Flip-side Finesse - Champion cyclist turns massage therapist for other champions
With more and more fellow therapeutic massage therapists wanting to explore the world of professional cycling teams, experienced therapist Julie Briggs, shares her insights into the daily routine of a massage therapist working with cyclists. She also offers suggestions of what might be helpful when massaging.
Julie has successfully combined her experiences as a mountain bike champion with her massage expertise. Every year since 1997 she has been awarded provincial colours for mountain biking and national colours in 1998, 1999 and 2001. Her selection for the South African Mountain Bike team has taken her to , and the .
It was after completing a Therapeutic Massage Therapy course with the Cape Institute of Allied Health Studies and registering with the Allied Health Professions Council (SA) that Julie turned her hand to massaging in earnest.
From 2005 to 2007 Julie worked at the Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike race. In 2005 she joined the support team of the South African National Road Cycling team in and in 2006 Julie was off to with them. The same year also saw her working with the Excel Cycling team Giro in 2006 and the Harmony/Schwinn Cycling team Giro in 2007.
Being a therapeutic massage therapist on a professional cycling team must be the best way to see and understand the cultures of the world, but to say that it is very hard work, is an understatement. The massage therapist who travels with a cycling team is expected to be involved in the many other activities apart from just massage. I have even landed up dressing wounds and feeding a cyclist in hospital who had a drip in one arm the other arm in a sling!
A typical day begins at 5 am. You are expected to prepare the drinks and /or food parcels that will be consumed during the race, pack the race cars and get the riders and their bicycles organized. The therapist’s next task is to drive the back-up cars behind the cycle race. This also involves controlling the radios and feeding the riders (typically there are six riders in a team).
Fortunately cycle races also take one to some of the most beautiful parts of the world and the drive affords you the opportunity to take in the exquisite scenery.
As the race finishes at the end of each race day, the massage therapist’s first task is to serve the riders’ post-race recovery food and drink. Thereafter, you have to get them to their hotel so that they can wash and freshen up. Hygiene is critical. Many good riders have had to abandon races due to saddle sores and other related conditions.
Only once that’s all done, can the therapist get down to the actual massaging of the cyclists. At this stage of the day there remains about six to eight hours of work ahead. By the time the massage session is over, it is about 10 pm and it is time to start cleaning water bottles and preparing for the next day.
A stage race can take anything up to three weeks to complete. As the name indicates, it includes different stages setting different challenges to the riders, both mentally and physically. In turn it also forces the massage therapist to alter her approach to the treatment at the end of each day, For example, the riders might prefer to sit on the rear of their seats while climbing certain gradients, or they might position themselves on the tip of their seats while doing a time-trial. Each cyclist will find a position which provides maximum strength for themselves. This often puts their lower back and neck under more stress than usual, as they are sitting in unnatural positions. The result is pain and discomfort.
- Climbing Stages: If the gradient is not too great, and the riders have not done too much standing on their bicycles, the therapist must concentrate on gluteals and hamstrings. If the gradient is steep, and the riders have been standing a great deal, the focus is on gluteals and quadriceps.
- Time trial stage: The riders’ entire bodies takes a great pounding during a time trial stage. They have to exert maximum effort while keeping their bodies still for up to as much as 50km at a time. The gluteal muscles and the tibialis anterior take the most hammering in this kind of race. The therapist must therefore pay special attention to these muscles. The same applies to the lower back and neck areas.
As professional cyclists train between 35 to 40 hours a week in their peak season, their bodies are used to this repetitive motion and overuse injuries are very few and far between. However, there are a number of common complaints, such as:
- Knee injuries – Knee soreness/tenderness is found on specific areas of the knee and are more than likely caused by a tight muscle, ligament or tendon in another part of the body. For example, lateral knee pain can often be caused by an inflamed illiotibial band. In the case of professional riders, incorrect bicycle fitment as well as cleat position can be ruled out, as they take a lot of trouble to be correctly set up on their bicycles. However, if you are working with non-professionals, it is of utmost importance that they be advised to approach a qualified person* to make sure body and cleat position are set up correctly as to prevent injuries.
- Sore “hips” and loss of power while climbing is mostly caused by sacro iliacitis. This is a very common complaint, and can really affect a cyclist’s racing ability. Attention needs to be given to loosening the gluteals and quadratus lumborum, and manipulation of the sacro-iliac joint.
- Neck and back pain – Most cyclists, whether professional or not, complain at some stage or another about pain here. This is due to the long hours spent on a bicycle, normally sitting in a still position, where the shoulders are rounded and their head is facing more towards the ground. Weak core stability muscles can also contribute to back pain.
* Patients can approach bike dealers, authorised representatives of bike manufacturers, cycling associations or clubs for assistance with proper bike set-up procedures.