Where would you even begin? What aspect would you focus on first or rate higher in importance?
As much as the answer to that open-ended question might seem obvious to some, for most it's as overwhelming as the number of vitamin and protein supplements lining the shelves of any health food store.
Recently there's been a lot of focus and chatter among fitness professionals about building core strength and the foundation, or pillars, for your working muscles. But even so, we're still flooded with more information, programs, videos, exercise classes and books then we can ever use or decipher.
Most of us have also heard of yoga and -- thanks to resurgence over the last five years -- Pilates. Both are excellent additions to any training program yet, again, most athletes find themselves either time constrained or confused as to which aspects of Pilates or yoga are most beneficial to their specific sports.
It's with these concepts and ideas in mind that I was introduced to a company in Phoenix aptly named AP.
My plan was to spend the first couple days of a five-day endurance training program with four other triathletes from around the country. This "endurance training" program is designed to give athletes a comprehensive understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. After completing the program, every athlete is given a customized program to work on correcting muscle imbalances or strengthening core muscles.
Believe me, I would love to have stayed for the entire five days but I don't think the rest of my cohorts at Active would buy off on the fact this was really work.
I was also imagining how my pregnant wife would react to something like "Honey, I'm gonna be gone for five days learning how to swim, bike and run faster. Have a good time taking care of the kids and dog."
I had been told that if I could only make a couple days that the first two were the most important since they'd be doing evaluations and introducing me to the concepts outlined by Mark Verstegen in his best-selling book, Core Performance. Verstegen is the founder and president of AP, which boasts a state-of-the-art fitness and rehabilitation center on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe.
Since I had previously read and reviewed Verstegen's book, I was already sold on his training philosophy which is all about strengthening the support muscles for dynamic movements required in any sport. The idea is that core strength, balance, flexibility and recovery are critical components to any sport.
As a former competitive triathlete, I was certainly interested in how applying these principles would translate to better form, more power and reduced injuries. I was especially interested in what this could do for my cycling, as most of my training and focus over the last five years has been on the bike.
The most eye-opening experience for me was the evaluation process. Darcy Norman, one of the physical therapists on staff, walked me through a ton of different movements to assess my "functional movement." Basically, I learned I needed to improve my balance and increase the strength of my supporting muscles.
I learned that muscle imbalances in my legs were causing me to be pulled to one side of my bike. Simply stated, I had never been able to figure out why I had a tendency to slide off to the right of my saddle when riding my bike hard.
AP had a professional bike fitter from the Bicycle Ranch, in nearby Scottsdale, spend time with each of us and the results were incredible. So much so that I wrote a separate article on that experience.
We also went through some sub max V02 testing and I was surprisingly encouraged that I scored higher than my much younger triathlete counterparts. These tests were done on both a running treadmill and stationary bike (we used our own bikes on a magnetic resistance trainer).
I had never done any kind of V02 testing before and breathing in and out of a mask covering my mouth and nose while they kept jacking up the speed and inclination on the running treadmill was a little disorienting. After a certain inclination I realized I couldn't see my feet because of this large mask on my face and I kept wondering if I was still centered or ready to stumble off the treadmill.
The interesting result here was my cycling V02 sub max score was much higher than my running score and much of the reason -- aside from feeling like I was going to fall off the treadmill -- was because I haven't been training my muscles to run lately. Because I'm trained on the bike, my muscles are much more efficient in handling oxygen intake.
Swimmers will be pleased to learn that AP has 1992 Olympic gold medalist Anita Nall on staff to help with swimming technique and form. As a former competitive swimmer and college water polo player, I have certainly had my share of coaches evaluate and try to improve my stroke, but I had never received a complete video analysis. It was great to have Nall walk me through videos of my freestyle stroke above and underwater.
An underwater camera captured every detail of how my hands entered and exited the water. It was really interesting to see my stroke frame-by-frame and get Nall's expert advice on what I could do to be more efficient.
After evaluations were done, the trainers assembled everybody for a series of "movement prep" exercises that are designed to get you ready to exercise. While many athletes still think that static stretching before exercise will help performance, the opposite may be true.
The thinking at AP is that you need to incorporate dynamic warm-up and stretching exercises into your pre-exercise warm up.
One of the things we learned is how to "fire those glutes" in just about any movement prep exercise. Darcy Norman explained that, as a cyclist, my glutes (butt muscles) needed to play a much larger role and he gave me a series of glute and rubber band exercises that isolated those muscles like nothing I'd ever done in my life.
I must say I was completely overwhelmed with the abundance of movement prep exercises that I got over the first couple of days. I kept thinking, just as I mentioned at the top of this article, how would I possibly have time to do all these exercises or, more importantly, which ones are more applicable to me?
Oh, and by the way, in addition to movement prep exercises, we also learned a bunch of strength and flexibility drills. Again, how would I know what to do when and how often?
Well, that's part of what the last three days that I missed are for. Over the last three days, it's practice and more practice and finally customization for your specific needs. Over the first couple days, AP likes to take everybody through all the different exercises and drills so that you begin learning how to do them.
While I read Mark's book and could get a lot out of it, it too was a little overwhelming to try and figure out how to properly do each exercise from a bunch of photos and descriptions.
Even if I thought I was doing something right, there's nothing like having an instructor right next to you to show you how a slight twist or modification can completely change where you feel a stretch or muscle.
Several months later
It's now been several months since my visit to AP. (I told them I'd wait a few months, incorporate some of their movement prep exercises into my daily routine and get back to them and our active.com readers on what I've noticed, if anything.)
As I mentioned, with the abundance of movement prep and strength building exercises, I needed a little more clarity on what might work best for me. I know this is what I missed by not attending the last three days, so Darcy Norman was kind enough to e-mail me a detailed description of movement prep exercises that would fit into any allotted time period.
I had a 1-minute, 5-minute and full 20-minute movement prep warm-up routine I could use whenever I had the time. I mostly use the 5-mintute version with a sprinkling of items I add from the 20-minute version.
Another help for me was Jessi Stensland, a professional triathlete who finished 6th at the OIympic trials and attributes a complete athletic renaissance because of AP.
Before visiting AP for the first time a year ago, Jessi had been plagued by injuries and was ready to hang up her career and find something else to do with her life. She now believes she's on the verge of her best year ever and attributes everything to her new bullet-proof body.
"Athletes' Performance has already taken me to another level," claims Stensland. "I wholeheartedly believe that if I continue to incorporate the exercises into my training, not only will I be injury-free for the rest of my career, but I will be able to continue to push the limits of my performance endlessly."
Because Jessi's become so adept at these exercises, she's also helped me walk through some of the movements to ensure I was doing them properly. It's easy to get yourself all monkeyed up and feeling like a contortionist wondering if you're remembering how to do things properly. Therefore it's great if you can get some follow up with somebody like Jessi or by visiting the facility for a follow-up session.
I now incorporate a little movement prep, even if it's just a minute or so, before every training session and I too believe that I've not only become stronger, but I'm much more aware of staying relaxed and using my transverse abdominis (muscle which pulls the abdominal wall inward) to support my cycling muscles.
While I haven't been racing since my visit to AP, I've noticed that I feel a lot more comfortable with less effort and, at nearly 46 years, feel stronger than I've ever been in my life. I'm planning on incorporating a little more speed and discipline into my training this summer and may get back to our readers as to anything new I've learned from using movement prep consistently.
Darcy explained something very interesting that I hadn't thought of till he told me. "Try riding by sticking your stomach out as far as possible," he explained. "Then pull your stomach in and see if you notice a difference in power."
He was right. When I pushed my stomach out, it's like I lost all my power. When I pulled it in, I noticed the speed increase with no perceived increase in effort.
Basically the human body is an amazing machine, but it's so easy to neglect many of the supporting muscles and functions that can truly optimize performance.
Nutrition also plays a huge role in a custom program AP employs a full-time dietitian to analyze and customize an eating routine that conforms to an athlete's goal in either losing weight or gaining strength and size.
The five-day Endurance Training Program is not for those on a tight budget. The program runs $2,500 and includes all your meals, including two protein shakes a day. The philosophy is to eat at least five meals/snacks a day to keep metabolism and energy levels high. The nice thing, however, is you're assured of personalized attention because each five-day program is limited to four athletes.
AP is not for the wannabe weekend warrior. As their name implies, it's all about performance. And if you're remotely serious about increasing your performance, you should definitely consider the folks at Athletes' Performance.
You can visit them on the Web at www.athletesperformance.com or call (480) 449-9000.