Triathlon Training Through the Eyes of an Amputee
After interviewing Grace Norman, Melissa Stockwell, and Robert Rodriguez, who all are involved in triathlon, I got the itch to start competing myself. Don't get me wrong, I'm nowhere near their level as they have devoted their lives to this, but I knew it would push me to be healthier and try something that I might not have done otherwise. Especially after I received my new, dynamic Cheetah Xplore foot made by Ossur last year, I was curious to see what my body was truly capable of.
As a novice, I set out to train and improve my times in order to be more competitive the day of the race. Thankfully, about a month into my training, I met Brain Fallon. He coaches Robert Rodriguez and a few other able-bodied athletes who perform at a high level. With his help, I have been able to accomplish goals I never even thought were possible. I wasn't aware of the nuances behind the technique of the three sports. I could do all three (swimming, cycling, and running) well enough, but I hadn't really been taught to do any of them with the appropriate form. Together, Brian and I developed a training schedule that would work for me. Being a mom, wife, full-time teacher, author, model, etc... while trying to train makes for a very busy life. I needed a schedule that would be realistic for me and still allow me to spend time with my family and pursue other passions. I'm sure I would see more improvements and bigger results if I put more time into training, but I'm not willing to give up other aspects of my life. So, here is what we came up with:
Day 1- Distance Running: This normally means I run 3-3.5 miles on a flat course. I also add in 20 minutes of strength training.
Day 2- Distance Swimming: I normally swim 3/4 of a mile. This is where I do my technique drills and swim at a pace that I can sustain for a long distance.
Day 3- Distance Biking: I do at least 10 miles on a flat course. Sometimes I will shift this to a weekend when I have more time and do 20-30 miles while carrying my 4 year old daughter on the back of my bike.
Day 4- Rest and Recovery: I do absolutely nothing this day. I don't even walk my dog. All I do is stretch.
Day 5- Sprint and Hills Running: I take turns doing hills OR sprints. If I'm doing sprints, I sprint for 30 seconds, walk for 20 seconds, and jog for 30 seconds. I do this for roughly 2 miles. If I'm doing hills, I find a hilly course and try to have an equal amount of inclines versus declines. My goal for this day of training is about a 2 mile run.
Day 6- Sprint Interval Swimming: I start with my warm up and then I do four 50 yard intervals as fast as I can with about 10 seconds of rest between each interval. I try to repeat that 3 times. I add other sprint work that lasts a total of 45 minutes. I also swim with hand paddles on this day to add resistance and build strength.
Day 7- Sprint and Hills Biking: I take turns with doing hills OR sprints. If it's a sprint day, I do 1 minute of normal pace and 30 second of sprints. I average anywhere from 7-10 miles.
After establishing my weekly schedule, I would send Brian videos that I took of myself. He would then review them and send them back to me with voice commentary, often with things circled or arrows pointing to some part of my body to draw my attention to an issue he saw. Swimming is where I need the most help, so he critiques my technique a lot. Here is some of the feedback that he shared with me:
*You need to look straight down at the bottom of the pool.
*Your fingertips need to enter the pool first.
*Your arms are crossing the center line.
*You should be able to see your hips on the surface. That means you need to sink your
head further into the water and feel like you're swimming downhill.
Because of his feedback, I have been able to improve my form and time. However, I still have a LOT to work on. It seems like when I correct one thing, it throws something else off. Putting it all together is certainly a challenging feat that will come with time as long as I put in the work.
Below, I further explain the various aspects of my training to give you a more detailed account of my experience.
I started out only being able to run a mile. I would feel like I was going to puke and have a difficult time completing the mile if I tried to run faster than a 9:30 pace. Therefore, I started looking for mini sprint triathlons in my area because the distances were shorter and consisted of less running. The shortest race I could find required me to run 2 miles, something I hadn't done in almost 15 years. I knew it would be hard, but 2 miles was an obtainable goal. That's when I started training 6 days a week. However, when I increased the distance, my time went up substantially. At first I had to stop 4-5 times to even finish the 2 miles. My pace was 10:45/mile, which is a perfectly good and acceptable time. However, I'm a stubborn, competitive person, so I wanted to push myself to improve and find out what I was capable of.
In talking with some other amputee runners on an amputee Facebook support group, it came to my attention that my current prosthesis was great for the average leisure runner, but it, too, was holding me back if I wanted to take running to the next level. My current prosthesis didn't give me the spring that I needed, and the angle didn't sit me forward enough to have optimal leverage and responsiveness. That led to me pursuing a true running blade. I contacted a few non profit organizations because I couldn't fund it myself having just paid for my one-year-old prosthesis. My insurance won't cover one single penny of a running blade because they don't see it as "medically necessary," so all $12,000ish would come from my pocket. Thankfully, one of the organizations was actually able to help fund the blade, which is a Springlite Sprinter. From what I hear, Ossur has great running blades as well, but the organization I went through works exclusively with Ottobock. I've never worked with Ottobock before, but they have a great reputation, and people in my support groups have been very pleased with their products. Once the foot was approved, my provider, Optimus Prosthetics, immediately started making my socket in order to give me ample time to train with it before the race. I was fitted for my first test socket on Monday, and it was a great fit. Only one or two minor changes need to be made for the next one. My foot should be in by my next appointment on April 5th, so my prosthetist, Derick, should be able to have the prosthesis set up for me to do a trial run (literally-- I'm actually going to run on it in the parking lot!). I'm really curious to see how much the blade helps my distance, speed, and wear and tear on my body and how long it will take me to retrain myself to run with it and get used to the new socket. The organization I went through said it could take up to 2 months, but I'm praying it won't take that long.
Since I'll be receiving my blade soon, I reached out to Nike yesterday after hearing about their One Shoe Bank in my support group. I won't need to wear a shoe on my blade, so I really only need a running shoe on my left foot. Nike gives away one shoe a year to amputees for free! (I believe Zappos does the same thing). I'm in awe at how inclusive companies are these days. We have come so far in the 33 years I've been an amputee! They even asked me for my top three color choices in order to give it a personal touch. I can't wait to get my shoe in 4-6 weeks and break it in before my triathlon.
Now that I'm 3 or 4 months into training, I have managed to run 3.5 miles consistently and have lowered my average mile pace by 1 minute. In fact, I just got my PR for distance yesterday after running 4 miles. It's a distance that I never thought was possible for me, but after seeing a lot of my amputee mentors running even further than that, I thought there was no reason that I shouldn't be able to do it. If this whole pursuit has taught me anything, it's that mentality is the number one factor. After coming to a big hill at around 3 miles yesterday, my body wanted to quit. I talked myself into continuing by saying, "This fatigue is temporary. At most it's going to last ten more minutes. But the pride that I will have after meeting my goal will last days, weeks, months maybe." It was the pep talk that got me to pull through.
My improvements in running led me to change which triathlon I entered. I am now competing in the Mason Tri-Umphant that requires me to run a 5K, bike 10 miles, and swim 300 yards. I've completed two full practice runs so far, so I know I can do it. My goal now is to decrease my time in each of the three areas.
As you can imagine, swimming with one leg poses some challenges. When I began swimming twice a week, I experienced some pain in my neck and shoulder on my right side. Additionally, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments directly to the right of my spine in the middle of my back hurt. All of the pain was stemming from me overcompensating for my lack of a foot. I subconsciously altered my stroke (especially when I took a breath on that side) in order to propel myself forward without the extra force that comes from kicking. When I did drills that used a kickboard, I would always find myself running into the lane dividers because I would swim crooked.
Although I was in decent shape before, I found it hard to swim 4 consecutive laps without stopping. Swimming is hard; you truly use your whole body! Since then, I have built up to 300 yards at a relatively fast pace without any stopping. Yesterday I did 750 yards (30 laps) with only a 1 second pause at every turn. However, I'd like to build up stamina and not have to take the extra breath at the wall. I found another triathlon very close to my house at the end of August. But, it requires a 750 yard swim in open water, a 20 mile bike ride, and a 5k run. I'll have to continue building up to that if I want to compete. I know that if I took my time, I could do all of those things back to back. But, as I mentioned, I am competitive and want to do it quickly. At the start, I'd have to be ok with sacrificing speed for distance.
A company has just come out with a specially designed flipper for amputees that goes on your shin. The studies that have been done on it thus far have shown it reverses atrophy, improves phantom pain, and builds muscles. I'd love to get my hands (or stump-haha) on one of those for training purposes. ShinFin suggests only wearing the fin on your stump and not on your sound side to even out your stroke. Maybe one day...
Biking is probably the easiest of the 3 sports for me. I didn't have to improve my technique much, but the thing that is holding me back is my bike. Right now I have a10 year old 30+ pound hybrid bike. I am supposed to get my new road bike this week! It's certainly an investment as it's NOT cheap (although that's relative because in the world of cycling, my bike is on the extreme low end when it comes to cost). Triathlon is expensive because you have to pay for equipment for all 3 sports! However, I'm sure my road bike will decrease drag and allow me to go faster and farther without tiring. The wind is my nemesis right now. If I'm riding into a 10-15 mile an hour wind, I sometimes can only manage to go 9 mph. I sit so upright on my current bike that I'm practically a sail.
Another factor is that I've never worn shoes that clip in. As an amputee, it's hard to rotate my foot enough to unclip at a stop. I've always been afraid of falling and looking like a moron, or even worse, getting hurt. But, if I'm going to compete, I can't allow fear to hold me back. The owner of my local bike shop, Spoken Bicycles, suggested trying a looser pedal/clip combo that will hopefully allow my hip to twist enough to get it out. Clipping in will help substantially because you not only can push down on the pedal, but you can then pull up as well.
Training needs to be fun and not seem like work, so I like to play around with my cycling a bit. I often carry my 4-year-old daughter on the back of my bike and listen to her tell me stories of princesses in castles, I help her eat her snack, and she plays with playdough (that normally dries out from the wind). On the weekends, sometimes my husband and I get a babysitter, and we go to the Great Miami River Scenic Trail and ride about 30 miles. We stop halfway and get lunch or dinner and then stop at our favorite wine bar, West Central Wine on the way back home. Bob and I love being active, and some time to ourselves is a nice treat.
I started paying more attention to my diet after talking to one of my husband's old students who is now a dietician. I asked her why I was always so sore after training each day. I figured I would be sore at the beginning because my body wasn't used to the new movements, but after 2-3 months of doing the same routine, I thought the soreness would subside a bit. She asked me to track my diet for 3 days and get back to her. I used My Fitness Pal and logged my food so she could see my macros. What she saw was a woman who was very deficient in carbohydrates! I have steered clear of them as much as I could for a few years now and made a concerted effort to increase my protein intake. Keto diets and other low-carb plans are all the rage right now. However, I didn't realize that I needed the carbs for recovery if I was working out as much as I am. I tend to burn anywhere from 300-500 calories a day, and I didn't realize I should, in general, be eating more food. Before, I was staying between 1700-1800 calories a day. Now I am eating around 2100 to replenish my body. Below are two pictures that show what my macros were before (left picture) and what they are now (right picture). I'm still not meeting my 50% goal for carb intake, but I'm trying. Habits are hard to break! However, even with the 10% increase, I feel WAY better. Now, I rarely wake up sore from the previous day's workout.
Below is a typical day for me in regards to diet. I still have a lot of protein (shrimp and steak, protein shake, turkey, protein bar...), but I'm not afraid of the carbs anymore. I have things like mashed potatoes, cereal, rice, and fruit now. It's crazy to me how much different we feel depending on what food we put into our bodies. Yes, food tastes great, and we all love it. But food is also our greatest fuel. If you're working out at a high intensity, I hope you can learn from my mistake; eat more carbs! Your muscles will be able to repair, and you'll have the energy to perform at your best.
The physical perks of being stronger and healthier are a major benefit of triathlon training. That's what I set out to do. However, I didn't anticipate learning so much about myself in the process. I've grown mentally stronger as well. Now I can fight through moments when I want to stop instead of just giving up. I've learned how to take care of my body through rest, diet, recovery, and stretching. Being hard on myself and setting lofty goals is something I've always been good at, but giving myself some grace when I don't meet them is something I've improved upon throughout this experience. I think we're all stronger and more capable than what we give ourselves credit for. I challenge you to set a lofty goal that you think is intangible and go after it like your life depends on it. I'll leave you with my favorite phrase that has become my mantra lately (I literally say it out loud when I'm running): "I can do hard things!" Go ahead and steal it...and then put it to use!