Case Study: From Surgery to Ironman 70.3 on 10 weeks training

I’ve never highlighted the results achieved by a member of the Sparta ‘family’ before.

But Barbara Hughes’ recent result calls for it.

‘Barb’ is a 38 year old, mother of 3 who took up triathlons only 3 years ago.

A State level swimmer as a child, she gave it up in her teenage years and only returned to it over 20 years later after a serious back injury, which saw her gain 30 kilograms due to medication and forced inactivity, required her to make the tough decision to give up her nursing career (which weight she has since lost).

Everyone who knows Barb is well aware that she is a bundle of light and energy.

She has been a valued member of the Sparta family since she started coming to our Thursday night group training session on a regular basis about 15 months ago.

The problem

 Earlier this year, Barb discovered a lump in her abdomen which was soon diagnosed as a hernia.

Given that she had entered Ironman Australia in May next year (which will be her 1st Ironman), Barb made the decision to have the surgery sooner rather than later.

April wasn’t an option for surgery as Barb was due to participate in a 6 day, nearly 1000km ride from Sydney to Melbourne as a fundraiser for the charity she helped to create (the Cycling Cerebellums).

That meant the next available opportunity for surgery was May, leaving her only 13 weeks from surgery to recover and then train for the Yeppoon 70.3 race.

Barb unfortunately DNF’d the same race last year after being pulled from the water in the swim leg due to sea sickness so finishing this year’s race was particularly important to her ~


Our mission

Shortly before her surgery in May, Barb asked for my help to get back to full strength (or to near to it as is possible in the circumstances) so that she could race – and finish – the Ironman 70.3 within the 7 hour 30min cut-off.

So what did we do?

First, listen to her medical advice of course!

No exercise for the 1st week and then gentle walking only for another 2 weeks until her doctor’s appointment 3 weeks after surgery.

3 weeks after surgery (and with only 10 weeks until race day), Barb got the ok from the doctor to resume easy body weight only exercises as well as core exercises (but no abdominal crunches or sit-ups) for another 3 weeks. So during this 3 week period, we started Barb with:

  • some basic core activation drills.With her history of back troubles, a strong core is particularly important for Barb.These simple drills were designed to get her activating her (underlying) core again which was essential before we commenced any exercises which engaged her superficial abdominal (6 pack) muscles (which had been cut during surgery).
  • mobilisers for her upper back, shoulders and hips all of which had become tighter and more restricted due to a lack of activity in the months since her big ride and especially after surgery.

Closer to the 6 week mark post-surgery, we slowly introduced some simple bodyweight exercises (push-ups, squats, single leg balance drills and others) designed to work on her hip stability and strength, essential for running strongly and without injury.

6 weeks after surgery – and with only 7 weeks until race day – Barb got the all-clear to resume exercise. So we immediately started a weekly training schedule of:

  • 2 x short (15-20 min) strength and conditioning circuits each week including a mixture of 3-dimensional pure strength exercises specifically chosen to ensure that we engaged as much of her system as possible;
  • 1 session of additional core exercises which increased in duration, intensity and difficulty as the weeks progressed; and
  • 1 x 60 minute personal training session each week where we focused on the key elements – building leg and arm strength, overall fitness and (of course) core strength.

Barb also returned to our weekly group training session at this point.

As for her swim / bike / run training, Barb will be the first to admit that it was rather limited.

She has a great ‘engine’, having been a competitive swimmer as a child and having recently completed the charity ride.  But her longest ride between April and race day in August was (only) 50kms and her longest run between the surgery and 70.3 race was a 10km fun run in Sydney.

Recognising that someone’s mental and emotional state is as important (if not more so) than their physical one, we set and achieved small wins and improvements on a weekly basis, discussed her expectations on race day and planned a run/walk strategy, helping to keep her positive, confident and moving forward towards her goals.

It is a tribute to her that despite her lack of swim and run training this year, she remained confident, positive and hopeful throughout the whole journey. At no moment did any doubts as to whether she’d be able to finish the race (appear to) sneak in.

And the result?

See for yourself.

The smile says it all.

While she isn’t quite back to full fitness, she is now back to full pre-surgery strength – so mission accomplished!

Lessons learned

For me, it was a reminder of the power that an (appropriate) strength and conditioning program can have for an endurance athlete (not that I really needed reminding!)

Barb’s longest training session was a 90 minute ride yet she had the physical and mental strength to complete and event that was 4 times longer.

It’s not just about hours spent on the bike, weekly running mileage or the number of squats and crunches you can do.

It’s choosing exercises, intensity and structure with your specific issues and end goal in mind. And doing so in a way that produces a physically, mentally and emotionally strong athlete.

Far too often I see people working with coaches and trainers who simply wear them down into the ground and call it ‘character building’.

It was also a reminder of the power of belief.

Confidence is a crucial ingredient in success in all aspects of life. Being physically strong means nothing if a person is too exhausted or their head isn’t in the right place on race day. This ‘mindset of success’ is perfectly described by Prof Tim Noakes in his recent TEDtalk .

I asked Barb what lessons she learnt through this process. In her own words –

Firstly I would just like to say a HUGE thank you to Jen. Without your constant  positivity, encouragement and friendship I truly believe I would have struggled. You really got into my and helped me believe in myself and my ability. Thank you.

Secondly, I always knew I had a dodgy core – years of ignoring it had really paid its price. What I have found with your program and classes is that I didn’t need the constant smashing of my abs to get a strong core. I needed those gentle focused and precise ones to help target the root of all my back issues. And whilst I’m still not great I am a whole heap better than I was.  As I sit and write this I am trying to actively engage my core – something I now know and have a new found respect for.

Thirdly, I am so looking forward to my IM journey with Sparta. I am going to be fit and ready. Mentally amd physically. Bring it on.

Bring it on indeed 🙂

[ois skin=”Blog posts (Macca) v1 “]