A TRIATHLETE in the offseason normally does one of two things: goes on an eating/drinking binge to ‘compensate’ for all the missed/passed-over indulgences, or continues training in one or all three disciplines, but at a less intense level. There are second-tier options like cross training in other exercises or sports to maintain a fitness level that will make easing back into race season less traumatic as well as to neutralize some of the guilt from all the bingeing. Sometimes, that’s where the trouble actually begins.
I tried a CrossFit trial workout early last year, hoping to find a new strength-training regimen to complement my endurance activities. From the little that I read on the subject, CrossFit was fifteen minutes of hell that would simultaneously push my body to the point of exhaustive muscle fatigue and get my heart pumping out of my chest. Fun! Or so I thought.
The warm-up exercises seemed pretty standard, comprised of a number of stretching routines, trunk twists and squats to loosen and limber up muscles that were to be used in the workout ahead. The actual workout was a cyclical sequence (called a set) made up of ball-to-wall squat pushes (Am not sure of the term, but you basically hold a medicine ball in both hands and start from a squatting position, stand and push the ball upwards to touch a marked height on the wall, catch it in both hands and lower yourself back to the original squatting position), pull ups, box jumps, and Burpees (Also called squat thrusts where you squat, thrust your feet behind you, execute a push up, thrust your feet back to a squatting position, then jump back up to a standing position). This set was to be repeated over the span of fifteen minutes with a prescribed number of repetitions for each exercise. Do as many of the sets as you can and that’s all there is to it.
It seemed easy enough — until that first ball-to-wall squat push. The moment the medicine ball landed back in my hands, returning me back to the original squatting position, was the same moment I felt like kissing my race season goodbye. I felt a shock wave ripple down my spine, climaxing with an explosion of pain in my lower back as I froze with the ball still in my hands. Rolling the ball gently to the floor, I got up ever so slowly, realizing that this hurt would take more than a few herbal painkillers to cure. The instructor suggested I go to the next room and use the foam roller to try and stretch out, which is what I did.
I still managed to finish a number of sets after working with the foam roller, but it was my pride more than anything else that wouldn’t let me quit this trial workout. It took a good three weeks, numerous visits to my favorite acupuncturist, doses of painkillers, and intimate sessions with my foam roller before I was able to swim, run, or bike pain-free. Checked off CrossFit from my list of alternative sports/exercise — forever!
So what happens when you throw triathletes, who haven’t played basketball let alone dribble one for the longest time, into a ‘friendly match’ described by one author as ‘a beautiful game?’ You get what’s called Ugly Ball.
On the rare occasions that I play pick-up hoops with my in-laws (who used to play varsity and professional ball) and my wife’s nephews (who play varsity for competing schools/leagues), I get to appreciate just how fast and precise the game is played in the hands of people who actually live and breath the stuff. And although I’m able to keep up with them on an endurance level, I am immediately exposed as a bumbling amateur once the ball is in motion and I have to work off pick-and-rolls, back door plays, and quick feeds. These guys can second guess your next move and read the court the way Warren Buffet reads financial statements. Real athletes play on a different level altogether and have a certain rhythm and flow to their game that is only fully comprehensible when you’re actually playing with/or against them. Some of them don’t appear impressive outside the court, pool, track, or pitch, but get them within the periphery of the playing venue and they are immediately transformed into titans of the sport who will wipe the floor with the egos of many a pretender. But back to our story…
Two years ago, someone had the grand idea of pitting one triathlon club against another in the offseason in a friendly game of hoops. It was time to dust off neglected basketball shoes that lay untouched for years since triathlon took center stage and rummage through the closet for any remaining basketball kits that weren’t given away during the last typhoon donation drive. A practice game was organized two weeks before the actual game to allow the players a chance to loosen those long dormant basketball muscles and hopefully shake off the rust from their game. The result? Keystone cops on the hard court.
The actual game that followed wasn’t much different. Both teams had players running all over the court, with hardly anyone getting tired, thanks to the endurance that triathlon training provides; but that’s about the most impressive part of either team’s game that day. Save for a couple (and I do mean a couple) of players who actually played well, the rest of those on the floor looked like bats with echolocation senses gone awry. It was a statisticians nightmare or dream, depending on your point of view: errors, interceptions, turnovers, steals, and fouls aplenty, not to mention an incident in the shaded lane that had some elbows flying and tempers flaring. And this was a friendly. The game was peppered with lots of loose balls, lucky shots, and fumbling over/for the rock. This was ugly ball at its finest.
And as if that weren’t enough, we’re actually tuning up for yet another offseason friendly that comes up in two weeks. What can I say? I guess a number of us still want to ‘Be Like Mike,’ though we end up looking more like Arroyo than Jordan.
Yoga Is (Not) A Four-Letter Word
The missus had been convincing me for some time to give yoga a try, since she had been practicing it at home, as well as attending classes of different yoga systems for some months. She would tell me that Bikram, or hot yoga, would not suit me as I sweat buckets by just sitting still, or that Ashtanga, or power yoga, would be too aggressive a start for my creaking joints and overall inflexible physique. But she also told me that Vinyasa, or flow yoga, would be the best place to start, as there were ‘easy’ options for the variety of poses flowing through an entire yoga session.
When I finally planted feet to mat while attending the free weekly yoga class in our village clubhouse, I discovered just how wide my vocabulary of the four-letter variety was. I also developed great respect for yoga practitioners, and considered banishing ‘pretzel posers’ and ‘ohm my god’ jokes from my shtick, although the ‘my karma just ran over your dogma’ remark (from a t-shirt print from decades back) is still good for a few laughs.
After several weeks of dedicated attendance and practice, I began to feel the benefits of sun salutations, downward facing dogs, warrior poses, and tabletops. The soreness in my back after long runs and bike rides eased considerably, while my recovery times between workouts saw a marked improvement. I found myself buying a ‘Yoga For Athletes’ DVD so that I could practice at home and actually looked forward to the weekly sessions at the clubhouse.
Today, as I continue to practice yoga (though not as often as I would want), I feel that I’ve found a cross-training sport that can support and benefit my endurance activities by providing strengthening and flexibility needed to perform better. And even if I require the use of yoga blocks and sashes/belts to help me execute the more difficult poses while still with the flexibility of an ironing board, I am glad to have been introduced to this alternative activity that I can engage in well into my twilight years.
Takeaway: What I Learned (and not What I Ordered)
In the hands of professionals, anything can look like poetry. In the hands of blundering amateurs, it’s performance art.
In the Peter Principle, ‘employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.’ The same maxim applies to sport, society, and practically every hierarchy that exists. We all have our limitations; unfortunately, some of us just don’t know where these lie, and thus don’t know where and when to stop. When we are able to weigh the pros and the cons, as well as distinguish the impossible from the improbable, we will also be able to make better and smarter decisions. It’s one thing to be adventurous and persevering, it’s another to be foolhardy and bullheaded. Knowing the difference is the hard part.
All this from choosing a cross-training activity...
“A man’s gotta know his limitations.”
Clint Eastwood as ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan
From the movie ‘Magnum Force’