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Friday, June 4, 2010

Functional Strength Training

Farley update (because all of you care as much as I do right?): Farley looks fine and is moving long as it's on soft footing. I took her out for an easy hack yesterday and she's very tenderfooted on gravel/rocks. This of course makes me unhappy, as she was gravel-crunching with ease before I glued boots on her. I officially do not like the glueons as well as the strap ons, especially during very wet conditions. I'll still use them when I feel like I have to (Tevis 2010 is one such time), but it's disconcerting to now be REQUIRED to wear boots for conditioning rides. Poor girl. No wonder she was uneven on the right front after the ride! Her little feeties were soft after 6 days in boots and rain and mud and snow and while at the time she felt OK doing that 20 miles bare on that RF, obviously I have learned something....carry more than 1 size of boot if wearing multiple sizes, and 6 days in muddy conditions in a boot does NOT equal being barefoot and using strapons in the same time period! Gluing boots might be different during dry conditions (not cause the hoof sensitivity). As bad as I feel now, at least I'm not looking at a soft tissue injury (what a relief!).

Today was my last day at physical therapy and included a follow up from my (wonderful) sports medicine doc.

The knee is about 92% (by my reckoning) and I have a LOT of tools in my "toolbox" for keeping my various moving parts happy and painfree for many years to come. Yes, there were some supportive therapies during PT to help heal my various injuries, but the biggest part of the treatment was teaching me how to develop and strengthen my body to keep me injury free and able to do the activities I love for as long as possible.

I learned a lot. I learned that my left side is much weaker than my right side because it's been compensating for injuries on my right side for so long (I know that sounds paradoxial, but it has to do with the angle of my hip and HOW I've been compensating, which did not foster strength on my left side). I've learned that I MUST isolate each side of my body when doing strength exercises, otherwise I will compensate to a degree that I'm not getting a benefit. That although I'm really good at pushing myself cardiovascularly, I'm a wimp when it comes to pushing myself during strength exercises.

And then I learned even more about principles that I ALREADY SHOULD KNOW, since I've been applying them to my horse, but (apparently) I'm so blind I can't apply them to myself. The importance of icing and anti-inflammitories. The importance of NOT ignoring a minor injury and working through the discomfortant. The importance of getting a doctor to look at my injury after giving it sufficient time that it should have healed.

The biggest thing I learned (that I already knew from horses....): Functional Strength

I love running. Love it love it love it. It keeps my brain healthy, although I'm not sure about the body. I never lost weight running, or became especially muscular. But I didn't care. I loved the way it felt - swinging my legs and effortlessly covering 20 miles without being out of breath. I may not have looked like an athlete, but I was so high on endorphins, I didn't care.

As for as that pesky "cross training" I sometimes consistently do pilates and exercise ball stuff a couple of times a week (you can interpret that as: most of the time do once a week, sometimes never do it, rarely do it 3x a week).

I'm an active person so between my off again/on again cross training, running, walking, biking and my normal activites, I've stayed fairly fit.

Let's take a short break here and talk about horses. Farley in particular. Farley's lifestyle was much like mine until 9 months ago. She was fairly fit. We did trail work and intervals a couple of times a week. She could muddle her way through a 50 in decent condition, although she always ran out of gas up hill and was never quite as strong throughout the ride as I would have liked. But I couldn't complain. She did her job, she liked it, and was perfectly capable of a back of the pack finish.

Then I discovered dressage. Let's call this "horsey functional strength training" shall we?

9 months later I have a horse that looks incredible, never even falters at the steepest or longest hill on the course except to ask whether she can canter or gallop. I have a horse that is more than capable of a top 10 finish and can look good while doing it. She no longer looks gaunt after a ride. She no longer runs out of gas 3/4 through a ride. I have vets commenting at the end of the ride that it doens't even look like she was ridden! (which is the best compliment ever BTW).

And the amazing thing is? We are doing less trail work than ever! We focus on dressage and only do a serious trail ride or endurance ride every 6 weeks or so.

After establishing a cardio base and LSD for a 12-18 months, the answer was functional strength training, NOT a gazillion more hills.

Let's return to me.....

I like the exercise ball and pilates because I feel like the strength I gain is "real". Unlike lifting weights (which I did for many years in high school and college), even while exercising the primary muscle group, using bands and balls requires the auxillary muscles to engage, which translates to real life activities. For this reason I'm also found of the exercises that engage the whole body very useful - like the the one where you go from the standing position, jump down to a push up position, and back up.

However.....when I ever I get time crunched or unmotivated, the cross training was the first to go and I just run. I've NEVER consistently cross-training for more than a month or two at a time. And I think as a result, I'm ALWAYS frusterated with my level of fittness. For how much I run, I just feel like I should be getting more of a benefit.

So of course, I had a revelation (that was obvious if I had learned from my horse's example...) in the doc's office. We were talking about the tools I learned in PT to keep me healthy and injury free and he kept mentioning all these different exercises he liked to do and kept referring to "functional strength training". I figured out that he was refering to my favorite form of strength training (things like bands and balls) I asked him if there was a resourse that I could use to develop a better training program.

Apparently, according to the doc, traditional gyms/free weights are an antiquated way of strength training. By developing my functional strength (with the tools I describe below), I will run better without having to run faster or longer, and thus increasing my chance of injury. I will also be able to develop my riding position and be able to ride better through proper strength training.

The tools
If you can only have one piece of equipment in your home for exercising, he recommends a TRX band. You can exercise any part of your body and get very creative. It's also very portable, space efficient and you can use anywhere. Additionally there are lots and lots of free resourses of how to use this tool.

If you have TWO pieces of equipment, the second piece of equipment is a jump rope. This is especially good for riders, as jumping rope will load and achilles in a similar manner to riding and will strengthen it.

The third essential piece of equipment, if you are going to by THREE toys, is an exercise ball.

The bottom line
I have the jump rope and the ball, so I'm going to be on the look out for a TRX band. Last year I focused on running and cardio. I'll still run, but this year I'll be focusing on functional strength training. Who knows, maybe in 9 months I'll be able to match Farley stride for stride? If dressage will keep Farley sound and happy for many many years, I'm hoping by improving my overall strength, it will do the same for my riding and running. Perhaps this thought, and armed with the knowledge that I what I'm doing IS effective if done over the long term will help me be more consistent?


  1. Here is what I have found recently:
    Dressage is to endurance horses as Yoga is to endurance riders.
    Specifically, Bikram's hot Yoga. Improves flexibility, strength, heat tolerance, stamina, cardio, etc. Give it a try, I think you might like it!!!!

  2. I did Bikram Yoga last night with a friend and it was INSANE! I felt great afterwards but during it i was dying in the 115 degree room!!!

  3. I love Bikram... It helps so much to get all of the kinks out after a ride weekend!!! Plus, it makes 85 degree heat seem like a breezy spring morning!

  4. I really love the Big Three free weight exercises, for just that reason. Squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, if done correctly, all activate a bunch of accessory muscles and require a lot of core stability. Anything on a machine and anything concentrating on one muscle group doesn't give you that "real" strength you're talking about.

  5. Having heavy meal before exercise is harmful .Eating hard to digest foods like meat and dairy before training will work against you. Once you are getting enough sleep and are feeding your body efficiently, it's time to focus on training. Warming up is crucial. About 10 minutes is good. Once you feel warm and your heart rate is elevated, you are ready. If you are strength training, now is the time to warm up the joints and increase the blood flow to the muscles you are about to exercise. Start with normal jumps and push ups.

  6. This is really informative! Thank you so much for sharing this with us! You have been really helpful! More power to you and to your site!

    Functional Strength


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