Fitness '97, February 1997
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
Endurance: Weeks 4-10
Power: Weeks 11-14
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."