Christoff Smit – hear tips from a MTB physiotherapist
08 April 2016
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Gerald de Kock: Welcome to another edition of Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking, thanks for downloading and in this edition we’re talking mountain biking, as ever, but it’s a slightly different angle in terms of mountain biking. We’re looking at, I suppose recovery, preparation, injuries, dealing with injuries, through the eyes of a mountain biker. An athlete who happens to be a physiotherapist, who deals with sport injuries. Christoff Smit joins me here to discuss these things. Christoff, I think firstly, let’s get to talking about your own involvement. I think you’re a runner, you’re a cyclist, you’re an athlete and you’re a physio. What came first for you, physio or the athlete side of it?
Christoff Smit: Definitely the athlete side. I started racing road bikes because my older brother did, when I was about 15. Then, I think there was a bit of luck involved in me ending up as a physiotherapist and in the end, treating cyclists.
Why Christoff understands riders troubles
When I was 15 years old, we were only racing road bikes and I’ve got a very slight leg length discrepancy. So sometimes on the bike I often felt like things weren’t 100% symmetrical. I fiddled around a little bit with position and so on.
As a physiotherapist, when I started seeing cyclists, about 10-12 years ago, I’ve already experimented with it quite a bit and you see their problems and in the end I started doing more courses and read more and experimented more.
You basically realise that there are so many variables that affect the power that you generate, your comfort on the bike, your handling of the bike. I think as a physio I look at bike set-up and so on a little bit differently. I’ve been involved with bike set-ups about 10 years and I look at leverage.
In other words, if you shift your saddle forwards or backwards, you’re affecting the leverage of certain muscle groups. If you shift your cleats forwards or backwards, it’s the same thing. If you lower your stem or handlebar height, again, it’s the same thing.
When someone comes in and they give you some information in terms of having a lower back issue or a knee issue or something like that. You start thinking about what can be wrong. When you put them on the bike, you then have the opportunity to look at the angles of what happens at the hip and the knees and so on.
Cycling, obviously you don’t have that many injuries as running, or as regularly, but you definitely have your knees, ITB, around your patella and front of your knee. Then with endurance stuff in South Africa, like the Epic and the multi-day events being so common and so popular, you have guys that struggle with their back, for instance, towards the end of a stage, or their neck.
How important is stretching really?
GDK: Just that stretching thing, we all know that we should stretch before, we should stretch after and we don’t regularly enough, or we don’t them properly. We come to see you at the physio and you send us home with homework to do. We do it and it feels okay and we carry on. Does that compound the issues if we don’t do it?
CS: I think the big thing is, you know, I’ve been working with people’s bodies for 15 odd years and I’m still learning a lot. It really keeps me humble. If you’re a cyclist, you don’t have any medical background or anatomical background, it’s actually quite difficult. Cause if you read a magazine or you go onto the internet, you’ve got this massive overload of information. It’s quite difficult sometimes to know, should I stretch, should I not stretch –
GDK: Or what should I stretch.
CS: I think that’s the big thing, is what should I stretch. I normally start off evaluating muscle lengths because it gives you a really good idea of what might be over-active and under-active. Then I’ll be able to tell someone, listen, if we look at all these muscle lengths, it’s probably a good idea to focus on these three muscle groups.
For instance, stretch these three things, but to spend hours a day stretching is probably not a great idea. Someone might find great benefit from yoga class or whatever, that’s great and it’s quite general. But sometimes you’ll have someone focus on a certain muscle group and they’ll end up really taking a lot of tone and so on out of that muscle group by maybe sometimes over-stretching it. Yes, stretching definitely has its place, but you need to know what you’re doing.
80% of your training should be aerobic
GDK: A lot of us have perhaps been privy to Schurter’s incredible gym workout, he shared that online and we’ve seen it. That is what a world champion does and a lot of the other mountain bikers at his level. So that’s what most of us do, but most of us aren’t athletes like that. We don’t want to get into that and too carried away with that?
CS: I think it’s actually a really important thing this, is sort of just training principles really. Apart from the gym work, something that I see a lot of, whether it be running or cycling related is that your mass or volume or 80% of your volume of training should be of an aerobic nature.
In other words, your lower heart rates, a lot of people will call it zone two or three or whatever, it’s actually quite easy. Most of the time you can basically take 180, subtract your age and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your aerobic threshold would be. Above that would be more to the anaerobic side and below that would be more to the aerobic side.
To put out the massive power that a guy like Nino Schurter does, you need to have a very big aerobic base to support that, for a couple of reasons. One is just the risk of injury or just over-training and reaching a plateau very quickly. Those guys have a very long season, they’ll have 6/7 months where they need to be racing quite regularly.
If you don’t have a massive base of aerobic training, you’ll have maybe 2-3 good races and that’ll be it. Gym work, in itself, is anaerobic in nature. As soon as you pick up a weight and you do exercises, it is anaerobic. So that’ll form part of that 20% of high power, high intensity workout. If you see Nino Schurter doing something like that or one of the other guys, he’s not doing that every day. It’s something that he’ll do maximum twice a week.
GDK: You talk about doing this for 15 years and the sport itself, in South Africa, we’re obsessed with these marathon events as you’ve alluded to. Have you seen people take it more seriously for a start and do things in a more scientific, more observed, more concentrated way?
Are riders overdoing it?
CS: Definitely. I think there’s a whole lot more coaching out there and a lot more information. But I really, when I see patients here, I find that a lot of people fall into the trap of listening to what other people do. Instead of really going and empowering themselves by reading and listening. Guys that have really been in the business for a very long time.
If you go and look at a 90minute effort on a cross country race and so on. You go and look at what the guys do at the Epic, you think wow, I’ve got to hammer it all the time. The reality is that you’ll plateau really quickly and end up sick, injured or just really ‘gatvol’ of mountain biking quite quickly.
GDK: Do we have an over-training issue in this country?
CS: I think definitely there’s a big thing. There are also a lot of people, because there are so many events. You’ll have some people trying to be competitive at every event, which is not realistic. Then you’ll also have people that simply want to finish every event.
It’s quite a, you’ve got a wide range of mentalities when it comes to this. I think, again, in South Africa, because of the good weather, we just have this really long season. It’s probably a good idea for every athlete to break it up a little bit.
I think you can maybe peak twice a year for periods of two or three months, but then you’ll have the effort starts to show. Racing, if we go back to that 80/20% we spoke about earlier, as far as anaerobic and aerobic is concerned. If you do let’s say an 80km race and you’ve spent most of that time at relatively high heart rates, then that builds up over time.
You can only do it so long and then when you go and look at your training diary you’ll see, wow, there’s been a lot of anaerobic mileage. It will probably catch up to you after six weeks or so, if you haven’t really managed it very well. So, you have to listen to their training quite a bit as well because it tells you a lot about whether the injury is purely biomechanical or whether they’ve simply not been training correctly.
GDK: What would be the most common injury that you deal with, from a mountain bikers perspective?
The most common injuries
CS: Obviously with mountain biking you have your traumatic injuries, breaking collar bones and so on. But I’d say the most common are like knees, patella/femoral on the front of your knee or a bit of ITB on the side.
GDK: Which, in general, are fairly, layman’s terms, fairly easy to remedy?
CS: Yes, for sure. I think if you’re looking at the right levers, as we spoke about earlier, and why my ITB and your ITB and the reason why we get it would probably be different. So it’s not some, just type in ITB on the internet and you’re sorted out.
If you look at the levers and so on, it should be something that you can sort out quite quickly. But again, I must tell you, there have been ITB’s with some mountain bikers that I’ve sometimes struggled with for more than one month. As a rule, it should be something, with set-up and so on, you should be able to fix quite quickly.
GDK: Christoff, fascinating stuff and I know there are so many angles and areas we could touch on, but thank you very much indeed for chatting to us.
CS: It’s a very big pleasure and I think, for everyone out there, they should really try and, when you listen to advice and get information, go and look at it from a whole lot of angles. In the process you’ll end up learning a lot. Experiment a lot and so on. But listen to the guys that have quite a bit of experience.
Also go and look back at the times that you’ve been more or less successful on or off the bike and go and think about the things that you might have done wrong or right. I just want to encourage everyone to keep riding, but do it with maybe a little bit more of a scientific angle to it. Apart from just going out and riding as hard as you can every time.
GDK: It’ll make us happier cyclists. Christoff Smit, a physiotherapist here in Stellenbosch, thank you very much for chatting to us right here on our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking. Hope you’ve enjoyed that, plenty of information and fascinating to put into use as well right here on Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking. Thanks for downloading and we’ve got plenty more wonderful mountain biking podcasts coming up, join us for those.