Sunday, August 22, 2010

Strength Training

I haven't commented much lately about what goes on behind the scenes of my training, off-road, off-track, and out of the water --- strength training. That's where it all started for me in my early 20s when I was a competitive powerlifter, and strength training is what drew me back out of blob world over two years ago. The gym gives me community and a sense of place when so much of my training is solitary.

I was fortunate to link up with a gifted and passionate trainer, Jake Parks, who I continue to train with today. He brought me into the world of running, which later grew to encompass triathlon too, but I've remained faithful to strength training, hitting the gym 3-4x a week. I work out for just an hour each time, but I train consistently, week-in and week-out. I firmly believe that strength training has given me a certain edge, mentally and physically that I bring with me to the start of every race, and really to all of life's challenges.

There are documented, peer-reviewed studies showing the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes like triathletes (e.g., but I'd like to speak to my own personal perspective on its vital role in my training.

Strength training makes me strong!! Obvious yes, but I love exploring the capabilities and potential of my body. People routinely underestimate what they are capable of doing with a little effort and training, particularly women. I'm thankful to know a bit about what I can do! It's like walking around with a really cool secret....who would guess that this body can deadlift 245 lbs, do 12 pullups or bench 130 lbs?

Strength training has shown me that consistent hard work, coupled with patience and faith, does bring results. Some gains have been easy, some hard-won. It's often two steps back and one step forward. But it's important to have faith, don't give up, and keep sub-par workouts in perspective. However, as my ultramarathon friend Shannon reminds me, "you'll never get this workout/race/set/rep back again, so make it count!" I give each workout my total focus and effort.

Strength training enables me to embrace pain a little more and fear it a little less. This is the kind of pain one will inevitably encounter in any race. There's nothing like the intense burn of a screaming muscle on a double-drop set of anything, a lap of lunges, lateral raises, calf raises.... But at the gym you learn that the pain is temporary and you can endure it longer than you think. Competition often comes down to the one who is willing to endure more pain, and to suffer more. (suffer more is often my race mantra).

Strength training builds mental toughness. Facing different types of challenges gives me a variety of experiences to draw upon when needed. It takes some mental fortitude to squeeze out 10 reps when your brain is reminding you that you've only ever done 8 before. Or to finally bench 135 lbs when you've just barely missed it time and time again. Or to face a big deadlift that you've never done before, stepping up to that big weight just sitting there. But you learn to outsmart yourself, and to ignore your "central governor" that decides what is possible and what is not. It's most often the brain that limits what we think we can do, not the body.

Therapeutic strength training has been good for shoring up areas that have been prone to injury. I've had my share of issues and injuries - IT bands, fracture, foot problems, and even a strained collarbone joint. These issues have been indicative of an area of weakness, imbalance, or inflexibility which we have successfully addressed through strength training and stretching. I'm fortunate to be working with knowledgeable and experienced trainer who has some background in physical therapy and rehab.

Strength training gives me confidence that carries through to races. When I am pedaling up a big hill and my quads are burning, I'm thinking about all the squats, lunges, leg presses (etc) that I have done and my competitors have not. When I am swimming, reaching and catching water, I know I have put in the work to have strong healthy shoulders, lats, and triceps. I am confident that my core is strong and my back won't be an issue on the run. And when my mind is telling me I've done enough, I can reach past it and find a final kick, just like I do with a tough final rep.

When I began working with Jake, I thought I knew a lot about strength training from my powerlifting background. My plan was to train with him just a few times and then take over my own training. It turns out I had a lot to learn. Building sport-specific lean muscle mass effectively and efficiently is both art and science, requiring trial and error and careful observation to fine-tune an individualized program. I often think about the fact that I logged at least double the hours in the gym in my early 20s, yet I am stronger now than I was then! It's a testament to the value of training smart.

I continue to train with Jake for many reasons. Training with him is efficient and effective and fun. It's hard work, but a bit like grown-up recess playing with stability balls, the bosu, medicine balls, mats, therapy bands, barbells, dumbells and machines. He keeps things fresh and interesting and I'm always learning something new. He works with me on the nutrition side of things, and the built-in accountability of face-to-face sessions keeps me on track and in balance. We set goals and I see results. As a working mom with a busy life, I appreciate being able to show up at the gym and do what is asked of me without having to think about it or plan it. It's one of the few areas of my life that I don't have to manage. He integrates the strength training plan with my triathlon and running plans, which isn't easy given the different types of competitive goals that I have throughout the year.

There is a large and growing body of evidence documenting the benefits of resistance training (along with cardio) in the promotion of physical AND mental health. But I think there is an assumption that strength training is a no-brainer and that anyone should be able to find their way around a gym, heave a few weights, work a few machines, and see changes in their body. (Heck, every high school boy could manage the sand-filled weights in the garage, how hard can it be??) When results don't come quickly (or at all) and motivation wanes, that's the end of it. They decide weightlifting is no fun, or conclude that they have a body that is resistant to change. Even more disheartening are the folks with tremendous dedication, who are faithful to the gym, but who lack knowledge to make progress!

It's only a small minority of people who will solicit help from a trainer. Yet why is it acceptable to work with (and pay $$) a therapist or psychologist when we have issues, while working with a personal trainer is viewed as an indulgence??

I do get put on the defensive sometimes about working with a trainer. Here's how I feel about that: I rarely hit the coffee shops, I spend nothing on beauty products outside of haircuts, I have no expensive bags/shoes/clothes (exercise clothes and equip excluded!), I happily drive an old minivan, I don't have a flat screen TV, I've never had a manicure, I don't go to bars, I require no fancy vacations, I don't have a therapist, I spend nothing on anti-depressants, I don't collect stuff, I pack my lunch and snacks, I don't buy jewelry, and I sell things on eBay. I don't need to buy things, go places, or have a certain image to be happy.

I feel good physically and mentally, and isn't that ultimately what we are after? We are made to challenge ourselves, we are made to work hard, and we are made to push limits. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to get to and stay in the comfort zone but true joy and satisfaction come from moving beyond comfort. Working with a trainer has certainly done that for me. It's been an investment in health and happiness that carries over to my relationships with my kids, family, friends, and colleagues.

Today was a good day. 120 lbs for 5 reps on bench. 104 reps over 8 sets on barbell squats. Tomorrow things will hurt but I will be happy for the constant reminders that I am strong, and I will be glad I moved out of my comfort zone!