May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Fitness '97, February 1997


Because you're not just getting bigger. You're getting better.

Are We
There Yet?

Two decades of fitness grail-seeking, including a misstep or two from the master himself
Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't: Mark Allen adds low-impact plyometrics to his training regimen, then stops. "I think it was probably good," he says, "but I can only do so much."

Citing low ratings, ABC drops the New York Marathon.

Red-meat-eating, weight-lifting Mark Allen wins fifth-straight Ironman in record 8:07:46.

We really hope this doesn't work: The DaVinci Body Series, a nude exercise video for the "renaissance man of the 90's," is released.
To Load or Not to Load, Chapter Four: Experts begin to suggest that a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet may contribute to obesity.

We sprint, therefore...? A study of 17,300 Harvard graduates over a span of more than 20 years indicates that only vigorous exercise, and not nonvigorous activity, reduced the risk of dying during the study period.

After skipping the race a year earlier to try marathoning, Mark Allen wins his sixth Ironman.

To Load or Not to Load, Chapter Five: A spate of best-selling books-Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, Healthy for Life, Protein Power, The Zone-frown on carbohydrates, touching off a full-blown war of words that continues to rage.

Mark Allen retires from racing, begins drinking green tea; so far, thinks he'll stick with both.

Like many of us, Mark Allen used to think that the gym was simply a rumpus room for narcissists hopped up on protein shakes. For more than a decade, even while winning the Hawaii Ironman five times and the Nice Triathlon--the world's most prestigious short-course event--ten consecutive years, Allen avoided strength training entirely. Then came an event that, at least for a top-flight professional athlete, could be called traumatic: In January 1993, Mark Allen turned 35.

The chronological wake-up call caused Allen to review his results from the previous few seasons--and to come to grips with a harsh reality. His strength simply wasn't coming back after those long, lazy winters the way it used to. The big clue was his speed, or lack thereof: While in years past his times had steadily improved over the course of the February-to-October season, he now found that he was plateauing in early summer. Since he had tried a number of other remedies without success, he suspected that the solution could be found in the weight room.

Still, Allen found himself floundering. He'd go to the gym, mess around with a few dumbbells, and leave without any inkling of what he'd actually done or exactly why he'd done it. "I remember looking around the gym and thinking, 'If I'm Mr. Ironman, supposedly the fittest guy in the world, and I don't know what I'm doing in here, then 95 percent of the other people don't either.' "

Allen sought counsel from Diane Buchta, who has also trained, among others, eight-time Ironman champion Paula Newby-Fraser. Buchta quickly confirmed Allen's hunch, telling him that the loss of lean muscle mass, a natural part of the aging process that kicks in around age 30, was sabotaging his speed. She put him on a program that involved performing ten core exercises--lat pulldowns, bench presses, squats, leg extensions, leg curls, biceps curls, triceps pushdowns, back extensions, dumbbell pullovers, and upright rows--twice a week. Given that Allen's focus was performance and not bulk, Buchta notes that the routine was the same one she'd recommend for any recreational athlete. Its basic structure remains constant throughout the 16-week cycle and requires no more than about an hour and a half per week. The program is, however, divided into four distinct phases, each defined by a specific goal and thus employing a different strategy.

Adaptation: Weeks 1-3
The first part of the program is a high-rep, low-weight phase that serves to prepare joints and tendons for the harder work to come. For each exercise, use about 60 percent of the maximum weight you can lift, doing three sets of 12 repetitions, with 30 seconds of rest between sets. Harking to his own experience, Allen says the hardest part is to not dwell on the highs and lows of these early weeks. "At first I thought I was doing great because, well, I was sore," he recalls. But then, as his muscles grew accustomed to the exercises, the soreness dissipated and all he had to show for his effort was a sluggishness that hampered his endurance work. "My initial euphoria," he says, "was replaced with profound skepticism. Thankfully I stuck with the program anyway."

Endurance: Weeks 4-10
The next training block is the weight-room equivalent of Allen's long, slow cardiovascular workouts. Here you'll do 15 reps for each exercise, bumping up the weight by 5 percent each week for the upper body and 10 percent for the lower body. With this increased weight, you'll have to avoid the temptation to rush through the sets. In fact, Buchta recommends that you contract the muscle on a two-count but take twice as long to relax it. "You're most at risk for injury when you're lowering the weight," she explains. "That's why you should take it slow."

Power: Weeks 11-14
This third phase is where major strength gains occur, and as you might imagine, it's been known to spook an endurance athlete or two. "You start to feel awkwardly bulky,'' Allen admits. "Suddenly you've got two more pounds of muscle mass on your body, and you feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The first year I almost made the mistake of stopping the program right here. But keep in mind that once you get past this phase, the next one trims you back and hones the strength you've built." The key to the power phase is to split your core exercises into two groups, with one consisting of those that work your lats and triceps (lat pulldowns, dumbbell pullovers, triceps pushdowns, and upright rows) and the other made up of exercises that work your legs, chest, and biceps (squats, leg extensions, leg curls, bench presses, biceps curls, and back extensions). The idea is to "power" Group A on the first day--increasing the weight an additional 20 to 30 percent, doing sets of ten, eight, and then six repetitions (going to failure on the final rep of each set), and allowing three to four minutes of recovery--while running through the remaining exercises the same way you've been doing them in the endurance phase. Then, on the other strength-training day, you simply reverse the order, powering Group B exercises and doing A's in endurance fashion.

Chisel: Weeks 15-16
In the spirit of honesty, Allen will be the first to admit that the cycle's final segment is poorly named. "It doesn't tell you what the benefit is," he acknowledges. "But what it does is help you with anything that requires short, explosive bursts, like a hill climb or a surge in a road race.'' In essence it's taking strength and sculpting it into power-defined, Buchta explains, as "strength applied quickly." During these final three weeks, you'll return to lighter weights, about the same as at the start of the endurance phase, and do two sets of 12, lifting as before but lowering on a speeded-up two-count. Pause with the weight at the top of the lift, Buchta says, and make sure not to let the weight bottom-out on the other end. In other words, the exercises should be done fast but not sloppy.

Finally, Allen recommends that you add five hard minutes of abdominal exercises to every session, no matter what phase you're in. But make sure to keep it to that and no longer. "A lot of people overdo it,'' says Allen. "What happens is they become so ripped that it restricts the movement of their diaphragm and they can't breathe as deep."

OK, now you know what to do. Still not convinced as to why? Look no further than Allen's 1993 season, the fruits of but one off-season on the program. With two additional pounds of muscle, Allen began by trouncing the field at the grueling Powerman Zofingen duathlon, which consists of three 50-kilometer bike loops and a pair of running legs totaling another 39--and then got faster as the summer progressed, notching his most productive season in half a decade.

Still, he says, that has little to do with why the program has become his mainstay. The real benefit of strength training for the average athlete--and of course, for retired greats--is its impact on overall health, particularly with regard to fat burning. Depending on its duration and intensity, a good endurance workout will elevate your metabolism for anywhere from one to six hours. After an hourlong weight-training session, by contrast, your metabolic rate will remain higher for a full 24 hours, thanks to the huge caloric demands of rebuilding muscle tissue. Translation: Just like running, biking, or swimming, hoisting the iron is essential to helping you avoid that spare tire--so you're going to have to get your mind around it eventually. "When you start out, you're probably not going to buy into it," Allen warns. "And you certainly won't be a happy camper all the time. But remember, at the beginning I was as skeptical as anyone. So my advice is simply to stick with it: In time, you'll find yourself pleasantly surprised."

A B O V E   A L L   E L S E . . .
If you're pressed for time, narrow the strength routine down to three core exercises: bench presses, pull-downs, and squats or leg extensions. These work the biggest muscle groups, encompassing 85 percent of the body's muscle mass. If you then find yourself with five more minutes, add abdominal exercises. Ten more minutes? Add dumbbell pullovers, curls, and triceps pushdowns.

In the adaptation and endurance phases, choose weights that are a challenge, not a strain. Save the biggest plates for the power phase--when your muscles will be sufficiently prepared to be pushed to the brink.

Since lactic acid can sabotage efforts to promote fat-burning metabolism, make sure to coordinate your program so that the power phase doesn't overlap with the aerobic base-building phase of your endurance training.

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