Finishing Strong

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, February 1999

Finishing Strong
You're leaner, harder, wiser. Now comes the fun part: putting it to use. The grand finale of the Outside Fitness Plan shows you how to clean the competition's clock, no matter whether you're going against the very best, or just your previous best.

By Paul Keegan

Paul Keegan
Matt Zuber remembers the first time it happened to him. He was a gawky 21-year-old sophomore at Arizona State in peak condition when his coach insisted he take a week off leading up to the PAC-10 decathlon championship. It was only his second decathlon, and Zuber wasn't considered a contender — his best pole vault was a mere 15 feet. Even so, taking a break just before the biggest event of his competitive life seemed ludicrous. But Zuber did what he was told, and when his vault came he soared over a bar set at a staggering 16 feet, four inches.

Harvey Newton led us to Matt Zuber and his story. If you've been following Outside's five-month fitness regimen, you already know about Newton, our strength guru and an advocate of the training method known as periodization. It's an ungainly word, but the technique can work wonders — as our friend Zuber discovered. "Back then I was amazed, but now I've been doing it so long that it's almost second nature," says Zuber, who placed second overall that year. Now 32, he competes internationally and hopes to qualify for the 2000 Olympics. Otherwise, he's much like the rest of us, juggling a part-time career as an aeronautical engineer in Colorado Springs and coping with the lack of sleep induced by eight-month-old twins. "The improvements are not quite as big, but they still happen," he says. "I'm up to 17 feet in the pole vault."

We can't guarantee that you'll pole-vault 17 feet, but if you've taken on our fitness program, which concludes with this issue's session on pushing your aerobic threshold and fine-tuning your athleticism (see "February: Reaching the Peak"), you should be on the verge of that kind of astonishing breakthrough. "It's a great, euphoric feeling," says Zuber of those performance peaks. "You've been putting in this base work for months and all of a sudden things come together and you have this incredible energy."

Great, you say, but how exactly do you maintain that edge after this month's workouts are over? Isn't it inevitable that you'll lose some fitness? Good questions. Fortunately, we know who to ask — the fitness experts who created our unique program: Newton, director of the National Strength and Conditioning Association; six-time Ironman winner Dave Scott; sports psychologist to the stars Jim Loehr; renowned nutritionist Kristine Clark; and U.S. national decathlon champion Chris Huffins.

The panel's unanimous recommendation? Give it a rest. More precisely, give it a week of "active rest." Strip off that damned heart rate monitor, blow off the gym, and put that newfound prowess to good use — go snowshoeing, join a pickup game of hoops, grab a tee time, whatever. Not only will this give your mind a break, but your joints will have a chance to recover and any injuries will be able to heal. "A lot of outdoor athletes get off on true grit. They think more is always better," says Huffins. "But you have to stick to your plan."

The Path of Moderate Resistance

After your hiatus, you're ready to enter the maintenance phase, which is actually a misleading term since it implies stagnation. Done right, a good maintenance plan will keep you steadily progressing and, consequently, one step ahead of the competition.

In the weight room that means pumping iron twice a week, choosing from the menu of exercises Newton explained back in the October issue. All it takes is one lower-body exercise and two upper-body drills (one pushing, one pulling), as well as crunches and back extensions. You'll want to perform a minimum of one set and a maximum of three, depending on your time and ambitions. The trick to figuring how much weight to hoist is deciding how many repetitions you want to do: You should always be able to do just one more. Remember that doing six reps per set is good for power athletes, but if you're a cyclist or runner concerned with muscle endurance, drop the weight and hike the frequency to 15 per set.

The cardinal rule is to vary your routine, because your muscles quickly adapt to whatever stress you put on them. Once they learn the system, they'll coast. So switch up exercises and rejigger the sets and reps every four weeks. That way you can stand fast on the volume of work without letting your muscles grow accustomed to the effort. "Even when you're maintaining," Newton stresses, "the sets should be challenging."

The same holds true for your aerobic efforts. After your week of active rest, Dave Scott wants you to ease back into the groove by punching the clock with 20 to 30 minutes of cardiovascular work three times a week. Then you'll follow this schedule, taken directly from week 11 of the program: On Mondays you'll go for a 30-minute outing that includes at least two lactate threshold blocks, in which you up your effort to near your aerobic threshold for spurts of five minutes and then throttle back down to a mellower tempo; on Thursdays you'll do a 30-minute session that includes four to eight pickups, those near-sprints that last 30 seconds and are divided by 60 seconds of recovery; on Saturdays you'll go for a long outing (between one and one-and-a-half hours for weight-bearing exercise, two to three hours for nonweight-bearing exercise); and on the other days you should rest.

Added Value

Following a general maintenance program is well and good for jacks-of-all-trades, but if you're a rabid practitioner of one particular sport, don't despair. Now's the time to begin fine-tuning your workouts accordingly: Thanks to your new all-around form, come March 1 a few painless adjustments to the maintenance phase can enhance your performance dramatically. If you're focused mainly on paddling, for example, you can tweak Newton's list of exercises to bolster the areas that will have you spinning cartwheels until you're dizzy. To help you sort out which maintenance plan you might use, we've provided individual options for six of our favorite pursuits — skiing, running, cycling, swimming, climbing, and paddling. Of course, if you're a dabbler, just follow the aforementioned general plan.

Whatever approach you choose, stick to the maintenance schedule for at least two months before diving back in to the periodized program. Our experts suggest taking the long view: Look at the coming year and pick two, maybe three points when you want to reach some sort of peak — climbing the Grand Teton in July and hut-to-hut skiing in Banff National Park in December, for instance — and work backward to figure out when to begin the program. With weight training, Newton wants you to start up again at week 5, which means you'll need four months to finish. On the aerobic front, stay in the maintenance phase until you arrive at week 14 of strength, and then jump into the cardio plan. (Charts are in back issues online, or call 800-363-0685 for printed back issues.) Anytime you're not sailing through the periodized schedule, mellow out in maintenance mode.

The overarching goal should really be to maintain consistency and avoid the trap of stopping altogether. As sports psychologist Jim Loehr put it back in December, it's about making exercise as central to your life as eating and sleeping — two habits most of us enjoy very much. Says Zuber: "During the off-season I usually mountain bike or hike. The key is to find whatever motivates you so that you don't dip below a certain level of fitness. Once it becomes part of your lifestyle, and you're addicted to that feeling of being in shape, you've made it."

Frequent contributor Paul Keegan, whose big game is hoops, says "The Perfect Fit" has him driving the lane like never before.

February: Reaching the Peak
Here's the good news: The end is in sight. So assuming you're still with us, it's time to make a push for peak power and speed before tapering down to a normal routine. For now, continue lifting weights fast and smooth on the way up and slow (three seconds) on the way down. As for repetitions, do six in the first set, three in the last, and four or five in the middle sets, adding weight with each set. (Don't forget to work crunches and back extensions into each session.)

On the cardio front, Monday's lactate threshold blocks will consume the entire workout: Warm up for 10 minutes at 10 on the perceived exertion scale, spike it to 16 for one minute, and then 17 for five minutes, allowing three minutes at 10 between blocks. Add 30 seconds to the blocks each week. Similarly, Thursday's outing is solely for speed: After the same warm-up, hit 17 for one minute and recover for one minute. In week 20 bump both to two minutes. On Saturdays, warm up to 13 in the first half of your workout, and then go to 15 for the second half, leaving the last 10 minutes to cool down. Each week, increase the time spent at 15 by five percent, carving the extra minutes from your warm-up. Finally, start up Chris Huffins's athleticism plan again.

  • WEEK 18: (M) CT; 4xLT, ST-A(4/6-3); (T) AT; (W) off; (Th) CT; 6xS-30, ST-B(4/6-3); (F) AT; (S) CT/LD (94/150); (Su) off
  • WEEK 19: (M) CT; 4xLT, ST-C(4/6-3); (T) AT; (W) off; (Th) CT; 8xS-30, ST-A(4/6-3); (F) AT; (S) CT/LD (89/140); (Su) off
  • WEEK 20: (M) CT; 4xLT, ST-B(4/6-3); (T) AT; (W) off; (Th) CT; 4xS-30, ST-C(4/6-3); (F) AT; (S) CT/LD 85/130); (Su) off
  • WEEK 21: (M) CT; 4xLT, ST-A(4/6-3); (T) off; (W) off; (Th) CT; 5xS; ST-B(4/6-3); (F) off; (S) CT/LD (81/120); (Su) off

M = Monday, T = Tuesday, W = Wednesday, Th = Thursday, F = Friday, S = Saturday, Su = Sunday

CT; 4 x LT = cardiovascular training: four sets of lactate threshold blocks;
6 x S = 6 sets of speed blocks.

CT/LD (94/150) = long-distance cardiovascular training, 94 minutes of weight-bearing exercise (jogging) or 150 minutes of nonweight-bearing exercise (cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing).

AT = athleticism workout (see "From Spud to Stud," Bodywork, January).

ST (4/6-3) = strength training (four sets, decreasing the reps from 6 to 3);
A = leg press, bench press, pull-ups;
B = leg press, seated press, seated row;
C = leg press, incline press, lat pull-downs.

Photograph by Greg Betz

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