Chapter one: Getting into the fast lane, one more time
In the world inhabited by competitive swimmers, I’ve been considered old for a long time. The first time I really felt this was when I decided to make a comeback for the 2000 Olympic team. I was thirty-two years old, and some people, including my beloved dad, thought I was crazy. He still believed in me, though, as did many other supporters, but the most important factor was that I believed in me. I made the team, went to Sydney with my fellow Americans, and won five medals — two gold and three bronze. But who’s counting?
That experience was the first time I was forced to relearn how to both push my body and respect it. It was a turning point in my career, and I had to dig deep inside of myself, rethink how to train my body, and ask new questions about what makes a person stronger and more flexible — in body and in mind. In other words, I had to understand how not to let my age get in my way.
I’ve always had my own sense of time, and in most ways it’s worked for me. Most swimmers will tell you that at one point they simply decide to hang up their suit. I’ve had moments like that, too, but I’ve reversed my decision now a total of three times. The last such time was when I was thirty-eight and finally, miraculously, got pregnant after years of trying. I jumped back into the pool simply to get some exercise and get rid of morning sickness during my pregnancy, believing that a strong body would only help to make my baby stronger. Being in the pool again felt so right that I was encouraged to begin yet another new training regimen. And two years after my daughter, Tessa, was born, I found myself, at the age of forty-one, in Beijing at my fifth Olympic Games.
As the title of my memoir, Age Is Just a Number, indicates, I like to challenge the odds. I believe that most of us can not only reach beyond our own preconceived limitations but also rise to challenges much bigger than we allow ourselves to dream . . . if we simply believe in ourselves. I know that’s a big if. How do you gain that trust in yourself? By setting up real, measurable goals and developing realistic expectations and plans to meet those goals. Then, of course, there’s follow-through. Don’t expect to lose those last five or ten pounds if you’re not consistent with your workouts. Don’t expect to run that 5k if you haven’t been running 3 miles three or four times a week. Don’t expect to finish that book you’ve always wanted to write if you don’t sit down at the computer several times a week. Results demand showing up. However, it’s also true that when you do show up and put in the work, you might just exceed your own expectations.
So, when I put on my Speedo and my old goggles again, I knew that as a thirty-nine-year-old new mom I had to train differently. I couldn’t expect that my body was the same as it was in Sydney six years earlier, or in Barcelona eight years before that. Once I understood this, I learned three very important lessons: (1) I needed to develop more flexibility so that my muscles and joints were more balanced and supported one another; (2) I had to strengthen my body in a new way (lean and long rather than bulky and beefy); and (3) most important of all, I had to recognize the importance of recovery for my mind and body. These three elements combined to make me a faster, stronger, and smarter swimmer. Rest and recovery time, functional strength training, and resistance stretching have been my mantra, my secret weapons, and the key not only to competing as a forty-something athlete but also to feeling amazingly confident and comfortable in my body. And they can be yours as well — just wait and see.
Lesson number one: Know when to back off
Although on the surface motherhood didn’t seem to change my body, it did make an enormous impression on me, especially in one unforgettable way: It taught me how to pay attention to what my body needed. It was becoming clear to me that I couldn’t push my body until it ached with pain; I couldn’t not eat well before and after workouts; I couldn’t sleep off a too long training session — because now I had a daughter, Tessa, to take care of.
These differences became even more apparent after I was back in the pool and had begun to seriously prepare and train for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — almost two years away. I could tell that my body was reacting differently than it had before. I was used to pushing myself to the max, and now I felt tired after a long workout. I was used to a certain level of physical discomfort, but now my doctors were telling me to take better care of my joints, especially my knees and shoulders. I was not recovering as easily or quickly. I felt weighed down by bulky muscles. I knew I should do things differently, but I had no idea how or what to do. Then I remembered part of what I learned back at Stanford.
When I was training for the 2000 Sydney Olympics with my then coach Richard Quick, I had learned the hard way not only that comparing myself with other swimmers, especially much younger swimmers, gets in the way of training and swimming my best but that becoming unnecessarily focused on what you can’t control (i.e., another swimmer’s performance or training style) can drag you down. At the time, I had an active and rather charged rivalry with swimmer Jenny Thompson. We’d been teammates and friends, but when I moved to Stanford to train with Richard Quick and the rest of the team, hoping to make the Olympic training camp and trials, I got caught up in a competition that was incredibly stressful.
I also found myself comparing my workout with what the twenty-year-olds were doing in the pool and at the gym. At the time I thought, “If I don’t do what they’re doing, how am I going to make the team? If I don’t swim as long, I’ll never get better results.” For me, not winning is never an option. But I was confused as to what to do, how to adapt.
It was Richard who told me to back off. “You need to rest, do you understand that?” he said to me one day after practice. It was Friday and I was pooped.
I kind of nodded, hoping he would just stop talking to me.
“Really, you need to rest. For real. I don’t want you doing one thing this weekend. Not even one.”
Through his glare, I knew he was serious and meant every word. What he was saying was true.
So that weekend, against every grain in my body, I rested. I resisted the urge to do a spin class, run — or swim. And by the end of the weekend, I actually felt better than I had in months. That Monday I swam one of the best practices of my life. I had learned my lesson: I needed to let my body recover when it needed to.
This experience made me realize that I didn’t necessarily have to train more than the other athletes but I had to train smarter. That’s what being the oldest woman on the team meant: I had to conserve my energy, use it more wisely, so I could exert it more powerfully. Again, the most important element of this was about recovery. How do you actively recover? You let your body rest, you disengage your mind from its constant thinking, and you RELAX. This has a huge and positive impact on your performance when it’s done right. Active recovery also means eating a balance of whole foods from all the food groups (carbs, protein, and fat, with plenty of fiber), but not getting too hung up about how much you eat. Recovery also means replacing fluids, electrolytes, and amino acids that fortify you — mind and body.
As an older athlete, I know that when I don’t allow myself to recover, I don’t swim as fast, move as fluidly, or feel as good — in and out of the pool. But when I do work in that essential time to recharge my body, I feel totally in sync with myself. My mind and body are attuned to each other, and I trust myself more. Trust is a big factor —the older we get, the less we can use the “push through the pain” mentality. Instead we need to replace it with learning to listen to our body’s signals. When you’ve allowed your body to recover, you can trust it — you know when to push it, when to rest it.
Lesson number two: Become strong and smart
The next lesson I learned about training as an older athlete was how important it is to develop strength — but in a way that at the time was completely new to me. I learned this lesson from an amazing strength coach named Andy O’Brien. When I met Andy, I didn’t quite understand his approach to strength building. He wasn’t at all impressed that I could bench-press 205 pounds. In fact, he let me know right away that all my muscle-bound bulk was probably slowing me down in the pool. He also pointed out that the swimmer ripping up the pool with the biggest guns is often not the one who reaches the wall first.
I was introduced to Andy serendipitously through the general manager of the Lexus dealership near my house in Florida. As Tessa and I were waiting for my car, the manager came up to me and said he’d read a recent Mother’s Day article about my decision to try to make the 2008 Olympic team. And as if he was reading my mind, he told me about another client of his who happened to be the strength trainer for the Florida Panthers hockey team. Hockey? What did that have to do with swimming? But I took Andy’s number and figured it couldn’t hurt to give him a call.
On the phone, I told Andy about my swimming career and what I could do in a weight room, and in his charming and easygoing Canadian way, he let me know he had something else in mind. It was immediately clear to me that Andy was going to offer me something more, something very special indeed.
When we met for lunch the next day, Andy explained in a simple, concise way that muscle speed, which I needed for swimming, comes from highly coordinated movements and fluid timing. Weight training, which developed as a form of static bodybuilding, is not meant or designed to create much movement. Think of those old-fashioned poses of bodybuilders flexing their muscles for the camera or a line of judges. You can’t quite imagine them springing into action.
Lesson number three: Get flexible
The third lesson I learned about being an older athlete is that I needed to stretch. Before the 2000 Olympic trials, I had never integrated any kind of real stretching routine into my training. For me, as with most swimmers, stretching entailed doing a pinwheel with my arms, and maybe attempting to touch my toes and circle my wrists. But my coach at the time, Richard Quick, suggested I do Pilates. One day while I was working out on the Pilates Reformer machine, I noticed two guys in white shirts doing some kind of strange bodywork on a woman who looked like an athlete. Intrigued, I watched them manipulate the woman’s legs and arms, getting her limbs and joints to move at what looked like might be painful angles. I was curious.
“What are they doing over there?”
“That’s what you really need,” my Pilates instructor said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, thinking, “No way am I going to do that.”
“I promise you — it’s what you need. When we’re done here, you should go talk to those guys.”
But I knew she was probably right. Besides, the Pilates didn’t seem to be working enough to strengthen my core and stretch my body.
So after my Pilates session I approached the two trainers to find out more about what they were doing. I learned that their technique was called resistance stretching, and it was totally different from any stretching regimen I’d ever seen.
To be honest, I wasn’t exactly eager to try it. It looked too weird. But I knew that as an older athlete I needed to stay open to new ways of sustaining my body. I asked for the stretchers’ phone numbers and thought I’d give them a call the next day. What could it hurt?
That was more than ten years ago, and I’ve been doing resistance stretching ever since. I began working with a man named Bob Cooley, but after I finished competing in Sydney, I started working with two amazing trainers, Steve Sierra and Anne Tierney, who are still with me today. The more I understood their approach and felt the results, the more convinced I was that stretching, especially resistance stretching, needed to be an essential part of my training routine. Stretching made a huge difference in how my body moved on land and in the water. Steve and Anne practice a form of resistance stretching called Ki-Hara — a blend of stretching and strengthening that not only maximized my swim workouts but made an enormous impact on my overall physique.
Ki-Hara is about creating balance and efficiency in the body. By moving and stretching the body in ways that mimic how a body moves in real life, which means in multi-joint and multi-movement rotations, you can increase your flexibility and your range of motion. In ways similar to what I was doing with Andy’s strength exercises, which incorporate three planes of movement, Ki-Hara works the muscles with the joints in ways that add strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination. It is crucial, especially as we age, that body movements are both smooth and safe. When we move — whether during athletics or everyday life — it’s not always possible to protect our joints. Ki-Hara teaches the body how to contract the muscles while being lengthened in ways that are most effective and at the same time prevent injury. Essentially, Ki-Hara trains the muscles the way they are used most frequently: eccentrically.
Think of stretching your hamstrings or quads like you would a rubber band. In order to get the most power and speed (the two necessary components and objectives of swimming and many other sports such as running) from your major muscles such as your hamstrings, you need to strengthen them as you stretch them. The muscles need to be able to contract and extend with the same efficiency and ability. Later I will go into more detail about how stretching is also a matter of contraction (or concentric motion) and relaxation (eccentric motion). For now, what you need to know is how different this approach to stretching sounded to my ears at the time.
Steve and Anne’s exercises work for elite athletes and weekend warriors as well as those of you who are just beginning a workout routine after time (even years!) away. Ki-Hara can help any body function better as a whole by teaching you how to move safely and without pain. It is low impact and great for people of all ages, abilities, and fitness levels because you tailor the resistance to fit your needs.
With Andy’s strength training, Ki-Hara resistance stretching, and the active recovery I was now so conscious of, my body became stronger and more fit and my reaction time in the water improved. In a very short period, I was swimming better and faster, and recovering more quickly and completely. I felt so much healthier — I not only lost about ten unnecessary pounds (that bulk that Andy had commented on!) but also felt leaner and smarter about how I was working my body.
This kind of improvement in my overall fitness level had more than just physical effects. I also felt my confidence grow. Of course, I was never without nerves and anxiety before a competitive event or swim meet, but something inside of me felt more centered, more secure. Because my body was so balanced, I could trust it more, which enabled me to relax more before competitions. I might have achieved this equilibrium anyway, given my years in the sport, but I believe that these three changes in my training approach at this juncture of my life were really at the heart of this peace of mind and renewed belief in myself.
I feel the positive impact of this in every aspect of my life: I’m a more patient, grounded mother and a more self-assured woman and professional. Again, I’ve learned the lesson that when I take care of my body, when I strengthen it from the inside out, I make myself stronger as a person. And I believe that the same will happen for you.
I sure wish I’d known some of what I know now when I was in my twenties. It’s never too late, of course, but if you are now in your twenties or thirties and think that some of the recovery business just doesn’t apply to you or that stretching is for dancers and yoginis, think again. Some of my twenty-year-old teammates have become conscious of these elements of training — and wow, have they benefited! The strengtheners that Andy has taught me — and that I have shared here — are so powerful, you will see results in your body in just four to five weeks. Your skin will become tighter, your muscles will become leaner and more toned, and your silhouette will become slimmer because you will have lost inches. You will feel remarkably more energetic and good in your clothes. And as you incorporate the resistance stretching exercises, you will reinforce the leanness of your muscles as they become more pliable and flexible. When these targeted techniques strengthen the muscles around your joints, enabling more fluid movements, walking through your day will feel so much easier.
This is what fitness really boils down to: feeling good inside your skin and in your clothes, trusting that you can get out of bed with a spring in your step, and enjoying an active, fun-filled life.
Excerpted from "Gold Medal Fitness" by Dara Torres. Copyright (c) 2010 by Dara Torres with Billie Fitzpatrick. Published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.