Training with a twist

More and more sports teams using non-traditional workouts to gain edge

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— Weights on Mondays and Thursdays. Vertical jump work on Tuesdays and Fridays. And on Wednesdays, members of the Steamboat Springs volleyball team went to Pilates class to increase core strength, flexibility, balance and power.

Track coach Andy Reust designed the intense summer workout to assist the Sailors in reaching their team goals and to aid individual players in unlocking their athletic potential.

Consider the off-season program a success. Steamboat went on to finish second in the state and, so far, two players -- Katie Carter and Bayli Stillwell -- have signed on to play collegiate volleyball.

Sailors coach Wendy Hall equated Reust's work to that performed by the type of strength and conditioning coordinator often employed at the professional and collegiate levels.

"The fact that they were training on the side allowed them to do more things," Hall said. "It allowed me to focus on skills and systems. Meanwhile they were quicker, jumping higher and hitting harder. When they work that hard in the off-season, deep down they feel like they deserve to be successful. It gives you big mental edge."

And an obvious physical advantage.

At the end of all-day tournaments, Steamboat's players were fresh, spirited and usually the champions. Hall and Reust attribute the team's results to superior physical training and the inner desire to be great instead of good.

"They were willing to do whatever it took to make it happen," Reust said. "It all depends on what you want to be. When the season is over, do you just wait until August rolls around or do you want to put something into it? If you are willing to do what it takes to be the best, you can."

The mirror mentality

High school athletes, even younger ones, understand the importance of physical strength. Boys, in particular, spend hours before and after school in the weight room hoping improve their athletic performance, and short of that, at least look good for the ladies, junior Shea Hurley said.

"Curls for Girls" is what junior Chris Dombey called the male obsession with muscle size and definition.

Initially, an off-season spent solely lifting weights was thought to be enough, Reust said. The thought was that a stronger athlete meant a better athlete.

But exercise professionals, coaches and even athletes themselves are learning that the muscles shown in a mirror aren't necessarily the best indicator of a person's ability to perform on the field, court, mat or slopes.

Today, the words speed, flexibility, quickness, agility and balance are tossed around among Steamboat's athletes as frequently as any ball or puck.

Proper stretching and core strength are being emphasized in all levels of sport. A person's core is his or her lower abdominal and back region. Increased flexibility and strength in this zone is essential to optimum performance, Reust said.

Toward the end of last summer's workouts, Hurley could successfully extend his arms straight above his head and touch his hands together because his shoulder muscles were strong but loose.

Now, he can't.

"It isn't that guys don't understand the importance of stretching," Hurley said. "It's just the lack of actually doing it."

Males aren't the only ones who benefit from increased stretching and core work, however. While females have few problems lifting their arms above their heads to touch their hands together, they do have a problem laying flat on their back with their hips flush to the floor.

It's an easy test to measure how tight muscles are.

Reust worked with the football and volleyball players during the summer to improve their flexibility, among other things. Currently, he is coaching the high school track team. A runner with tight muscles cannot run at his or her best, which is why Reust incorporates Pilates exercises into his track practices. Pilates is a form of non-impact strength and flexibility training.

"Pilates is a Godsend," Reust said. "It develops flexibility and that's what we need. Young kids are going to get fit anyway through what we do, but they need to start developing core strength and learn how to handle it."

Athlete assistance

Reust enjoys telling the story about his introduction to Pilates in Steamboat.

One day, he and some of his athletes were out running near Wendy Puckett's home. Puckett and sister Kristen Smith operate the Steamboat Pilates and Fitness Studio.

Puckett, a former cross-country runner at the University of Colorado, approached Reust, expressing a desire to work with the high school athletes. Reust has been sold on Pilates ever since.

In addition to helping athletes on almost every Steamboat varsity team, the Pilates studio also works extensively with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club during dry-land training.

"We wanted to start incorporating Pilates more at the younger level," Smith said. "It was definitely a goal of ours. Sports are so intense these days. Weight lifting isn't going to cut it. What we are trying to give them is more of a fundamental base. They load these really strong limbs on an unstable core, and that's when you have injuries."

Hurley had never heard of Pilates until Reust invited a handful of football players to a class last summer.

"It was a hard workout," Hurley said. "It changes your thinking. I'm hooked definitely. It helps with quickness, balance and control of your entire body."

What Smith said she often sees from younger athletes who come into the studio is individuals with one dominant side.

Once the athletes start to balance their bodies by stabilizing the core muscles, they unlock more energy from within. When posture is perfect, strong abdominal and lower back muscles are helping to align the spine.

By the end of last summer, members of the volleyball team were able to sit upright atop inflatable exercise balls and bump, set and spike the volleyball to each other.

Several members of the football team could actually stand on the balls.

Improved balance helped the football players with open field tackling, body control in the air and during quick directional shifts and effective blocking.

Now, many athletes utilize the exercise balls or discs when lifting weights. Instead of using a bench, athletes now support their backs by lying over a ball.

"You not only work primary muscles, you also have to develop your core; otherwise you'll fall off," Reust said. "They are the key to developing balance and inner core strength. I believe in it. During the summer, it really got going and the kids bought into it."

Outside work continues

Mike McCannon, a fitness coach, and Reust offered summer camps for kids to work on strength, speed, flexibility, agility, quickness and balance. Both plan on providing the same opportunities to interested athletes this summer.

"What's nice about this community, even for a small town, we have a variety of things going on," McCannon said. "How many towns of 10,000 around the country have personal trainers, physical therapists and a Pilates studio? Our kids certainly benefit from things like this."

Only when those opportunities are utilized, however.

Members of next year's volleyball team have already expressed interest in picking up where the graduating seniors left off. Some are even out for track to get a head start.

Hurley wants to go back to Pilates and take some football players with him.

The off-season is supposed to be the time when athletes improve themselves physically because the season is geared more toward game plans, strategies and practices. Several sports are changing that trend by offering in-season drills to enhance performance.

Steamboat's girls tennis team brings McCannon in during practice to help improve the players' agility and quickness using on-court and off-court drills.

"Football was kind of the first sport here to look at doing stuff outside of school," McCannon said. "I certainly hope we'll continue to see that. I think it's been a positive experience."

McCannon acknowledged that high school sports have changed from his days as a prep athlete 20 years ago, but even then, professional and collegiate teams were already buying into the importance of off-season work.

As expected, it's filtering into the high schools.

"We in the industry have started to adapt some of our training programs," McCannon said. "There are high school coaches with strength and conditioning coaches. It will start to become more mainstream in schools, particularly larger schools that have resources. We have some tremendous facilities, and it's nice to be able to take advantage of that."

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