Monday, February 4, 2013

Body Of Evidence: the picture of success

(photo credit)

There's an old saying about advice "take what you need, leave the rest behind".  This can be applied to most of the information that is rained down upon our brains.  Body type is a funny thing. We are a society in love with a particular body type, regardless of any real ability to achieve that standard.  The backlash response is to accept our bodies as is, willy-nilly, never leveling a critical eye at areas that could use some attention, even for the sake of health or performance.

As an athlete, it is imperative that you recognize and work with your body type, and yet it is practically a taboo subject, thanks to mainstream media.  Lately, I have been studying athletes, from images of professionals at Kona to the person jogging down the side of the road while I am driving home from work.  I have noticed a tendency to compare myself to everyone who has a style that is pleasing to the eye.  It's not so much a "better or worse than" analysis as one of those childhood games where you find the differences between two seemingly alike pictures.  I have been sorting all of this into folders in my brain for future jumbling and misinterpretation during my next crisis of confidence.
Can you spot the differences?  Same concept.

I kid.

No I don't.

Seriously though, a lightbulb went on for me in 2012 when I watched every minute of the pro races on the live feed from Kona.  Mary Beth Ellis... there she was.  Built like me (minus roughly 30 lbs) and using her body's unique morphology to harry the leaders like a pit bull... or, as is being touted on twitter, a Honey Badger.  Someone with a compact, heavily muscled body COULD do it.  I watched her legs move like pistons, not so much flowing but driving and powerful.  Her expression was the definition of determination.   Mary Beth Ellis doesn't lose much so clearly what she has going is working for her.

I have seen Kelly H. Williamson running and swimming, live- up close- personal.  She has shared a lane with me on more than one occasion and I have been running on the town lake trail when this Zoot clad jackrabbit blew by my like I was standing still.  Watching her move, both on screen and in life, is like watching human poetry.  She is tiny (REALLY tiny), slender, and all limbs.  She moves accordingly.  

For a while, this was my gold standard for movement and in some ways still is.  However, I am not built anything like that.  I am short (like her) but thick, muscular, stocky.  I have broad shoulders and massive leg muscles.  The ratio of length to thickness in my body is much different than Kelly's.  Plug one of my numbers into her equation but keep the ratio the same and she would be Alice, either as tall as a giant or able to be held in the palm of your hand.  

As I watched Kona unfold, I watched Kelly struggle on the bike, lacking power, but then tear it up on the run.  This is not a scenario I would ever find myself in.  My bike power is more than enough but convincing my body that those short, powerful, heavy levers can turn over quick enough to run well is another story.  I listened to the commentator talke about Leanda Cave and her long levers.  I watched a tiny, well- proportioned Rinny do what Rinnys do.  It was enough to make me believe that my boxers build would never be able to run well or be truly competitive.

But then I also watched Mary Beth Ellis.  For the first time, I saw a body whose dimensions and type were like my own.  Obviously, there are some differences and she is not carrying any extra weight, but the similarities are unmistakable.  She even runs a lot like me (albeit MUCH, MUCH faster)  Her ratio of torso to limb, the muscle mass she carries, all of it... it was like looking into the future at my "after" pic.  And that "after" pic was flat killing it!!  I had a new gold standard.

It was possible.  Why?  Because Triathlon is three phases, two transitions, nutrition, and cardiovascular development wrapped in a mental toughness burrito.  What might be great for one element might not be so great for another.  Different body types offer different advantages and weaknesses, like a physical hand in poker.  You can't control which cards you have but you can control how you play them... and even a "weak"** hand will win the game if utilized correctly.    

**I use the word weak with intense sarcasm.  Most people are so focused on the differences between what they want and what they have, they fail to see how strong they really are.  Tell Mary Beth Ellis her hand is weak.  I dare ya.  Go ahead... no wait, let me get the camera first.

Don't allow yourself to fall into the trap of thinking that only one body type can be successful or comparing yourself to someone who is fundamentally different.  It's pointless and unproductive.  Instead, take cues from those people who have similar attributes and learn how they leveraged them to be successful. To do this, first you have to determine your body type, then you have to find people that have made similar body types work for them.


Remove the emotion, the media programming, the social pressure for a moment. Ditch the insecurity and self-loathing and, for a moment, be completely objective.  Take a hard look at your body.  You have a set of attributes that you cannot change, some things that you can develop into strengths.  You also have weaknesses that can be minimized through training.  The old saying goes "Train your weakness, Race your strength."  You can only do this if you are aware of which is which.

Jeanine of One 2 One fitness.
Mainstream media?  They wish they looked this good.
Hollywood's definition of beauty should have no home in an athlete's mind.
Being long limbed may be in the job description for a super model, but it is not the end-all and be-all for performance in triathlon.  In fact, it only helps so much and in certain phases.  In other phases, having an enormous engine might be the fastest way to the front of the pack.

Does this picture even need a caption?

Take a look at these two galleries from Slowtwitch... go ahead.  I'll wait.

Notice the vastly different body types among the leading women?  You can also see a difference between the two years in some of the returning athletes, keeping in mind that muscle mass can look totally different depending on camera angle and where in the stride the image was captured.  Obviously, they are all incredibly fit.  There is not an ounce of extra fat between them.  But beyond that, you have long legs, short legs, balanced proportions, heavy muscling, light muscling,  broad shoulders, narrow shoulders, all varieties of styles, footstrikes, exaggerated angles in the knees and ankles.  This is a very wide range of types for a very narrow field in a very specific pursuit.. elite iron distance racing.  The picture would get even more colorful if you included shorter distances, ITU, elite amateurs, etc.  Most people will find many examples to follow here.

Jeanine (center) held the Ducks hand at her first race! She gave me the best pep talk ever.  "I don't think I am better than you, I have just been doing it longer."  There was no single sentence that has ever motivated me more.
(Note: the Elites and First timers had the same cap color.)

Here are several pictures of two age groupers, Cortney and Jeanine.  Both are wildly successful at the highest level of AG competition and represent the bodies on opposing ends of the spectrum.  They have different strengths and weaknesses, but because multi-sport is just that, MULTIPLE SPORTS, they are able to race smart, race their strengths and routinely find themselves on the podium.  It would be silly for someone with my build to model myself after Cortney just as it would be futile for Cortney to envy the muscle mass that comes so naturally to Jeanine. Both are dead fit, lean as a mean old steer, and I'd lose money trying to bet which is faster.  They are both beautiful women and great examples of how differing body types can excel.  I cannot express how much respect I have for both.
This athlete has far more in common with Leanda Cave than Mary Beth Ellis.

With her powerful quads and long waist, this athlete could find inspiration in pictures of Rachel Joyce.

Two fit women, two entirely different body types.

Again, this body type is what is referred to in riding as a "long drink of water". This results in a beautiful, swinging running style that someone like me would be at a loss to emulate.  Frustration would be the only possible outcome.  If you are long-limbed though, take a look.. learn.

In a word... Power!  If I need inspiration for my own body type, I need look no farther. Examining this athlete's style could give me valuable insight.
It would be a mistake for the Santa below to try to hold herself to the same ideals as this Santa. The converse is also true.
Do reindeer pull Airstream trailers?

Someone once gave me some advice about becoming a person I admired in life.  She suggested that I find someone that I like, that has the qualities that I would like to embody, and study them.  Learn what makes them tick and how they came to have those qualities.  THEN, apply whatever is appropriate.  Good advice but that last sentence is the kicker.  If what you learn is inappropriate to you, then it is not going to help.

If you want to look into pro fields for inspiration, make sure that they are enough like you, that their hand has enough of the same cards, that what you learn from them is appropriate.  I still look at Kelly Williamson for inspiration because she is a good person and candidly posts about the her struggles, but I will never compare my stride to hers.  Instead, I look at the people who have the physical qualities I posses.  It is a much more accurate after picture and what I learn from them is much more likely to apply to me.  ALSO, I realize that by doing this, I shift my interpretation of subjective standards like beauty and success.  It means that I am much less likely to become discouraged or start down that destructive path of self-loathing (a place you find many, many women).  

Choose your heros wisely.  And now that you've done that, GO!  Go train.  Don't sell yourself short.  Train like you believe you're worth it... because you are.  

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