I am a fragile Ironman. While I completed 3 Ironman triathlons (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run) in the span of 14 months – 2 in 2 months this year – I feel a bit like an impostor. Sure, I did the distance and was happy with my performance, but saying the distance out loud still seems unfathomable and I can’t believe I did it.
When you think of an Ironman athlete, you think of a muscular, hardened, indestructible Marvel character. None of which I am. For the longest time I never thought my body would be able to do an Ironman. I didn’t even think I would be able to do a marathon! My high school and college athletic careers where plagued by injuries that prevented me from running and biking as much as I wanted. Through my teens I dealt with horrendous Osgood-Slaughter disease (not a disease…we need to call it a “syndrome”!) and had major foot surgery when I was 20. So, through most of my adolescent years I had some form of pain going on when I was active.
This continued through college and my early 20s. It took me a degree in physical therapy to start to turn my athletic career around and stay healthy for more than a few months.
With that degree I have been fortunate to work with a number of high-level endurance athletes. These are athletes that can compete at collegiate and professional levels through their talent and hard work. I have found there are 3 key components that allow them to compete at that level:
- Technique resiliency. These athletes have naturally have superior technique. Their joints are not to loose nor stiff, they display phenomenal neuro-muscular control, and they have a low degree of asymmetrical patterns of movement. These people make running look easy, have a powerful and efficient presence on the bike, and can skim through the water.
2. Physical body resiliency. Their soft tissues and bones have the ability to recover quickly and can tolerate high amounts of stress without breaking down. Let’s face it, some of us just don’t have the cellular make up to recover like these athletes.
3. Mental resiliency. They are mentally tough. Or stubborn. Whatever you want to call it, they have a mind that can push themselves consciously beyond where their unconscious mind wants to stop. This mind provides discipline to wake up early, eat right, go to bed early, and put in the hard work.
Most “gifted” athletes I see have #1 and #2. These are the people that win races on minimal training or have been at the front of the pack since they were 8 years old. I would say the #1 and #2’s make up most of the collegiate athletes. Their genes put them on the superior end of the genetic curve for what is required to be good at their desired sport and they rode that talent wave through high school and college-aged years.
Elite athletes have #1, #2, and #3. They need to be genetically gifted to have a resilient body to tolerate high training demands combined with a superior technique of their sport. But to get that extra 5% or 1% or 0.1% required to be at the top of their sport, they need the mental component to get there. Talent can take you a long ways, sure, but you need a little grit to get to the top of the sport.
Unfortunately, I am very low on #1 and #2, but somewhat high on #3. Athletes like me keep the physical therapists and sports medicine specialists in business. Our mind wants to push it, but the body can’t take it. Like the Little Engine that Could. I think I can, I think I can. These are actually my favorite types of athletes to work with. They have an appreciation and gratitude when they accomplish an athletic event that #1 and #2’s don’t. The #3’s are typically that age group athletes that are still going well in to their 40s and 50s while the #1 and #2’s often burn out in their 20s.
I know I am not the only one that has struggled with injuries in the past yet had the mind that craved more (lots of #3’s out there!). Not all of these athletes can get a degree in physical therapy and be uber nerdy about bio-mechanics to address their issues. So hopefully my story and habits to stay healthy can be used to help others stay healthy and achieve their athletic goals.
Any helping profession needs to be aware of and avoid the thought that “whatever works for me, can work for my patients”. Just because foam rolling helped your knee pain, does not mean it will work for everyone. We need to appreciate everyone is N=1 and evaluate and treat based on each individual’s mechanics and compensations.
With that said, I feel being open and honest about one’s own story can be used to help others. This thought (and blog) came from a recent podcast I listened to with Rich Roll. He is a now-famous endurance athlete and speaker with an interesting history of drug and alcohol addiction. His main purpose is spreading his story to help others overcome addiction and other life challenges. He knows everyone’s story is different, but if they can use part of his story to change their life for the better, he is making a difference.
So what did I do different than the average triathlete? Below are aspects of my training I addressed to stay healthy and perform at my best:
- I trained smarter. Each workout session had a purpose. I can’t train like a professional athlete with my busy work life, so I had to make every session count. No “junk” miles that didn’t have a purpose to my end goal.
- I trained less and easier. Sure, I had my crazy workouts. But there were only a handful of those. Most triathletes do way too much and and too hard and don’t appreciate the importance of balancing hard sessions and easy/technique sessions.
- Addition for the triathlete: cardiovascular stress is still stress on the body. Don’t think you can run or bike hard one day, swim masters hard the next, then run or bike hard the day after. Even if swimming is not stressing your legs like run/bike, you are still stressing your cardiovascular and neurological systems. This will catch up to you! Most of my swim sessions this past year were really pretty easy: zone 1 and 2 efforts with focus on strength through paddles (my weakness) and technique. These sessions allowed my cardiovascular and neurological systems a rest as well as off-loading my muscles and joints by being in the water.
- I put a high value on rest. It took many years, but I finally realized the importance of rest days, weeks, and even rest blocks within the year. In the past, I was afraid to take a rest day or week as I craved the hard workouts and erroneously thought that was necessary to get better. Very hard to do for most endurance athletes. You need to rest properly to reap the benefits!
- Increased protein, decreased processed foods. At least I tried to decrease processed foods….I have a sweet tooth! There is the old saying “If the fire is hot enough, then you can burn anything” implying that when you are working out hard you can eat anything you want. Not so fast! You need to be feeding the body quality ingredients to operate at your best. This is more along the lines of putting high-performance fuel in a high-performance car. You can put a little junk fuel in, but you can’t do that for very long until the engine brakes down or it doesn’t perform like it should.
Ok, that’s good info any coach can give you, what about the physical therapy aspect of staying healthy?
- I have a strength program designed to oppose muscles I tend to over use with running, biking, and swimming. The muscles that are generally over-used (i.e., get too strong) are your back muscles, hip flexors, quad muscles, and calf muscles. Muscles that need facilitating (i.e., stronger or more active) are your abdominal muscles, glutes, hamstrings, triceps, low traps, and serratus muscles (reaching muscles). Check out past blogs on swimming, biking, and running to learn more. So, I designed s strength program that I do 3 times per week focusing on these muscles. The specific exercises are somewhat unique and may need their own blog…stay tuned! (Check out a previous blog on lifting to get a sneak peak).
- Along those lines, before a workout I have a series of 3-5 things to facilitate or activate those muscles I want to be more engaged during the workout. I like to think of these as movement preparation: make sure my body is in a good “position” to perform a repetitive activity, the right muscles are activated and ready to go, and finally a few dynamic movements to prime the body for the run/bike/swim.
- After the workout I usually do around 3 exercises or techniques to inhibit the muscles that tend to over work (back, hip flexors, quads, and calves). I am a firm believer that any runner or triathlete needs to do things outside of swim/bike/run to stay healthy.
- I make time to do complete exercise techniques to stay healthy (including those described above). These are little exercises designed to inhibit the muscles that are over-working, facilitate muscles that need more engaging, and are techniques to address body asymmetry. I will often cut a workout short to get this in. Or if I have some free time during lunch at work I will get these in. If it comes down to it, evenings before bed I will make time to get these techniques in. During heavy training cycles, these techniques become even more important to oppose the repetitive over-use nature of the swim/bike/run.
- These are exercises individual to my bio-mechanical needs. Many athletes I see are given their own unique set of techniques to do to stay healthy.
- I track my heart-rate variability (HRV). HRV is a measure of your autonomic nervous system – your “flight or fight” and your “rest and digest” system. HRV is the variability between heart beats, too low of variability indicates too much stress on the body (too much fight or flight). We need high variability to recover from workouts (more rest and digest). Having our HRV too low for too long will result in over training, injury, and burnout. My HRV measurement gives me objective data that I need to better gauge my rest days and to make sure I am recovering properly from workouts. This can be tracked over time to make sure you are not burying yourself and becoming over-trained.
So when it comes down to it, I attribute my ability to go from not being able to train much at all to 3x Ironman finisher is: learning how to address my sub-optimal biomechanics and asymmetries, training smarter (including tracking my HRV), and prioritizing my time to focus on what keeps me healthy.
I encourage all endurance athletes to spend time (and likely money) addressing their body. Instead of upgrading your tires or buying the next Garmin watch, put that money towards taking care of your body. Use it to work with a coach and learn about how to train properly. Use it to work with a qualified nutritionist to make sure you are getting the most out of the fuel you are feeding the engine. Use it to work with a physical therapist to learn about your body and how to stay healthy and have good bio-mechanics. Use it to invest in technology that keeps your body healthy (like HRV or sleep assessments). An investment in yourself will pay off many times over in the knowledge you gain. After all, that Garmin watch and slick tires are worthless if your body doesn’t hold up in order to utilize them!
Stay tuned for Fragile Ironman part 2 – for the clinician.
Email me at CraigDeppDPT@or leave messages below with any questions. Happy New Year and happy training to all!