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The start of a long run

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings


Detroit Red Wings dietitian Lisa McDowell has a passion for fresh, functional food and enjoys sharing her knowledge with athletes to improve performance. McDowell applies the science behind sports nutrition and translates rigorous scientific research to food and meal planning for the Red Wings. Read more in this month's Priority Health Wellness Blog below. TO VISIT THE PRIORITY HEALTH MONTHLY DIGITAL MAGAZINE, CLICK HERE.


“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t - you’re right.” -Henry Ford

The Red Wings have kicked off another season, and this year, the team can extend their playoff streak to an incredible 25 consecutive appearances. This is a remarkably long run of success, and as I think about this accomplishment, I can’t help but be inspired as I prepare to make a long run of my own – the NYC marathon. Though I am nowhere near being an athlete, let alone an elite athlete, I committed to running the race as part of Team USA Endurance. As it turns out, making the commitment is the easy part. Preparing for the race? That’s where the hard work really begins.

Training shirt, and note, from Team USA Endurance . I am so proud to be part of this Olympic training team.
I believe some people are born with pure athletic talent and finesse. My parents provided wonderful opportunities for me to participate in softball, swimming, ice skating, basketball, running and dance. Ultimately, I wasn't very good at any of these - but I did find happiness in cheerleading. My husband comes from a very athletic family, and they enjoy a good chuckle over my contention that cheerleading is a sport. He was a college swimmer and when we snorkel, he allows me to hold onto his fin for a free ride during long swims.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the Olympics and the work it takes to compete at that level, there are no free rides. Olympic athletes have to make a commitment that swallows up their entire life.

I have had the opportunity to work with Olympic athletes since 1996 when Atlanta hosted the summer games. Observing their dedication and commitment to even the smallest details helped provide a foundation for my own career. Even after working with elite athletes for many years, I am still amazed at their ability to pay attention to the smallest details.  The biggest lesson I have learned is that success seems to be dependent on doing the right things every single day, especially on those days when nobody is looking, or it would be easy to take a day off.

I am fortunate to have been in a position to soak up my surroundings. I have learned so much from our coaching staff, trainers and medical team. Even the players share proper stretching techniques for injury prevention or challenge me to competitions to get more steps each day. Our equipment manager knows every compression product on the market and shares his opinions. Our head trainer knows the literature and suggests ‘must reads’ in the world of running. All of this information is great, and I try to take advantage of this wealth of knowledge, but what it eventually comes down to is my willingness to put in the work.

However, in every long run – every single one – there comes a moment when your body cries ‘no more,’ and you are tempted to back off, or even start walking. This is the moment when you have to make a choice. Do you succumb to the pain and fall into an easier pace? Being a non-athlete, I would normally fall into this easier pace, which I call the Comfort Zone. At this level, I would eventually still complete the run, but to what real benefit? Just getting by in the Comfort Zone with little effort - and maintaining in this zone - requires little planning or nutritional requirements. You can eat almost anything you want, and you will still be able to train in your Comfort Zone. In other words, the Comfort Zone does not make you uncomfortable. Therefore, little is gained.

My selfie with my ‘magic’ hat –
when I wear it I feel I can run forever.
There are two other zones you can strive to achieve in your training. The second zone is what I call your Stretch Zone. During my long run, pushing into my Stretch Zone would mean that even though my body is asking me to back off, I power ahead, maintaining the pace I set in the first several miles. This takes more effort though, and the pain level increases.

The Stretch Zone is where many athletes train. This level of training requires planning, and knowledge of nutritional fueling and recovery. Without the planning or nutrition, it is impossible to train in your Stretch Zone for an extended period of time. Nutrition is fuel for an athlete, and not having fuel means that the body will literally run out of gas (or muscle glycogen). Training in the Stretch Zone is essential. For a runner, this may include tempo runs, hills, steps, sprints, Fartleks (Swedish for ‘speed play’) and even high-intensity interval training.

There is a third choice, and it is the toughest. I call it the Survival Zone. The most significant gains are made during the Survival Zone - when you train on the edge of your ability. Muscles work harder and then rebuild stronger when the demand is present. It is important to understand that training at this level pushes your body to extremes. You also may not be able to sustain this level for long periods of time, regardless of what your goals are. This is training at a level that truly puts the body and mind to the test. It is extremely difficult and is not for everyone. For me, it may be the final six miles of my long run. For the Red Wings, it may be the 16 back-to-back games they play this season. It is at this level where your nutrition, sleep, hydration and recovery need to be absolutely perfect. Your fueling needs to be spot on with a perfect balance required to fuel the extraordinary needs of extraordinary effort.

As the Red Wings battle through another season, their training needs to be at a very high level. For professional athletes—and especially hockey players, where the demands on their bodies are so high—their training dictates their level of play. The offseason is filled with brutal Survival Zone training regimens. These sessions result in peak performance. If you train hard, you play well. If you do not, there is no hiding. Fortunately, the current players have many excellent role models for what it takes to compete at the highest level. Former players like Kris Draper, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and Steve Yzerman had legendary work ethics. Current players like Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard now lead by example. These players fuel themselves nutritionally to train in the Survival Zone. They plan what they eat – how they fuel and leave nothing to chance. They pay attention to labels. They consult with the medical staff. They care about what they put into their bodies because they know that what they eat is the fuel they need to train.

But we cannot forget the obstacles. Playing through pain is a given. The adage about asking players whether they are ‘hurt’ or they are ‘injured’ applies here. Most players are hurt during the season, but they continue to play. Injuries take them out of the lineup. We have watched our team continue to skate when teeth have been knocked out, noses has been broken and skin has been lacerated. In hockey, there are times during a game when a player gets knocked to the ice. There is no doubt that the player is going to get back up because he does not want his teammates to be a man short, even for just a few seconds. So the lesson is that in hockey, you expect to be knocked down. But if you get knocked down 10 times, you get back up 10 times. Professional athletes like the Red Wings players provide some great examples of how mental toughness is required in order to be successful. Drew Miller, who suffered a brutal facial laceration during a game last season, wanted to go back into the game in the very next period. The medical team said no, but it shows the type of mental toughness these athletes all share to stay at the top of their game. Everyone faces obstacles and the real test of character is challenged when these present themselves.

For me, this marathon journey has been a good example of what can happen. For all my planning, commitment and hard work, things happen that can set you back. Things you can never even predict. For example, as part of Team USA, I raised money to support the Olympic athletes. Foolishly, I left my gym bag/purse in my car during my daughter's soccer game when a half-dozen cars were broken into and all the money raised was stolen. The very next week, I was planning to do a long run at Gallup Park in Ann Arbor. The park was closed when I arrived because a dead body had been found in the water. Now I am afraid to run alone. The next week, nagging heel pain was so debilitating I finally broke down and got it checked, only to learn I have a stress fracture. And just last week, a persistent cough and fever became a diagnosis of "walking pneumonia" with a prescription for rest and no miles! So much for my 9:08 per mile goal pace to break four hours in the race. I will be lucky to finish, but I am not giving up. I will get back up and start to train outside of my comfort zone again. And on November 1, I will draw my inspiration from those around me who also have overcome their own obstacles to be here.

This is a good mindset as we set forth on this new hockey season with our new coaches and players. One of the few things that is not new this season is the team’s ongoing commitment to being the best.

If you would like to support United States Olympic and Paralympic Athletes, please click here: https://www.crowdrise.com/TeamUSAEndurance2015/fundraiser/lisamcdowell

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