Wednesday, July 09, 2008

dara torres' training methods (training at age)

there seems to be a lot of talk recently about Dara Torres, with a lot of the attention centered around what kind of training regimen is allowing her to be so competitive at age 41--even on this blog, which showed over 500 visitors in 2 days (!?!?!? i've never had so many, nor expected so many, for a blog directed to the more reflective, introspective, spiritual side of niche sports like triathlon and endurance racing).

i have to admit, i've been curious myself. anything as remarkable as her performance certainly warrants some observation. and i'm always open to alternative training methods--especially when they're being proven successful in athletic competition. that, and i have to admit that i am starting to feel the pull of age, even though i may not look it, and i'm starting to understand that my body isn't quite working the same way it did when i was an undergraduate. as a result, i've been putting a lot more time into figuring out how to adjust my training to work with the current state of my body. seeing that a 41-year old Dara Torres seems to have found something effective to deal with her age, i'm definitely interested in trying to learn more to help me with mine.

i sort of made a few notes about her training in my last post (reference: dara torres). but i dug around a little bit more for any other sources that might reveal further information about her training methods.

obviously, i'm sure the exact details (exercises, distance, duration, intensity, repetitions, mass, training schedule, nutrition, etc.) about her regimen are a closely guarded state secret, and on a strictly need-to-know basis (it's her competitive edge, after all, and no athlete ever just gives that away). and i'm sure anyone who wants those details are going to have to 1) get a slightly watered-down version (again, no athlete ever gives away their competitive edge), and 2) pay for it (as in money, to whoever is making her training regimen).

but i figure that it's possible to glean at least some insights just reviewing what's been publicly disclosed. at the very least, it can generate some food for thought and point out directions to go in changing training plans (mine, or anybody else's). which is fine for me, since i'm not in the same sport as she is, nor the same person, and so don't expect to have the same training. i prefer to just have principles that guide the training plan, so i can orient things according to whatever sport i want to pursue.

here's the articles i've found that mention her training:
the last 2 are perhaps the most illuminating, with the last article having the greatest amount of detail of her training, and the 2nd-to-last article seeming to be the best summary. i put the text of the 2nd-to-last one at the bottom of this post, since it seems to cover the most for the least amount of reading.

i should note that one component of her training regimen--her resistance stretching--is conducted by a company called Innovative Body Solutions (check out their website: ). but this is only one part of her total training process, and so i think it's important to look at the other elements to get a sense of her total training regimen.

based on these articles, this is what i've been able to draw out:
  • fewer workouts
  • more strength work
  • more recovery
  • more nutrition
i'll expand on each of these below:

observation #1: fewer workouts

she has fewer workouts now than she did when she was younger. in her youth (up to her mid-20s), she was doing 10-12 swim workouts a week, whereas now she's only doing 5 or 6. this entails a number of qualifiers:
  • workouts have a longer duration--her total exercise time on a daily basis seems to last about 3-4 hours, with about 90 minutes per swim workout, followed by roughly 90 minutes of strength training, and then finished with about 45-60 minutes of stretching and massage work (i'm including the stretching and massage work as part of exercise time, since her heart rate and muscle strength is probably still coming down during this time to return to rest state). this contrasts with most swimmers (and most athletes) i know, who usually have 90-120 minutes of exercise for any given training session, with the exception being distance runners and cyclists (who can easily go 3 hours for marathon training or 8 hours for road cycling). even in Ironman, i know of very few people who ever go beyond 2-3 hours of exercise in a single workout.
  • no 2-a-days--given that she has fewer workouts of longer duration, she maintains only 1 workout per day. no 2-a-days. WOW. most athletes i know (particularly triathletes, and also swimmers) try to get in 2 workouts a day, even if it means 1 workout is just an "easy" session and the other is the "real" or "hard" one. typically, this means a morning and an evening workout. this is so common in triathlon it's almost assumed dogma. hardly anybody even questions it. but she's done away with it entirely.
  • less volume--even though the workouts are of longer duration, the overall total weekly volume is less than what she covered in her youth. one of the articles has her noting that when she was younger she did as much as 65,000 meters a week, but now has reduced that to 25,000 meters per week. this points to the reduction of weekly workout sessions.
  • clearer focus--because workouts are fewer and weekly volume is less, each workout session is done with a very clear set of objectives for each one. most athletes in their 20s i know just do workouts without any question as to purpose--either they don't know to wonder why, or just figure that any training is good. but with Dara Torres, it's very clear that each workout is done for a specific reason, and performed to fulfill that reason. this is something i've heard before from most coaches and sports science experts, who consistently complain that athletes need to have a better sense of "quality" workouts (i.e., those that improve athletic performance) as opposed to "junk" ones (i.e., those that don't do anything, and in many cases actually damage, athletic performance).
  • thought-out training--workouts are not isolated. each one is related to another. this means workouts have to be organized over the course of a training cycle (lasting weeks, months, seasons, or even years) in a way that makes the athlete progress in performance towards a specific race. again, this is something that most younger athletes seem to miss, and something that coaches and sports science experts gripe that more athletes need to understand. with Dara Torres, she has a very clear race (well, if you include qualifying heats, set of races) in the Olympics that she is aiming for, and has evidently timed her training over the past few years (yes, years, going back to her return to swimming after her pregnancy) to peak for the Beijing Olympics.
observation #2: strength training

she does almost as much strength training as she does swimming. this differs from a lot of swimmers i know, as well as a lot of endurance athletes, who tend to insist that strength training is detrimental to their sport training, since it 1) takes away time that could be spent on training for their sport, and 2) builds muscle mass that doesn't contribute to performance. Dara Torres, however, is proving that strength training--at least, the right kind of strength training--can actually help training for a sport, and can contribute to performance in that sport. in particular, the strength training she does involves the following:
  • compound, complex movement--she is doing exercises that involve multiple muscle groups moving in complex ranges of motion. according to sports science, this is building power that can be employed in a functional manner, and is the kind of power considered "functional strength" or "sport-specific strength" (i.e., the kind of strength that can actually be used in athletic events). the theory is that traditional forms of strength training followed body-building principles focused on isolating muscles, and that this creates unstable structural imbalances in overall body muscle composition that detracts from athletic performance (or worse, leads to injury), and hence is inappropriate to sports.
  • eccentric and concentric resistance--her strength work places resistance in both eccentric (as the muscle elongates) and concentric (as the muscle contracts) phases of muscle movement. the "resistance stretching" the articles refer to employ resistance as muscles both compress and expand. incidentally, this is the kind of method used in plyometric training (which focuses on explosive muscular contractions), albeit in a more violent manner. the general reasoning behind this method is that it builds elasticity (thereby preventing injury) and strength throughout a full range of motion--for both muscle and connective tissue.
  • core work--much of the work she's doing involves the core. this is nothing new for most people, since it seems to be a dominant theme in sports science in this era. the theory is that core work (i.e., strengthening the torso) builds the base from which power can be generated--and because the muscles in the core tend to be large, this power can be significant in relation to that produced by the arms and legs alone. as a result, core work can complement the limbs, and thereby improve overall physical performance.
  • stabilizing--the overarching theme of all the above is that it increases stability in the body's musculature and connective tissue. as a result it prevents injury, and allows for greater synchronization of all muscle groups in athletic competition.
you can the sense of the reasoning behind her strength training from the following quote:
Torres’s innovations for keeping her body in top shape as she advances deeper into middle age are almost entirely out of the pool. In Florida, after her two-hour water workout, Torres changed into a black workout top and shorts and met her strength coach, Andy O’Brien, in the gym. Over the past year and a half, O’Brien, who is also the strength coach of the Florida Panthers hockey team, has switched Torres’s focus away from heavy, static weightlifting and geared her training toward balanced, dynamic exercises that stimulate her central nervous system. “The idea is not to isolate muscle groups but to get muscles contracting together in the right sequences,” O’Brien explains. Weight training, he notes, grew out of bodybuilding, and that low-rep high-weight tradition is ill suited for a sprinter since a body comprised of big muscles that have been trained to produce force only individually wastes considerable energy trying to move. O’Brien says speed derives from highly coordinated movements and fluid timing. Under his tutelage Torres is 12 pounds lighter, stronger and more cut than she was in 2000.
in addition, you can also get a feel for is done in her "resistance stretching" in this quote:

“Dara and I haven’t seen each other in like 10 hours, so we have to catch up,” Anne Tierney, one of the stretchers, explained as she sat on a chair near Torres’s head. Her partner, Steve Sierra, sat on a chair near Torres’s side, and the two proceeded to “mash,” or massage Torres’s shoulders and legs with their feet — sometimes standing on her body — so their hands wouldn’t tire and they could apply more force. After 45 minutes, they began Torres’s resistance-stretching sequence, a series of maneuvers that looks like a cross between a yoga class, a massage and a Cirque du Soleil performance. The concept behind resistance stretching is that muscles can gain more flexibility if they’re contracted and stretched at the same time. At one point Torres rolled onto her stomach, tucking one leg underneath her chest (in what yogis call pigeon pose). Then Tierney leaned her torso against Torres’s slightly bent back leg, pushing it toward Torres’s glutes, as Torres worked to overcome Tierney’s force and straighten out that leg. Later, Torres moved up onto a massage table and Tierney and Sierra worked on her tensor fascia latae, a muscle that starts on the outside of hip and extends down the leg. Sierra used his hands and shoulders to rotate Torres’s thigh externally; Tierney stood at the foot of the table, pulling outward on Torres’s calf near the ankle.

Torres calls resistance stretching her “secret weapon.” Bob Cooley, who invented the discipline, describes it in less-modest terms. According to Cooley, over a two-week period in 1999, his flexibility system turned Torres “from being an alternate on the relay team to the fastest swimmer in America.” The secret to Torres’s speed, Cooley says, is that his technique not only makes her muscles more flexible but also increases their ability to shorten more completely, and when muscles shorten more completely, they produce greater power and speed. “What do race-car drivers do when they want to go faster?” Cooley asks. “They don’t spend more hours driving around the track. They increase the biomechanics of the car. And that’s what resistance flexibility is doing for Dara — increasing her biomechanics.”

and if you want to know what the results of her strength training look like, you can refer to a picture of her taken in 2007:
as you can see, this is not the big, bulky muscle-bound body that so many endurance athletes associate with strength training. instead, it's the lean, powerful, but fluid and coordinated type of muscle that is relevant to sports i think most endurance athletes would accept as being competitive in their endurance events. and yes, i know Dara Torres is a sprinter (50m and 100m freestyle), but i'm willing to bet most endurance athletes would be happy to have her type of body.

observation #3: more recovery

recovery is just as, if not more, important as workouts. this is pretty well known, not just in medical science or sports science, but also among the general public. as you get older, your body does not recover from hard physical events as quickly as it did when you were younger. even Dara Torres is quoted in the articles as saying that she felt very sore after her Olympic trials swims, and that she needed help to recover in time for the next swims. it should be noted that recovery doesn't mean just eating and sleeping, but an active process of helping her body flush out toxins and heal. this means the following:
  • more rest time--with fewer workout sessions and less training volume, she's allocating much more space in her schedule for recovery time in the form of sleep, lying down, or even just relaxing by hanging out with friends and family. and this isn't just each day, but over the week. i notice she's getting 2 days of rest a week, which is more than most athletes i know (almost everyone i know, in endurance sports or otherwise, only reserve 1 rest day each week). your body just needs down time, since this is when it rebuilds tissue and restores glycogen reserves--and the older you are the longer this takes. since training is about building tissue and storing glycogen, this means that you have to be willing to put a greater priority on resting relative to training as you get older.
  • more stretching--she doesn't skimp on this. her stretching routine lasts almost as long as the sport and strength phases of her workout sessions, going almost 45-60 minutes. this is almost inconceivable to younger athletes, who i know (i was one of them) generally bypass stretching altogether, because they often don't have the attention span or the understanding to grasp the importance of stretching in the warm-up, cool-down, or recovery process. stretching helps in flushing out toxins, and also helps to restore elasticity in muscle and connective tissue that often become taut from the trauma of workouts (and really, that's what a workout is: a process of inflicting trauma on tissues so that the body's recuperative systems are incited to regenerate and grow to adapt the body's tissues to accommodate the trauma being placed upon it). flushing out toxins and restoring elasticity are necessary to speed up the rebuilding process and ensure it does so in a way that builds strength through a range of motion (i.e., in a way that builds functional strength)
  • more massage--again, she doesn't skimp on this. this is part of the stretching routine, but i'm listing it separately since the articles indicate she pays for masseuses separately from her stretching therapists. massages do roughly the same thing as stretching: flush out toxins and restore elasticity in the muscles. but they can go much deeper into the muscle and connective tissue than stretching can, and so can be much more effective. in addition, they can target specific problem areas, and so can be much better at treating individual trouble spots.
observation #4: nutrition

she is faithful to her nutrition plan. as any doctor and most sports scientists will tell you: garbage in, garbage out. the articles don't describe her nutrition in any detail, but i'm willing to bet it has a good ratio of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. and i'm willing to bet there's no fried chicken or pancakes or potato chips or BBQ or ice cream or cheesecake or cookies or pie. nutrition should not be a surprise to any athlete--particularly anyone who does Ironman, where it's almost a necessity just to make sure you actually finish. but it's surprising just how many athletes i know blatantly ignore nutrition guidelines under the reasoning that they're bulletproof invincible gods of physical perfection with bodies that can metabolize anything on this planet (or any other) with absolutely no consequences on race day. well guess what? maybe it's true when you're 18. but as you get older the margin of error starts to get a whole lot smaller, and any deviation from a good nutrition plan starts to make itself much more apparent--on your body, and in your performance. and at 41, you either stick with the nutrition plan and keep yourself in the competition for race day, or you don't and pay the price of failure. your choice.

i'll finish by saying a lot of the above observations are ones that i've also gotten from other articles and other sources (reference my comments regarding Bernard Lagat, a middle distance runner now in his mid-30s and going to his 3rd Olympics, in my post: coaching (and training) different--you'll see his coach is exercising many of the same principles illustrated by Dara Torres), and are ones that i've started to experience in my own life and hear about from the lives of other athletes. at 41 you just can't train the same way you did when you were 21--your body is different, you are different, and so you need different training methods more in keeping with what you are now (as opposed to what you were 20 years ago).

can your body still perform at age? well, looking at Dara Torres, the answer is yes. and she's not the only exemplar--just go to any Ironman and look at the ages of people racing, and then check and see how fast some of the older racers are relative to their younger competitors (you'd be surprised). your body can still perform at just have to train in a way that helps it do so--you have to train at age.

can your body perform better at age? i'll let the following speak for themselves (note: this chart came from the 1st NY Times article listed at the start of this post, and which was written in 2007 when she was 40...obviously, she's now 41):

Torres Is Getting Older, but Swimming Faster
New York Times
Karen Crouse
November 18, 2007

Correction Appended

Dara Torres, the fastest female swimmer in America, plunged toward the bottom of the pool, like a child scavenging for coins. She came up for a breath, grinning. The lanes next to hers pulsed with swimmers pushing themselves through 100- and 200-meter timed sprints, but Torres was under orders from her coach to rest, the better to let her 40-year-old body recover.

It was a Friday, the end of another unorthodox training week for Torres, a four-time Olympian who is doing less in the water to wring more results out of a swimming career that was supposed to have run dry by now.

Her day had begun just after dawn in the weight room, where she worked her legs until they quivered and her arms until they ached — without pressing a weight or lifting a dumbbell. The 90-minute workout was the first leg of her training triathlon. It was followed by 90 minutes of swimming and 60 minutes of stretching.

Torres’s training is cutting edge so that her personal pharmacy does not have to be. A nine-time Olympic medalist who made her first Olympic team in 1984, Torres is at a short-course meet in Berlin this weekend, representing the United States in the freestyle sprints in her last competition of the year. She has the 2008 Summer Games in her sights after winning the 100 freestyle and setting a United States record in the 50 freestyle at the national championships in August.

In a one-lap race, where personal bests are typically whittled by hundredths of a second, Torres’s progression is astounding. Her age adds to the intrigue. What she is doing would be akin to Roger Clemens’s throwing a fastball harder now, at 45, than he did 20 years ago or goaltender Ed Belfour’s coming out of retirement at 42 to post his career-best save percentage.

“I think what Dara’s doing is fantastic,” said Gary Hall Sr., who was 25 and considered ancient — his teammates nicknamed him the Old Man and the Sea — when he swam in his third Olympics in 1976. “It proves that we really don’t know what the peak age of performance is.”

For every person who marvels at Torres’s motor, there are others who wonder what kind of fuel she is putting in her tank. It is the nature of a sport that lost its squeaky-clean image long ago. Beginning in the late 1960s with East Germany’s state-supported doping program and continuing through the 1990s with a rash of failed drug tests by the Chinese, the pool has turned into a breeding ground for skeptics, suspicion and cynicism.

“Behind my back people are saying I must be using something,” Torres said. “I know it. I hear it.”

She has been tested for performance-enhancing drugs more than half a dozen times this year, and the results have been negative, said Mark Schubert, the national team’s coach and general manager. At Torres’s request, her blood is being drawn regularly so she can be tested for illegal substances like human growth hormone that cannot be detected in urine.

“My attitude is, bring it on,” Torres said. “Do what you have to do to prove I’m clean.”

Torres has ridden the wave of popular opinion from crest to crash. In 1994, she was the first athlete to appear alongside supermodels in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, her face instantly recognizable as belonging to the golden girl who graced the American 4x100 freestyle relay team that beat the big, bad East Germans at the 1992 Olympics and bettered their world record.

In 2000, when she returned to the sport after a six-year layoff and won five medals at the Sydney Olympics, Torres became the face of innuendo, her success grist for the rumor mill. The rumors troubled Michael Lohberg, the coach at Coral Springs Swim Club in Florida. While working with West German swimmers in the 1980s, Lohberg saw how destructive steroid use could be to the health of the users and the emotional well-being of their pursuers who were clean.

One swimmer he worked with was Birgit Schulz, an individual medley specialist who later became his wife. At the 1986 world championships, Schulz placed sixth in the 200 individual medley. Four of the finishers ahead of her were from Eastern bloc nations where steroid use was considered rampant.

Seeing her frustration crystallized Lohberg’s stance on performance-enhancing drugs: he did not condone them and would not coach anyone who used them.

In late 2005, while pregnant with her first child, Torres began swimming three or four times a week at the Coral Springs Aquatic Complex, where Lohberg’s club is based. After giving birth to her daughter, Tessa Grace, in April 2006, Torres raced in two masters meets and posted times that were competitive with the world’s elite swimmers, emboldening her to try another comeback. She asked Lohberg if he would coach her, and he sat her down to have The Talk.

He asked Torres if she had ever used performance-enhancing drugs. “For myself, I needed to have this clear before we started anything,” Lohberg said.

Torres recalled, “I said, ‘Why do you ask that?’ and he said, ‘Because that’s what everybody was talking about on the deck in Sydney.’”

She assured Lohberg that she would never use drugs. After they began working together, he saw no reason to doubt her.

“Technically, she’s brilliant,” Lohberg said.

“And Dara wants to be perfect,” he added. “She’s very conscientious.”

People who know her say it is ludicrous to suspect Torres of doping. If she is guilty of anything, her friends say, it is of being a compulsive exerciser.

“I don’t think she has ever been out of shape a day in her life,” said Schubert, who coached Torres in the late 1980s. “I think that’s what makes this possible and conceivable.”

At the Olympic trials next June in Omaha, dozens will compete for two berths in Torres’s best events, the 50 and 100 freestyles. When Torres won her 14th and 15th national titles this summer, she became a feel-good story for baby boomers and a bad omen for their freestyle-sprinting progeny.

Rumors that she is doping are hurtful, Torres said, “but in another way it’s sort of a compliment.” It tells her that younger competitors perceive her not as a relic but as a real threat.

Torres works in the water five times a week, down from 10 to 12 water workouts in her teens and 20s.

“My body definitely takes longer to recover,” she said. “I have my good days when I feel like I’m 20, and then I have my days when I can’t lift my arms out of the water.”

The cost of being a middle-age champion can be steep, but she can afford it. Torres enlisted Bloomberg L.P., Toyota and Speedo as sponsors to help defray her training expenses. She estimated that she would spend about $100,000 this year on her support staff.

In addition to Lohberg, Torres employs a sprint coach, Chris Jackson; a strength and conditioning coach, Andy O’Brien, who also oversees her diet; two full-time personal stretchers, Steve Sierra and Anne Tierney; a physical therapist; a masseuse; and a nanny. She also leans heavily on her boyfriend, David Hoffman, an obstetrician who is Tessa’s father.

Most days, Sierra and Tierney are waiting for Torres at her suburban Fort Lauderdale home when she is finished swimming. They twist and pull her torso and limbs in a vigorous resistance stretching routine that eases her body’s recovery by flushing out toxins and lactic acid.

“People can say I’m on drugs or whatever, but they are really my secret weapon,” Torres said, referring to Sierra’s and Tierney’s torturous routine.

O’Brien, who is on the staff of the N.H.L.’s Florida Panthers, said, “Dara’s really gone a step ahead of other athletes in terms of taking care of her body.”

He began working with Torres last November, introducing her to an ever-evolving regimen that encompasses Swiss balls, medicine balls, bands and resistance cables. The goal of her four 90-minute strength sessions each week is to stimulate her nervous system and strengthen her core muscles through a variety of multijoint movements.

The results have been striking. Torres’s muscles have grown longer and leaner, with the exception of those in her back and shoulders, which have thickened. She carries 150 pounds on her 6-foot frame, down from 160 in 2000. Her reaction time off the blocks has improved, and she is more efficient in the water.

“Over all, she got a lot fitter,” Lohberg said, adding, “and she’s more balanced in the water.”

One of O’Brien’s longtime clients is Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ star center. For all their differences, the 20-year-old Crosby and Torres are remarkably alike, O’Brien said. Crosby becomes nervous when he is given a new exercise or task to complete because he does not want to fail.

“Dara’s the same way,” O’Brien said as he watched her complete a drill on the Swiss ball. “Even if it’s just her and a Swiss ball, there’s almost a little nervous energy before she tries something new.”

He added, “Dara reminds me of the student who’s worried she’s going to fail the test and then gets a 100.”

Days before leaving for Berlin, Torres asked Lohberg to critique her flip turn. Never mind that she has done hundreds of thousands of turns over the years. In Torres’s mind, there is always room for improvement. Yesterday in Berlin, she twice lowered the United States record in the 50 freestyle on a course that is rarely contested here, venturing further into uncharted waters.

Correction: November 21, 2007

A sports article on Sunday about the swimmer Dara Torres, a four-time Olympian who is thriving at age 40 with the help of a rigorous training program, misidentified one of her sponsors. It is Bloomberg L.P., not the company’s Bloomberg News division. Because of an editing error, the text with an accompanying chart referred incorrectly to the time frame in which Torres had her personal-best performance in the 100-meter freestyle. As the statistics in the chart noted, it was in 2000 — not “recently.”


Anonymous said...

The amino acid complex Dara has been taking is now available in the United States!!

Trihardist said...

Superhuman, in intelligence and forward-thinking-ness as well as sheer athleticism.

Excellent research work, JL.

Anonymous said...

Dara Torres receives barefoot deep tissue massage on a daily basis, and she is returning to the Olympics at the age of 41! This is the easiest modality to learn and perform, yet it provides profoundly satisfying results.
Books, videos, information and training by 1984 Olympic Therapist John Harris is available at

Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing compiling this info. You saved me a lot of time. Now, to actually do it!

Ron, Tucson

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this site! My daughter is a competitive swimmer who does well and is capable of doing better. I weightlifted for five years a decade ago and regret letting that go. (My trainer left the country to work in an international school. He had included both core training and resistance stretching in my routines.) After reading this info both my daughter and I are going to work together in improving our sports performances. Thanks!