Study of Biomechanics Is a Big Help to Triathlete : Browning Has It Down to a Science

Times Staff Writer

Many serious athletes discover at some point in their careers that things aren't going as well as they should. When that happens, they sometimes seek advice from specialists.

Ray Browning, a rookie triathlete with limited but impressive credentials, has no such need. When he needs some answers, he uses his own knowledge, or information available to him in the labs and libraries at UCLA.

The 25-year-old mechanical engineering graduate is currently working on his Ph.D. in biomechanics, the study of the structure, functions and capabilities of living organisms, especially muscular activity, and the principles and relations involved. That's his edge.

In only his third triathlon last year, he won the amateur division of the Iron Man competition in Hawaii, finishing 16th overall. In his fifth race, last February, he won the Double Brown Iron Man in New Zealand.

"To win a race like (the Double Brown) usually requires a great deal of experience," said C.J. Olivares Jr., associate editor of Triathlete magazine. "Ray has done very well, given his inexperience."

Said premier triathlete Scott Molina, who recently paid a visit to Bay Area biomechanics expert Bob Prichard for some advice: "Ray kind of popped his head up in that one."

Last month, Browning finished fourth at the Sater Iron Man in Sweden behind such established performers as Scott Tinley and John Hughes. In each of his fifteen other triathlons, he has been among the top 20, and has finished in the top five in six of them.

What sets Browning apart, however, is that he is both athlete and consultant.

"There probably aren't many others who do what I do," he said. "For me, there's a real push to try and decide what makes a good runner, what is the perfect profile, what kind of stride works best."

Browning and his partners in study are, in a sense, trying to get triathlons down to a science.

"The principles he learns here I'm sure help him with his training," said Robert Gregor, Browning's professor.

With a growing knowledge of biomechanics, Browning figures he has an advantage over most of the half-million to three-quarter of a million people who participate in the grueling sport, which combines cycling, running and swimming.

Said Tinley: "That can't be anything but an advantage."

Considering the size of some fields--the U.S. Triathlon Series event in Chicago last year, for example, had 3,000 competitors--Browning's early achievements are indeed noteworthy.

"(The knowledge of biomechanics) helps me focus (on what needs work) while I'm training, and I feel I'm improving because of it," he said.

Browning is currently training for this year's Iron Man in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, in October.

His training program usually consists of riding 300-350 miles a week on the bicycle, 55-65 miles a week running and 35 hours a week in the water.

Stuart Rugg, Browning's roommate and lab partner who has a bachelor's degree in zoology and is working toward a master's in biomechanics, says Browning's future in triathlons is on the climb.

"Ray's background has enabled him to more intelligently approach his training, and that's a great advantage," Rugg said. "Ray has designed his entire training program to figure out what it is he needs to do (to succeed)."

The thrust of Rugg's current research includes the working effect of the seat height on a bike and how changing it affects the force profile and the pedaling muscle changes. "Finding the optimum range," he said.

Browning profits from the research of which he is often the subject.

"If Ray feels he's having a problem, we'll film him from the front and film him from the side," Rugg said. "We'll analyze the cinematics . . . what are the hip angles, what are the knee angles?

"If he's having ankle problems, we'll film the ankle and analyze it with high-speed cinematography. Maybe there's a lot of pronation (running on the outside of one's feet) or supination (on the inside). That's something that a biomechanist will look at that really no one else will look at.

"We try to find out what are the mechanical restraints? In other words we'll say, 'Why is your performance not as good as it could be?'

"We can look at the force record from the left leg and the right leg, and we find that most of us will pedal with a dominant leg. We think we're doing it symmetrically, but there is sometimes a huge variation between legs on an elite cyclist. Those are the kinds of things that we can help someone analyze."

Whether Browning will live up to his expectations of becoming a top triathlete remains to be seen, but he believes that he is on the right track.

"A lot of people get out and think they'll naturally develop into what's best for them," he said.

"I call what I do the scientific and intellectual approach, which most people don't use. To me that's a big edge. That's also the reason why I've been able to make advances that I've made to this point quicker than a lot of people do."

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