News & Politics

Faster, Stronger, Better

Training techniques used by pro athletes can help you shave strokes off your golf game or minutes off your marathon time

“I always believed you’re either fast or you’re not,” says Tami Lenox, 50, a recreational-soccer player and former girls-soccer coach. Lenox began to rethink that assumption after she sent two of her slowest players to work with James and Monica Walker. Their business, Athletic Excellence, trains athletes.

Lenox hoped the girls would get fitter and become a little faster. Eight weeks later, she was stunned: They were among the fastest sprinters on the team.

She decided to see if James and Monica—he’s a former strength coach at the University of Maryland, she was a college sprinter who competed at the 1996 Olympic trials—might be able to help her, too.

Lenox had always been fast; in her twenties she outran just about every opponent she faced, and her soccer teams won amateur national championships. She slowed down in her thirties and forties but figured there wasn’t much she could do about it.

After six months of training with the Walkers—during which she learned a new running form and did strength training—she was able to sprint as fast as she had 20 years earlier, possibly faster.

Athletic Excellence, in Chantilly, is among a handful of local companies that offer what’s called “sports-performance training.” It became popular a decade ago and has been fueled largely by competition among high-school and college athletes but also by adult weekend warriors.

The idea is that by doing workouts designed by experts, you can improve more quickly. Sessions, which can be one-on-one or in small groups, incorporate techniques used by Olympic and professional athletes.

The format is similar to personal training, but instead of trying to tone your muscles, the goal might be to get more rotation in your golf swing, jump higher on the basketball court, or shave ten minutes off your marathon time. Like Lenox, many athletes say they were surprised to learn how much better they got through smarter training.

Beyond Cardio

During his first session with Xtreme Acceleration in Bethesda, Josh Sorbel sits with sensors on his ankles, wrists, and chest as a computer analyzes his heart rate, brain waves, and other physiological indicators. Sorbel, 33, played soccer in college and is getting in shape for recreational tennis.

When the test is finished two minutes later, Vernon Boyd, one of Xtreme Acceleration’s cofounders, reviews the results.

Called Omegawave, the testing system provides information on aerobic and anaerobic capacity as well as other fitness indicators. Little research has been published on the system—which became available in 2000—and some experts are skeptical, but it has been adopted by collegiate and professional teams, especially in Europe. Boyd and his business partner, Shawn Vass, are also sales representatives for the system.

Sorbel’s aerobic system—responsible for endurance—is strong, according to the test. He has a high VO2 max, a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen his body is capable of using in a given time.

Sorbel seems pleased until Boyd explains that his aerobic capacity won’t help much on the tennis court, where points rarely last more than 30 seconds. The bursts of power required in tennis come from the anaerobic system, the body’s mode of producing energy at high intensities without using oxygen.

It’s a common mistake among amateur athletes: Believing that any cardio work will help performance, they don’t differentiate between aerobic and anaerobic training.

But working on one system will decrease your capacity in the other, says Todd Miller, a professor of exercise science at George Washington University. Two years ago, one of his students demonstrated this phenomenon. A professional endurance athlete with very high aerobic capacity, she was able to jump only a few inches off the ground because she had so little anaerobic power.

To improve Sorbel’s anaerobic capacity, Boyd and Vass will have him do exercises such as sprinting and jumping to get his heart rate very high for about 15 seconds, followed by a rest period.

Physiological tests can determine at what heart rates athletes’ bodies work within the aerobic and anaerobic training zones. With a heart-rate monitor, athletes can then make sure they’re working at the right intensity. Aerobic exercise occurs at a steady heart rate and at an effort you can maintain for a long time; anaerobic work happens at higher heart rates that are sustainable for short spurts.

Most sports require a combination of aerobic endurance and anaerobic power. In soccer, which involves both sprinting and jogging, players need a balance. Even distance runners can benefit from a small amount of anaerobic work; it helps them run uphill or sprint to the finish.

Endurance athletes should spend most of their time training at lower heart rates than most realize, says Ken Mierke of Fitness Concepts, who coaches runners, cyclists, and triathletes. By staying at a pace at which you can hold a conversation, you increase endurance and burn fat. Speed up a little bit, Mierke says, and you dramatically increase the strain on the body.

“When you’re working on endurance, work on endurance,” Mierke says. “Don’t try to do two things at once.”

A Different Way to Stretch

At Athletic Performance in Millersville, Maryland, owner Stephen Vaught guides Richard Ambrose through a series of exercises with an eight-pound medicine ball.

Ambrose, a 45-year-old recreational golfer, holds the ball over his head, then sweeps his arms down and back up in a circular motion. With the ball over his head again, he pivots and repeats the exercise—which Vaught has nicknamed “big circle”—in the opposite direction.

The movement doesn’t look anything like what most people picture when they think of stretching. But, Vaught says, such exercises will improve Ambrose’s flexibility by warming up muscles and moving them through the range of motion he uses in golf.

“Watch the movement in his hips and shoulders,” Vaught says. As Ambrose swoops down, his shoulders rotate in their sockets and his weight transfers from one hip to the other, much as it would in a golf swing.

Ambrose demonstrates how much farther he can rotate through his swing now, a difference of about 20 degrees. With the extra flexibility, along with improvements in strength and conditioning, he’s cut his scores by about ten strokes.

Movement-based flexibility is a staple of sports-performance training. At Velocity Sports Performance in Alexandria, classes begin with a 15-to-20-minute warm-up that includes things such as high knee skipping and deep lunges, which improve range of motion.

These exercises are popular in part because research has shown that traditional static stretching—in which you reach and hold—causes muscles to lose elastic energy, meaning they can’t contract as powerfully.

“You stretch the muscle outside the range of motion you’re going to encounter in the activity,” says GW’s Miller of the traditional method. “When you go to contract that muscle, it’s longer, so it takes more time to generate force.”

Miller recommends using both kinds of stretching. Dynamic stretches can be done anytime. Static stretches are best after the muscles are warm and may not be a good idea right before a competition.

Running Lessons

With a harness strapped to his trunk, Marlow Morgan drags a sled loaded with 230 pounds of weights. Accelerating forward, he leans against the harness and raises each knee high, his foot landing below the hip, his leg extending back and pushing off. Smooth and powerful, the motion makes his legs look like pistons.

Morgan, 37, plays minor-league football for the Virginia Kings. Pulling the sled is a way for him to practice the sprinting form that James and Monica Walker taught him. James shouts reminders and corrections as Morgan makes his way down the track.

The exercise also strengthens the muscles in the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Though many runners focus on the quadriceps, it’s actually muscles in the back of the body that generate forward speed.

Morgan says his running technique is more efficient than it was when he started working out at Athletic Excellence. He used to step with his foot in front of his hips; reaching forward felt as if it gave him a longer stride.

This is a common mistake, James says. Reaching forward breaks the body’s momentum and puts stress on the knee. “If my foot hits underneath my hip, it pushes me forward,” he says. “When you do it correctly, it’s easy.”

Other mistakes include landing on the toes or heel instead of the ball of the foot and not swinging the arms, which provide more power than most people realize. Running efficiently improves top speed and conserves energy in long races.

Tami Lenox recalls the frustration she felt during her first weeks of training with the Walkers. Running had always seemed easy to her, but they told her she needed to change five or six aspects of her form—including her knee lift, foot placement, arm carriage, and forward lean. She’d fix one thing and forget about another.

Some changes seemed counterintuitive, such as lifting her knees high instead of taking big steps. “You think if you do what they say, it’s going to slow you down,” she says. But when she stopped thinking about taking big steps, her stride actually got longer.

Everything eventually came together and, through repetition, felt natural. When Lenox faces off against twentysomething men in her coed soccer league, she can’t always beat them to the ball. But, she says, “I give them a run for their money.”

Fast Footwork

At Virginia Therapy & Fitness Center in Reston, Larry Grine places four plastic circles in a row on the floor. Grine, a physical therapist who also offers strength-and-conditioning training, is helping Taj Alvaranga, a soccer player, prepare for his upcoming season.

Alvaranga moves in a pattern through the hoops, landing on one foot, then the other, pausing every fourth step. He has good forward speed but needs to work on agility, a critical skill in soccer.

One way to improve agility, Grine says, is to speed up what’s called the “amortization phase,” or the time it takes to go from absorbing your body weight to pushing off again. If you were to jump off a step and back onto it, the amortization phase is the time between landing and taking off. Working on it helps you change directions quickly.

Plyometrics—explosive movements such as jumping or bounding from side to side—are good for reducing amortization time but require lots of strength. Alvaranga was injured two seasons ago, and though he’s healthy now, Grine wants him to get stronger before he does plyometrics.

This hoops exercise is a gentler way for Alvaranga to practice controlling his body weight—smoothly decelerating and accelerating as he moves back and forth. Eventually he’ll add weights and cut out the pause; he’ll also do exercises that improve single-leg strength, a key to lateral agility.

When Alvaranga finishes with the hoops, Grine lays out an agility ladder, which looks like a rope ladder with plastic slats connecting the two long sides. He shows Alvaranga a pattern to practice, stepping into and out of each rectangle with both feet. “I want your movements to be as quick and soft as possible,” he says.

Grine chose this drill because it’s similar to movements soccer players often make. “You try to find agility exercises that imitate what they do on the field,” he says. “When they rehearse those over and over, it becomes automatic.”

Form is critical in agility, says Vernon Boyd of Xtreme Acceleration. He says he often sees tennis or basketball coaches leading drills without teaching their players correct technique. The players’ mistakes become ingrained in their muscle memory.

“I’d rather have you do nothing,” Boyd says. As Sorbel, the tennis player, works on an agility-ladder drill, Boyd shouts out corrections: “Head up! Toes up! Quicker, quicker, quicker!”

Training Forgotten Muscles

At Athletic Excellence, James Walker watches Marlow Morgan, the football player, lift eight-pound weights in patterns that work his rotator cuff and scapular muscles. It’s not a sight you see often: a 250-pound guy working with tiny hand weights.

Walker says training these smaller muscles will allow Morgan to increase the weight he can handle on the bench press without risking injury and will give him support when he charges into opponents on the field.

Stabilization muscles are also critical for controlling the way you move a joint, says Mateus Manoel, who until recently was strength-and-conditioning coach for DC United and sports-performance director at Velocity Sports Performance.

Consider a baseball pitcher’s shoulder, Manoel says. He’ll get power from primary muscles such as the pectorals and the latissimi dorsi, or lats. But the shoulder joint itself is anatomically unstable.

“You need the muscles around it to support it whenever there’s an explosive effort on that joint,” Manoel says. Without them, the pitcher will risk injury and not have as much control. In soccer, the muscles supporting the ankle are important.

Kathleen Robinson, 43, a golf pro at Hilltop Golf Club in Alexandria, found that working out at Velocity helped her strengthen muscles she wouldn’t have gotten to on her own at the gym.

Especially helpful were exercises that improved her lateral stability. In one, she and her trainer each wore a harness with a stretchy rope between them. While he stood in place, Robinson had to slide sideways and back without toppling over. As she got stronger, she was better able to maintain her hip position in her golf swing, a change she says gave her more power.

Sports-performance trainers also teach athletes ways to engage more or different muscles. That’s something Erica Reynosa learned when she asked the trainers at Velocity to help her work on her pushups.

Reynosa, 36, plays on the offensive line for the DC Divas, a professional women’s football team. Although she made the team two years ago, she spent most of her first season on the bench. The next year, she wanted to impress the coaches. Among the drills included in the tryouts that year was a test of how many pushups each athlete can do in one minute. Her first year, Reynosa did only about ten, while the top women completed around 100.

Instead of just doing lots of pushups, as she would have on her own, the trainers had her work on bench presses, throwing a medicine ball against a wall, and other exercises that build muscle. Then they taught her to change her pushup technique from a steady effort to a forceful thrust.

“Tradition has that if you want to get better at something, you should just do that thing,” Manoel says. But often there’s a more efficient way to reach your goal. By doing explosive strength training, he says, Reynosa was able to work on her fast-twitch muscle fibers, which can be strengthened faster than slow-twitch fibers. By speeding up her pushups, Reynosa could engage more of those fast-twitch fibers.

At the next year’s tryouts, she did 41 pushups in a minute—more than she’s ever done, even while serving in the military in her twenties. Says Reynosa: “I was just thrilled.”

Where to Train

To find good sports-training facilities, we found out where high-level athletes train. You don’t have to be a pro to train with these firms—we also got recommendations from amateur athletes.

Athletic Excellence, 4125 Lafayette Center Dr., Chantilly; 703-488-9860; James and Monica Walker train elite athletes, including NFL players and Olympians, as well as amateurs. Group sessions cost $55 to $60, one-on-one training $85 to $200.

Athletic Performance, 1029 Benfield Blvd., Millersville, Md.; 410-987-4728; Private training that focuses on injury prevention and athletic movement costs $50 to $85 an hour. Also offers yoga for athletes.

CycleLife, 3255 K St., NW; 202-333-8883; Designs training plans for endurance athletes for $225 to $1,000 a month. Also offers physiological testing, cycling classes, and bike fitting.

Explosive Performance Sports Training, 13037 Worldgate Dr., Herndon; 703-709-6584; Most clients are student athletes, but there are group-fitness classes for adults and specific programs for tennis players and triathletes. Group training costs $12 to $25 a session, private sessions $85.

Fitness Concepts, 8301 Arlington Blvd., Suite T3, Fairfax; 436 Chinquapin Rd., Annapolis; 703-615-6213; Endurance expert Ken Mierke offers coaching ($150 to $400 a month), seminars (free to $149), physiological testing ($150), and services such as bike fitting and stride analysis.

Velocity Sports Performance, 6315 Bren Mar Dr., Suite 150, Alexandria; 703-916-1200; Group training is not sport-specific—it focuses on movements used in many sports, especially those played on a field or court. DC United works out here. Also offers training for golfers. Services are $20 to $45 a session.

Virginia Therapy & Fitness Center, 1831 Wiehle Ave., Reston; 703-709-1116; Larry Grine, codirector of this orthopedic clinic, offers strength-and-conditioning training with an emphasis on injury prevention. He works regularly with soccer players. Private sessions cost about $50 an hour; once Grine establishes a plan, athletes can pay $45 a month to work out at the center with partial supervision.

Water Street Gym, 3401 K St., NW; 202-338-2711. Sport-specific and general fitness training. Owner Steve Kostorowski, who has completed three Ironman triathlons, is popular with endurance athletes as well as basketball and hockey players. Private sessions cost $95 an hour, small-group sessions $50 to 55 per person.

Xtreme Acceleration, 6708 Wisconsin Ave., Suite 301, Bethesda; 240-395-0207; Private training for adult athletes (clients include some Redskins) costs $75 an hour and up. Group training is available for student athletes.

This article first appeared in the March 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.