By Mara Abbott
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor
As many of readers here know, as soon as you get a coach you have an ever-present voice eager to explain training principles and the physiological changes you will experience if you follow the plan. I have been a coached athlete for most of my life – yet it still takes me by surprise when I physically experience, in my own skin, exactly what science says is supposed to happen.
I retired from professional cycling almost exactly two years ago. Upon finishing my final race, I decided I wanted to turn myself into a runner. I had always loved trail running in the off-season, and that had worked well. Generally, a month of freedom was enough time for me to hurt myself in some way and then jump back on the bike and forget all about it. For that brief period, thought, running seemed simpler and more efficient than the world of finicky components, flat tires, and four hour training rides.
Unfortunately, I quickly discovered I was not actually physically prepared to jump headlong into a sport where impact is intentional after a decade of trying at all costs to keep any part of my body from hitting the ground. I wound up with a stress fracture in my right hip, which I wrote about in a column for espnW. (I would also like to commend runners on their tolerance for pain. I have slid down mountain roads at speeds that would make my mother cringe, and I have landed on my head so hard my teeth chipped each other. Even by my physical-pain barometer, that stress fracture really hurt.)
After my diagnosis, naturally the only logical course of action was to keep trying to find a way to be a runner. I had a bone scan, and while the results weren’t terrible considering my history, they weren’t great. It turns out competitive cyclists are more than two times more likely than the recreationally active population to have low bone density.
However, there is a good deal of research about the positive impacts of weightlifting on increasing bone density. Bones are quite dynamic in their structure, so loading them directly can actually increase their strength. Read more about the connection between strength training and bone density. The key, of course, is to load them both directly and safely. Given my recent track record, I decided to turn to a professional.
Jeff Hoobler has been a trainer, coach and Muscle Activation Technique practitioner at my gym as long as I have been there, which is nearly twenty years. He helped me through some aches and pains during my cycling career, and I trusted him in the way you can only trust someone you have known and observed since you were thirteen years old, so I asked Hoobler for a weight-lifting program that would help me increase my bone density.
Though I did a great deal of yoga and other resistance exercises during my cycling career, I knew absolutely nothing about weight training. Hoobler and I started with simple and traditional movements, and I had to confess I didn’t have any idea what a deadlift or a squat really was. Pull-ups I remembered from my swimming days – not that I could do one anymore. Suffice to say, one of Hoobler’s qualifying features as my new strength coach was his patience. “Your body will lay down tissue in patterns you use frequently,” he explained to me. “Our goal is to do it in a way that is safe and effective.”
He explained to me that his biggest goal was to focus on moves that distributed force through the hips and spine. As I started running again, the skeletal structures of my legs and my hips would benefit from that impact, but my spine wouldn’t be loaded as directly or specifically. He taught me to do dumbell squats and hex bar deadlifts, explaining that part of their value was that they were simple and repeatable. I also learned the trick of rolling heavy dumbbells that I could lift but not carry around the gym to safely move them from one area to another, and I then strategically noted there were far fewer gym audience members late on Saturday afternoons.
To my surprise, I really enjoyed my lifting sessions. I had assumed time in the gym would be tedious, but I discovered a new sort of post-workout endorphin rush that came from picking up and putting down lots of heavy things. I enjoyed how quickly I could master moves and how easy it was to quantify progress. Perhaps my favorite part was the way my lifting card looked after a few months, with every single box filled in. Our focus was never on complex or impressive moves. “There’s a lot of shit you can do, but that doesn’t mean you should,” Hoobler told me. “Sometimes it’s easy to make things hard and it’s hard to make things easy.”
After waiting a very long twelve months, this summer I finally got to have my first follow-up bone scan. Beyond the lifting program, I had of course made other nutritional and lifestyle changes. I was thrilled to see most areas of bone showed incremental improvement. As a woman in my early thirties I am past the age when I would be naturally building more bone density. However, the measurement taken at my lumbar spine was the clear outlier of my 2018 scan. In the very area my lifting program was focused, my bone density improved nearly ten percent and rocketed right back up to the normal range!
What does all this mean for you? First off, it’s not too late to make important improvements in the strength and health of your bones. But if you’re going to add strength training to your repertoire, it’s okay to admit you’re an endurance athlete and don’t know what you’re doing in the gym. Talk with your coach, work with a professional, learn the movements, and be patient and diligent. Your bones will thank you.