his is your recreational playground—and it’s play time. But there’s more to sports and recreation than a pair of tennies and Spandex. Whether you’re a competitive climber, weekend warrior or an occasional off-road biker, sports medicine is vital. Without proper treatment, a little proactive care and some attention paid to your bod, all athletes are at risk for aches and injury. Here, the professionals talk about training for the big event, listening to their bodies and following their sports medicine commandments.
Mary Beth Ellis // Professional Triathlete.
Mary Beth Ellis, sitting in a Boulder coffee shop, is a slight figure with a sweet face and bright blond curls pulled back in a ponytail. But on the road, in the water and on her bike, she’s nothing but fierce.
The 32-year-old professional triathlete and Boulder resident is the 2009 Pan American Champion and 2009 Escape from Alcatraz Champion. She took second in the 2009 and 2008 70.3 World Championships and is now making a push toward the 2012 Olympics. She continues to thrive in a tremendously tough sport, and from her point of view, she has the next eight to 10 years to make the most of a running, cycling and swimming career.
“It’s a bit of a selfish pursuit,” she said. But what else can she say, she loves it.
Ellis is diligent in maintaining her healthy and injury free body, so she can perform at the top of her game in 12 to 15 Olympic-qualifying triathlons and two half-Ironmans a year. That means sleep—8–10 hours a night—hydration, massage, icing, stretching and consistent training in all three disciplines.
But when it comes down to it, the thing that keeps Ellis going during the hardest of events is simply listening to her body.
“It’s so much better to take care of something, instead of pushing through it,” she said. “We think about it like, ‘Man, I’m being a wimp if I stop.’ But you realize that it’s really not about being a wimp. It’s knowing the difference between pain that’s normal and pain that’s pushing toward injury.”
That’s a lesson she has learned first hand: “You name an injury,” Ellis said, “I’ve had it.” She lists everything from shin splints to stress fractures.
In fact, it was an injury that made Ellis the athlete she is today. She was a college swimmer and cross-country runner. She later focused on marathons.
“I was competitive but not at the level to be professional,” Ellis said.
But then came the osteoarthritis in her hip. Ellis’ doctors told her she must stop long-distance runs “or I would need a hip replacement by the time I hit my mid 30s. That scared me enough into changing.”
However, months later, she was ready to hit the road. Instead of marathons, she took up triathlons, which allowed her to compete yet took the pressure off her hips. She turned professional in 2007, making training and competition her full-time job.
“It is such a challenging sport,” she said. “You really have to be balanced in all three disciplines and you have to be in shape for all three disciplines. But there is so much enthusiasm in the athletes. When you get to the starting line of each race, you really see why everyone is there.”
Professional triathlete Mary Beth Ellis suggests athletes train in groups and even with a coach. “I feel like more is better,” she said of training with others. “It’s the opportunity to get advice from people who are experienced, especially when you are starting a sport. It helps with training and in preventing injuries and even equipment. In triathlons, we do so many revolutions, if you have a problem with your form, it will cause an injury. When you work out with others, they can stop you from making the same mistake they made.”
Michael Lovato //Professional triathlete and Ironman Champion
Boulderite Michael Lovato is one of the country’s best Ironman athletes. Which, if you’ve never seen the ESPN specials on the Ironman race, is incredibly impressive. It’s 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and then a marathon. It’s man versus the road, the pack, the heat and himself. It’s grueling, daunting, invigorating and even exhausting to watch.
And so when Lovato uses the term “normal,” which he does frequently, we doubt it’s actually the same normal of the rest of the population. He’s won two Ironmans and placed in the top 10 numerous times since he turned pro more than a decade ago. These days he calls Boulder home but spends the winter in Austin, Tex., training most days and traveling for races, including several 70.3 triathlons throughout the spring, summer and fall. He also blogs about the racing life: tips and tricks, stories of triumph, sponsor plugs, and the ups and downs.
“I know very well how capable the Ironman distance is of picking apart an athlete, and exposing his every weakness or flaw,” Lovato wrote in a recent post, admitting to his readership he will not make the inaugural Ironman St. George because of some yet to be identified setback. “I have promised myself that without being 100 percent healthy to tackle the challenges of the day, I would not put myself out there.”
In an email interview with Yellow Scene, Lovato talked a lot about his training and how he avoids making small injuries big. His is an outlook that’s optimistic, smart and gung-ho, and it’s apparent that both his viewpoint and his body have been vetted by 18 years of competition.
“I am good at listening to my body. It generally tells me when to ease up, when good pain starts to turn into bad pain, and when enough is enough,” Lovato said. “Listening is one part of the equation, paying attention to what you hear is another thing altogether. In other words, it’s key to do something about what your body tells you. Not everyone can do that, but I tend to do alright with it.”
Usually, Lovato does two Ironmans a year, with other triathlons in between. In the off-season he works on swimming, cycling and running as well as conditioning, working on core strength, flexibility and stability.
“As long as I keep some sort of consistency, it keeps my muscles well balanced and in line, so I am ready to roll when the real training begins,” he said. “Prepping for a busy season starts with a consistent January and February. Keeping things going then enables me to handle the training, travel and racing load of the main season.”
As for sports medicine, Lovato says getting regular massages is essential. He also uses Norma Tec MVP, which is pneumatic compression; ART (Active Release Technique); a chiropractor; and he has his blood checked for serum ferritin levels, which monitor iron levels. He also maintains his normal lifestyle and normal outlook, especially before a big race.
“Leading into an Ironman, I try to keep things as close to normal living as possible,” Lovato said. “Normally there is very little stress in my day-to-day living, and normally I have a good time with what I do.
“So, in those days leading into an Ironman, I try to keep that pattern going. I do, however, pay attention to my hydration, especially in Hawaii, where the climate is extreme. I eat well, but nothing different from what I normally eat. I sleep a bit more, and I try to remember that I do Ironman because I love it, which reminds me to not take things too seriously—and to have fun.”
“If you focus on what those around you are doing, you will more easily be derailed, and possibly over trained,” professional triathlete Michael Lovato said. He suggests athletes pay attention to their program, instead of paying attention to what others are doing. “It’s pretty simple really: swim a little, bike a little, run a little and take rest days. We tend to complicate things too much,” he said.
Sure, that might be his way of intervening on questions about contentious controversial issues surrounding the professional football industry right now. Or it could just be how Antonopulos sees his responsibilities.
“That means doing the right things the right way—from a moral and ethical stand point, from a relationship standpoint,” he said. “And that includes loyalty to (Broncos owner Pat) Bowen and the club and to the people you work with. It’s just going about your business the right way.”
Which matters when you work for an organization for 35 years, when you work with some of the best athletes on the gridiron, and when said athletes depend on you for health, wealth and future. Antonopulos, also known as “Greek,” says his department is just one piece of the puzzle that keeps players healthy; though, it’s an important piece. In the big picture, the Broncos do whatever is feasibly possible to keep players from getting injured: from a serious focus on strength and conditioning to nutritionists, from chiropractors (each specializing in different types of treatment) and massage therapists to highly technical screens that intuit potential injuries.
“Strength and conditioning is the secret to the whole preventive thing. Today, the players couldn’t prevent injuries at this level if they weren’t into strength and conditioning big time,” he said. “Way back when, guys didn’t do as much of it as is done today. But now, they have to.”
But it doesn’t necessarily start out that way, at least for many of the athletes.
“I think most of them have no clue of what it takes. You see it every year: Guys have been working since the end of college football season in preparation for combine and the draft and camps and then preparing for training camp. Even then, they are so overwhelmed because it’s so much bigger than what they anticipate,” Antonopulos said. “Everybody is at a much higher level. In college, they were at the top.”
But he said it’s not abnormal to see a guy make tremendous jumps from rookie year to sophomore season—because they are not so overwhelmed.
“It’s mental,” he said. “It’s been said that some of the mental preparation at this level is harder than any class you can take in college.”
Truly, you can expect a professional team to have a fleet of specialists and trainers, but what’s most fascinating is how Antonopulos talks about the mental and emotional aspects of training and injuries. It becomes very clear that part of that integrity he talks about is dealing with his athletes as people—not superheroes, celebrities or gods.
“When a player gets injured it’s devastating. They don’t feel like part of the team. They hurt. And in their mind, if they are not participating they are not doing their part,” he said. “If they are at this level, they want to play.
“We really focus on keeping them interested and keeping them positive,” he continued. “The guys who get injured and are still rehabbing, you have to keep them upbeat. You have to find ways to motivate and get the best out of them and get them focused.”
Broncos head athletic Trainer Steve Antonopulos suggests that preventing injury is all about preparation. “Anytime you are an athlete there is always potential for injury. You need to do what you can to prevent getting in those situations. Warm up. Make sure you are hydrated. Keep yourself hydrated. Sleep right. Eat right,” he said. Also, if you are just beginning a sport or just starting to get active, take it slow. “Progression into activity is the sanest thing you can do,” Antonopulos said. “You can’t go crazy.”
Magri is the head athletic trainer for the Colorado Mammoth, the professional indoor lacrosse team that calls the Pepsi Center home. And he’s the assistant athletic trainer for the Colorado Rapids, the Kroenke-owned professional soccer team filled with some of the country’s best soccer players. About half of his 23 Mammoth athletes are Canadian and travel back and forth between Denver and their homeland every week between games. As their go-to guy for all things medical, Magri must keep them healthy from thousands of miles away.
“We play a Saturday night, and they are on a plane Sunday morning. I don’t see them until the next weekend. They basically fly in and fly out,” Magri said.
It’s his biggest challenge in keeping his players on the field, and it means he has to email them exercises for injuries and send them to doctors and physical therapists in their hometowns across the border. And it also means that the guys tend to play through more injuries.
Though, because there is an emphasis on strength training during the lacrosse season and volunteer chiropractors and massage therapists who work on the players pre- and post-game—plus, many of the Mammoth play professionally in Canada during its professional season—most have avoided major injury this season. And when it comes down to it “if they are too injured to play, they don’t play.” Magri, for the most part, deals with pulled muscles in the pre-season and contusions, rug burns and a couple staph infections during the season.
But occasionally the injuries are more concerning than the scrapes and shiners that come with playing a contact sport on AstroTurf. For Magri, concussions are the sports injuries that worry him the most.
“They are just so vague. It can be a minor thing or it can be a career ender. There are just so many unknowns because you can’t see the damage from the outside,” he said.
As brain injuries have become an issue in sports like football, Magri has seen an increased focus in lacrosse. This past season, he had a player sit out the entire season because of a series of concussions last year. The league is looking at bettering helmets and making stricter penalties for gratuitous roughness.
“But we could always do more,” he said.
Lacrosse season ended last month, and Magri now spends all his time with the Rapids. That means a little more sunshine, a few more players to help and a few more injuries to deal with. But, he says, when it comes to preventing injury, it’s all the same.
“You need proper conditioning, good nutrition, a solid routine that includes stretching and working out,” he said. “And you have to take care of your bumps and bruises in a timely manner.”
Craig Magri, head athletic trainer of the Colorado Mammoth, says athletes—whether they are occasional hikers or weekend warriors—should warm up longer than they think they need to. “Dynamic warm ups, like playing soccer or jogging, are great. Your warm up needs to be better than stretching to your toes when you tie your shoe,” he said. “And after your game, before you have a beer in the parking lot with your buddies, get some proper nutrition.”