Today is upper-body day for Linda McDonald, and she’s smiling through the sweat.
“She’s just getting warmed up,” says McDonald’s trainer, Josiah Middaugh, himself a professional triathlete.
McDonald has a winter triathlon coming up this weekend, so Middaugh has reduced her daily workout to one hour of weights and 30 minutes of running.
“This is an easy week,” the 46-year-old mother of four says.
Easy is clearly relative. But take a look around the valley, and you’ll see McDonald has good company. From professionals to weekend warriors, downhill skiers to snowshoe climbers, we are the posterchildren for fitness. But can our dedication sometimes cross the line of what’s healthy?
Altitude, mountains and a wide variety of recreational opportunities make the valley “the ultimate training ground,” says Joe Lenac, a sports psychologist who splits his time between St. Louis and Vail. It’s a distinction he notices from the moment he steps off the plane at the Eagle County Airport.
“The body size is a lot different out here,” Lenac says. “It’s a place where people come to play.”
That attitude is part of what makes McDonald so active, and, after shedding 25 pounds, it’s what turned her exercise goals from losing weight to competing.
“There’s so many different things to be doing,” she says. So whether she’s triathlon training with Middaugh at Dogma Athletica, running up Vail Mountain for the annual Vail Hill Climb (her time last year was an hour and 15 minutes) or trotting through a 10K snowshoe race, she’s never bored.
“People here are different than other places in the country,” says Dr. Joel Dekanich, a chiropractor at Vail Integrative Medical Group, whose patients include a 65-year-old snowboarder. “We love exercise. That’s what I love about the valley.”
Dekanich knows firsthand the demands of high-level training. In 2002, he finished the Ironman triathlon ” a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run ” and he’s completed multiple marathons and half-Ironmans. Training for an Ironman requires at least 20 hours per week, and often 30, Dekanich says.
“It’s really a part-time job, and you have to like it,” he says.
A part-time fitness job and a full-time regular job can leave time for little else. That’s why Dekanich, now a father of three children under age 5, has cut back his competitive events to two half-marathons a year. He trains three to five hours per week in the winter, and up to 15 in the summer.
“It’s got to be a priority,” he says. “Once you have kids, that really shifts your priority.”
But why do some people develop sports as a priority in the first place, while others struggle to pry themselves off the couch for a walk around the block?
The fitness commitment often starts early in life, Lenac says, when a child gets positive feedback from playing sports. As they grow older, a process called “identity foreclosure” takes place ” meaning their choice to spend time playing sports starts to close doors to other pathways and interests. The same can happen if the child concentrates on acting, art or any of a variety of activities; whatever the focus, it becomes more than just a pastime.
“That becomes a really strong part of their personality,” Lenac says. “It’s not something you do, it’s a core piece of your personality.”
As Dekanich learned, high-level training can be difficult to balance with life’s other activities.
“Here, I’m telling patients to really mellow out a bit,” he says.
Training can become unhealthy when it interferes with your relationships or career, Lenac says.
“Does it overtake everything else in life?” Lenac asks. “A very high-level athlete needs the support of family.”
If training comes at the detriment of that support system, then eventually the athlete’s performance will also suffer, Lenac says. The body can also deteriorate if down time isn’t scheduled into a training regimen.
Lenac recalls an Olympic athlete he worked with who thought he could improve more quickly than others by hard training even on scheduled lighter days. He ended up spending a year and a half injured, Lenac says.
“There (was) nothing left in the tank,” he says. “I told him, ‘Your work ethic is one of your strengths, but it’s also one of your weaknesses.'”
Injuries such as stress fractures and tendon problems can result from overuse, says Dr. Peter Millett, a sports medicine specialist and orthopaedic surgeon at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail.
“Essentially anywhere a tendon attaches to bone, there is a site that is vulnerable for injury,” he says. “When tendons are exposed repetitively to large amounts of stress, they can be damaged.”
Dekanich says athletes must weigh their fitness goals with the risk of repetitive knee pain, calf sprains and strains and other common injuries.
“Not all people are meant for all types of exercises,” says Dekanich, who adds he’s told some patients, ‘If you weren’t training at this level, you wouldn’t even be here (needing treatment).
To help prevent injury, Millett recommends increasing the intensity (mileage, time, etc.) of a workout by 10 to 15 percent per week, which gives muscles, tendons and ligaments time to adapt. He also stresses the importance of scheduled rest and recovery ” even the elite athletes of the U.S. Ski Team who he works with rarely ski more than three days in a row, he says.
The most successful athletes recognize the need for balance, budgeting time to relax and enjoy life outside of training and setting reasonable goals, Lenac says. Those goals should focus on competing with yourself, he says, “that drive to be the ultimate best.”
McDonald has found her own intrinsic motivation.
“I just love being out there and I love the competition,” she says. “Just trying to be the best you can be.”
Maybe that’s why she’s still smiling, even after nearly an hour of weight training.
“The people who are successful really enjoy it,” Middaugh says.
A few days later, something else to smile about: the winter triathlon. Middaugh comes in first, and McDonald, 22nd ” the best time for a woman her age.
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