaust.

So physiologically, the bigger your capacity to hold, take in and use oxygen in your body (for endurance activity), the more efficient you become (faster, longer, higher etc). This comes from the training effect and is genetic also. In humans, it’s measured using V02 or volume of oxygen, and in motoring it’s to do with the CC or cubic capacity of the engine. However, if you place a large engine in a small car, and work it hard or drive it fast, it’s structure will start to break down and crumble. Therefore if you are training your cardio vascular system to become bigger, then you also need to attend to your ‘chassis’!

3. Your skeleton = the chassis

Triathlon: Understanding your Body

Your skeleton is like the body/chassis of a car or the blocks of a wall. This is what gives you your structure. Without your skeleton, you would just flop over! Your skeleton is then held in position by your body’s soft tissue, made up of muscle, tendon and ligament.

4. Your core/trunk = the nuts and bolts

Your core muscles (also sometimes known as your ‘corset’ muscles) hold everything together. They hold your skeleton in place. They dictate your posture. Your core forms the mortar between the blocks, like the nuts and bolts of the car chassis.

Some say that the core extends the full length of your body because the core is supposed to work as one unit, functionally. For ease of explanation however, let’s say the core muscles are the trunk muscles (so anything excluding the arms and legs). By having a strong and stable core, it enables your arms and legs to move more powerfully, more efficiently and for longer, thereby preventing injury and getting your there quicker. Core training, Pilates and functional training are all geared to strengthen this area.

5. Arm and legs = axles and drive shafts

Your arms and legs are like axles and drive shafts. These are your parts that ultimately deliver the final power to the ground, the pedal, the ball etc. Without having all the above in place, the power will be very low. If a kid has huge biceps for example but does not have much core strength, the relative strength of his arm could be very low. A good balanced and coached training programme however will deliver the essentials needed to gain overall strength.

6. Carbohydrate/protein/fat = fuel

In the past, cars, as a rule, ran on petrol or diesel. These days there have been advances and now some cars are duel fuel or hybrids using several forms of fuel. The human body and brain is so much more complicated than a car or computer and has always had the potential to run on three fuels which is pretty amazing! Carbohydrate is the body’s preferred fuel source. The body finds is easiest to run on carbohydrates – which become glycogen and is stored in the muscle and liver.

However, when all those carbohydrates get used up, the body breaks into its fat store. That’s the flabby bits that some people have! The body finds it more difficult to use fat as a fuel and therefore converts it into glycogen, before it can be used. It takes the body longer to do this conversion, but it actually improves with practice.

The body can store about 60-90 minutes worth of carbohydrate in its system, which is not much use for most endurance sports. However, there are hours and hours of available stored fat, and hence endurance athletes, who do events like Ironman, train their bodies to burn fat as fuel easily.

Finally in extreme cases of starvation, where there not enough carbs or fat available, the body will actually cannibalise itself and use protein from the muscle as fuel, thereby weakening the body.

7. Water and fats = oil/lubricants

Triathlon: Understanding your Body

Just as a car needs to be kept lubricated, so do humans. If a car runs out of oil, the engine grinds to a halt. The body is not quite as dramatic as that, but it needs lubrication for joints, skin, hair, nails and much more. Keeping hydrated is key to keeping the body well oiled and keeping synovial fluid between the joints topped up. Taking in healthy fats and oils also contributes to other vital functions like the coating of your nerves, your skin and hair health.

8. Water and salts = coolants

Just as water and coolants prevent overheating in your car, the same applies in humans. We use water and salts to achieve a hydration balance. A car has a closed cooling system, whereas our system (hydration status) is constantly changing. We sweat, we lose water, we drink to replace. We pee to get rid of too much water (like an overflow pipe), and we pee also to excrete waste products from the body.

9. The check-up = the NCT car test

Your own body’s NCT should be due around now? There should be a time each year where you get your body checked out. In adventure and endurance sport the winter time is usually the down time, which should be used to address wear and tear, get teeth checked for decay, get digestive issues looked at. It’s a time to balance the body, stretch it where it needs stretching and strengthening where it is weak.

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