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The weakest link

January 12, 2013

I have been working with  Steve Lopes from Midtown Athletic Club for a few months now on strength. When I say strength … people tend to think I am pumping iron and getting “jacked”, not so. In fact strength training and multisport have always been somewhat at odds, and for good reason. For those of us who tend to build muscle mass easily, which is what we don’t want when we are swimming biking and running ….  we tend to avoid the weight room. But when we pile on the high volume training, we are only as strong as our weakest link and injuries can occur. The type of strength training I have been doing with Steve is more functional strength training.

My weakest link is my lower back, more specifically my right SI joint. In 1999 I got hit by a car while running and it’s been a recurrent hot spot for me over the years. I just accepted it as something I have to deal with. After 30 min or so of swim / bike and run it loosens up, sometimes I would have bouts where it locks up, yet it could bring me down entirely.

I have more little hot spots, those combined with what I have been going through the past few years really brought out those imbalances and weak spots. About 2 years ago I bought a TRX and got certified on it, and that has helped tremendously.

One morning in April I woke up early and felt like going to a class. I love going to classes. My time is 6am and I walked into Steve’s class, having never been to a boot camp style class before. One word out of his mouth and I knew I found my guy. He’s a former Marine and as I have said many times before, he knows his stuff. Don’t come to Steve’s class for coffee and circle time.

In September I began working with him one-on -one and I needed to tell him nothing. He discovered a lot of weakness and imbalance right away. I know that sounds cliché…. but because of what I have been through the past few years…..  coming into this Ironman I need to have NO weak link. In my opinion Steve is the best & when you are making this sort of comeback you go to the best.

I am also one year and one month away from being 40. I think some athletes have this magical line drawn across the sand at the age of 40, and others don’t. I see that line as opportunity. I look at Dara Torres, and even my husband and look at what they have accomplished athletically after age 40.

I can’t train the way I did when I was 28. Back then I could get away with a lot more reckless training than I can now. Now I have to be purposeful and meticulous in balancing trainings stress. Which is why I remain with QT2. No one does it better. At the same time I know that as I am almost 40 I need to pay even closer attention to functional strength.

When I work with Steve I am not bench pressing 800 pounds (sometimes I press the bar itself though). It’s not about getting ripped (although it’d be nice!) it’s about improving my stability, balance and many many other things that relate to functional strength. I need the work that we do in the gym to translate into swim, bike and run.

It has.

What do I do? I balance and lunge on a foam balance beam. We use the TRX. We use kettlebells. I lungs and squat and lunge and squat. I do long strides uphill on a treadmill. Sometimes I chase basketballs. Sometimes I shuffle side to side. Sometimes I do around the world lunges.

Twice a week (once in class and once 1:1) I walk into an unknown situation. That itself is new for me. Normally I teach the class, design the set, I know what I am walking into. Part of my challenge is letting go of the control that I crave. I find comfort in knowing what is coming, what is happening. Part of this training is teaching me to roll with the punches.

For example the other day I was doing squat thrusts. Steve instructed me to add a jump into them. I looked at him and said “Up?” and he just… kind of looked at me. Yes…. up.

Where else would I go? I probably asked because I didn’t want to jump!  See, the issue of predictability and being in charge of what comes next and reacting to it are some of the best lessons I have learned. I have learned how to physically fail, and not allow that to derail me but use it to push myself.

Everything I do involves me traveling forward from point A to point B. I have learned to move side to side, to rotate and reach and lunge. I can do a plank correctly (thought I already was!) . I can shuffle side to side without falling over. I am improving on my reaction time. I can bend down and pick something off the floor without my SI joint giving me so much as an ache (when I remember to bend my knees). I can do so many physical and mental things today that I couldn’t do before.

And how about my swim, bike and run? Oddly my hill bounding is more solid. I can handle my training volume without feeling it in my lower back. My strength is returning and it’s balanced. My running feels stronger. My hips don’t ache after a long run. I don’t know if I can articulate this as well as I should be….. but I feel more connected head to toe and I feel that swimming, cycling and running is more connected and more fluid. I feel stronger.

(And then I have to show Curt what I did and what I learned. Because he’s a mooch. Curt happens to be the functional strength specimen. If you have ever seen him, you now what I mean.)

The space between my ears has also gotten stronger. In the beginning I took it personal if I fell over. I hated shuffling side to side. I would get angry with Steve (let’s be clear…. I was really angry at myself, I would just give him the middle finger). Now I can react to it much better, I can use it to help me stay hungry instead of allowing it to defeat me.

When people realize that I am working with a trainer, they seem surprised. Mary… you are a triathlon coach, personal trainer, yoga teacher, cycling instructor….. and you work with a trainer?

Hell yes I do. It was hard for me to do too. It’s hard to ask for help when you are supposed to know everything.

But I don’t know everything. Any chance I get I like to be the student. I like to learn from others. I am never that teacher that walks into another class critiquing. Who the hell do I think I am? I am a student of everyone, I want to soak up their knowledge, insight and experience. I wish we could all do that.

Even if you aren’t interested in working with someone like Steve on a weekly basis, a consult is a really good idea. I remotely coach a lot of athletes and I highly encourage them to bring their program to someone. Even just once. Find someone you trust, find someone who understands your body (and your head for that matter). It’s worth the money to have them evaluate your strength program. Often times we think we are executing a movement correctly and we aren’t (I am the captain of that club!). To have those outside eyes guide you, evaluate your program, and offer suggestions is worth it. Then check in with them every few weeks, see if there is something you need to change and make sure you are doing everything correctly.

It is hard for me to find someone who gets me. I tend to gravitate towards people who are objective, direct, who don’t hold my hand, and who understand what kind of athlete I am. I am sort of stubborn and set in my ways. I travel from point A to point B. I am learning to bend and twist in more ways than one. And I am learning to bend my knees. Moving in different directions and learning how to use my body rather than throw myself through the movement has been a challenge, a good one.

Do I think strength training is important in multisport? Absolutely. It depends on your body, your age, your limitations. In my opinion functional strength training gives you the biggest bang for your buck: functional rotational movement is what swim / bike and run is all about. It’s an insurance policy against injury and it is critical as we near and surpass 40. Find someone who knows their stuff and can relate it to your sport like I did…. and you’ve struck gold.

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