Training Environments

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Next to finding the right coach, finding the right place to train is one of the most important considerations for an athlete. Without the right facilities and/or the right atmosphere, an athlete’s career can come to a standstill or at least not progress as fast as it should.

Part of the problem is mental: if athletes don’t feel comfortable where they live and train, they’re not going to perform at their best.

There are a number of factors to consider when picking a training location.

  1. Availability.

    Some sports require specialized facilities/locations; when those training sites are not widely available, choices are limited. Example:

    * Lugers, bobsledders, and long track speedskaters have relatively few options in North America. Currently there are only three bobsled and luge tracks: Lake Placid, New York; Calgary, Alberta, Canada; and Winter Sports Park, Utah. And there are only four long track ice skating rinks: Lake Placid; Calgary; West Allis, Wisconsin; and Kearns, Utah.

  2. Quality.

    Even when there are lots of place to train, they may not be equally good. Examples:

    * There are a number of ski areas in North America, but the Rockies have become the mountains of choice for many skiers because the snow is plentiful and powdery and because the terrain is challenging.

    * There are many places in the U.S. to surf, but the biggest waves are usually found in California and Hawaii.

  3. Weather.

    Weather plays a role in location choice. How much of a role depends on the requirements of the sport and the needs of the athlete.

    For outdoor sports, weather is a big factor. While covered practice areas offer flexibility for some outdoor sports, they are of little use for others (e.g., marathon running, golf, skiing). As a rule, outdoor athletes tend to gravitate to areas where the weather and climate facilitate long training seasons (e.g., Florida for tennis and golf, Colorado and Utah for skiing).

    For indoor or short-season sports, weather can be more easily accommodated. But it can still play a significant role in the mental health of an athlete. Someone who hates rain won’t be happy training in the Northwest Pacific; someone who hates cold and snow won’t be happy training in New England.

    In addition, weather may be a consideration for athletes with health issues such as allergies or asthma.

    Not all athletes, however, avoid poor weather conditions. Examples:

    * Lynn Jennings (three-time world cross country champion and bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics) lives in New Hampshire. “In New England the weather is usually bad four days out of the week. I run during thunderstorms, ice storms, snowstorms, rainstorms and hurricanes.
    “Pushing myself through the physical barriers of weather has given me mental strength.”(1)

    * Kareem Street-Thompson, a world class sprinter and long jumper who trains in Houston (along with many other top track and field athletes), said this about the heat there. “It absolutely wears you out. But that’s good. Every day is a rebuilding process and over a few months, you just get stronger than you would if you were not in these hot, humid conditions.
    “You can’t beat the training environment. And you sure can’t beat the heat.” (2)

  4. Altitude.

    While many athletes are not particularly concerned with high altitude training, some, such as runners and cyclists, are very interested in it.

    At present there is still no agreement among trainers and researchers about altitude training. Some say full-time high altitude training is beneficial. Some say the benefits are temporary and evaporate quickly at lower elevations. Still others believe some combination of high and low altitude training is the most productive.

    “We think we know a few things about the process. One is that it benefits athletes in endurance events more than it does sprinters. Another is that within that group it benefits some athletes more than others. A third is that its main benefits occur during a fairly brief period,” according to J. Richard Coast, director of the Northern Arizona University’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex exercise laboratory, situated at 7000 feet in the Arizona mountains. (3)

    Not every athlete believes in high altitude training. Examples:

    * Runner Jim Ryun (who set records in the 880, mile, and 1500 meters in the late 1960s) said that altitude training works only in some situations. “I know altitude is a positive factor if you’re going to race at altitude. You have to train in it. But I’m not a real strong believer in the thinking that you can gain a tremendous long-term advantage by going to altitude.” (4)
    (Note: Jay T. Kearney, Senior Sports Physiologist at the United States Olympic Committee, said this in reference to the above information. “In the summer that Jim Ryan broke the world record he was alternating training in Alamosa, Colorado, clearly altitude, and doing sea-level training. He was a subject in a well controled reasearch study at the time.”)

    * Jud Crawford (a gold medalist in the 100-meter breaststroke and 400-meter medley relay at the 1993 World University Games) left U.S. Swimming’s resident national team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs (altitude 6035 feet), where all his living expenses were paid, to move back to sea level. “It was an extremely difficult decision. I will no longer have the financial support like I did with the resident team, but I feel that I need to train at sea level to realize my dreams.” (5)

    The latest theory is that athletes should live at high altitudes and train at lower ones (“living high and training low”). This way the body will make more red blood cells to compensate for the lack of oxygen when it is resting at high altitudes and it will reach a higher degree of aerobic fitness due to the extra oxygen it takes in during exercise at lower altitudes.

    According to Dr. Igor Gamow, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Colorado, studies have shown that 1) even short stays at higher elevations (four-hour stays at 8,000 feet or higher) will result in increased production of red blood cells and 2) runners living at high altitude and training at a lower one improved their performance more than those not changing altitude.

    Gamow developed a sleep chamber for athletes to use at night to simulate high altitude conditions. This allows them to live and train at sea level, but sleep in high altitude conditions.

    (Note: Kearney of the USOC said this in reference to the above information. “Igor Gamow has no data to base his claims of effacacy of the chamber on increasing EPO output. There is one obscure rat study that ‘suggests’ what he claims.”)

    In 1993 another researcher, Heikki Rusko, developed a similar device (called “altitude housing”) that has been used by Finnish athletes. (6)

    The U.S. cycling team used a less experimental way to live high, train low in preparation for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Each day they trained outdoors in Colorado Springs. Then they moved indoors at the Olympic Training Center to work out on stationary bikes while breathing from oxygen tanks which simulated sea level conditions. Then they moved to even higher elevations at night to sleep. (7)

  5. Sportsmass.

    Some locations are extremely popular for training because of the sheer number of athletes and support services there. Example:

    * Boulder, Colorado has become home to a significant number of runners, cyclists, and rock climbers. Said German runner Uta Pippig (best known for winning the Boston Marathon in 1994, 1995, and 1996) who lives and trains much of the year there, “It’s a nice atmosphere in Boulder, so many good runners here. You can feel the city is a sports city, and it’s like a little paradise. I really use these conditions to have success in sport. It’s a kind of symbiosis between the runners and the people.” (8)
    “What’s really great is being around people who understand running.” (9)

    * Derek Hersey (a free-solo climber from England) also moved to Boulder and lived there for 10 years until his death from a climbing accident in 1993. “The social aspect of climbing is very important. In Boulder you can go out and climb hard all day and then come back and drink just as hard with other climbers and with people who understand what it’s all about. That’s the sort of people you want to be with, don’t you?” (10)

    * Stan Mavis (a runner and president of the athletic-wear company, Pearl Izumi) explained why he moved to Boulder. “Boulder people look at running as a career. If I went back to Indiana [where he’s from] they’d say, ‘Why don’t you get a real job?’ They wouldn’t realize that you had this potential that you probably weren’t going to reach until after you were out of college.” (11)

    * Aaron Blondeau (a member of the University of Colorado track team who participated in the 1998 Cross Country World Championships) said, “I think it’s definitely to our benefit to train with senior runners as well as teammates at CU. Boulder has such an excellent climate for running and there’s the altitude training. You really can feel the benefits on our Sunday runs. We probably have 20 to 25 runners to work with each Sunday.” (12)

    * Marc Davis, another runner who participated in 1998 Cross Country World Championships (he was also a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team) explained why he trains in Boulder. “The idea is that if you want to be a racehorse, you should train with racehorses. A lot of other countries train their distance teams together. The idea is to encourage and push each other to become better.
    “It’s really a perfect location. [The Sunday group] started with a couple of phone calls. I think everybody was itching to get together. We realize that it’s not us against each other. We have to become a better team of runners in world competition.” (13)

    The process whereby an area becomes a major training center often starts when a well-known athlete likes the place, moves there, has continuing competitive success, and spreads the word to his or her friends. They come to visit and some of them decide to stay permanently. Said runner Arturo Barrios (who move to Boulder in 1986 and who set a world record for the 10,000 meters in 1989), “It only takes one person to succeed, then others follow. If somebody you know wins, it must be OK.” (14)

    When enough athletes move there to train, an industry develops around them. Retailers open up specialty shops. Service providers (e.g., physical therapists, sports physicians, trainers, sports psychologists) set up practices. Entrepreneurs establish equipment companies. Eventually the area becomes a headquarters for the sport.

    There are good reasons for an athlete to consider moving to one of these sports centers. Not only will they find a wealth of services geared to their needs, but they will also be able to stay abreast of their sport and their competitors. And if they need part-time jobs to fund their training, they’re going to find a sympathetic community. Example:

    * Marathoner Frank Shorter was the athlete who established Boulder’s reputation as a great training location. His track coach at Yale suggested he move there because it had mountain trails and was only one of two places in the U.S. at that time with an indoor track above 5,000 feet. Shorter relocated in 1970 and won the Olympic marathon in 1972. After that he attended the University of Florida Law School and lived part-time in Gainesville. Upon getting his degree, he moved to Boulder permanently in 1975, opened up a chain of runner’s apparel stores, continued to train, and won the 1976 Olympic marathon silver medal.
    Shorter’s company provided jobs to many runners who moved to Boulder. In 1984, 24 members of the Frank Shorter Racing Team qualified for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.
    Boulder has gotten such a reputation as a sports center that a number of sports-related companies have relocated there including bicycle manufacturer Schwinn; the editorial offices for Ski, Skiing, and Freeze magazines; and ski film company Warren Miller Entertainment.

    On the downside, some athletes can become too involved in their sport in such a setting. Their training, their work, and their social life overlap or even become one in the same. Burnout can result.

    The solution: Don’t limit yourself to a small group of people. It’s important to have contacts outside your sport. Example:

    * Cyclist Jeanne Golay (who won medals at the 1992, 1993, and 1994 World Championships and was a member of the 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympic teams) chose to live and train in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, which is hours away from Boulder. “I like the fact that Glenwood isn’t Boulder. I don’t like Boulder’s big cycling scene. Glenwood is a real town.” (15)

  6. Educational and career opportunities.

    If you have a choice of training locations, you might as well choose the one which offers you the best preparation for life after sports. Even if doing anything else seems secondary to you at this time, you should give yourself the option to pursue other career paths when the time comes. Example:

    * Mark and Gwen Coogan are among America’s best distance runners. (She competed in the 10,000 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; he competed in the marathon at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.) In 1993 they moved from Boston to Boulder for two reasons: great training terrain and the University of Colorado’s math department, where Gwen is pursing a Ph.D.

    Some locations even offer programs specifically designed to accommodate athletes (e.g., special school schedules for athletes in high school, out-of-state tuition breaks for those in college). And local companies may offer sports-related internships. Example:

    * In 1992, LaGrange, Georgia was chosen to participate in Olympic Solidarity, an International Olympic Committee program set up to help athletes from developing countries. In addition to being given places to live and train, they have also received scholarships to LaGrange College and West Georgia Tech.

  7. Cost of living.

    A training location’s cost-of-living should matter to any athlete who isn’t making lots of money or who isn’t being subsidized. Unfortunately, some highly desirable locations come with hefty price tags. Example:

    * Tom Nohilly (in 1997 ranked second in the U.S. in the 3,000 meters and third in the steeplechase) lives and trains in New York City. He has two 400-meter tracks within two miles of his apartment. He has a job that allows him flexible time for training. “I enjoy training here. I have more availability of tracks than most athletes I know.” But, he noted, “The hard thing is the cost of living. That’s the main drawback of living here – it’s expensive.” (16)

    Remember–the more money that goes out for rent and other expenses, the less there may be for training expenses.

  8. Community size.

    Almost everyone has a preference when it comes to community size. Some of us like to live in big cities; some of us like to live in little towns. There are advantages and disadvantages to both as far as athletes are concerned.

    A small town can offer a good training environment because there are fewer distractions than in an urban area. Since there’s less to do, there is more opportunity to focus on training. But, on the other hand, some people find small towns boring.

    Privacy can be another issue. Big cities can be more impersonal, but also offer some anonymity. Small towns can be friendlier, but more of one’s lifestyle is on display. Example:

    * Cyclist Golay said this about Glenwood Springs (a town of 8,000), “When I made the Olympic team in ’92 they treated me as if I’d been born and raised here. People would honk when I was out training. They put up a banner at the supermarket and everyone signed it. … The mayor gave me a proclamation saying I was the most accomplished athlete ever to come from Glenwood, and the only Olympian. They even named a trail for me on Red Mountain. I feel that this is my home now.” (17)

    “It’s wonderful to be part of this town. To have a home and be connected. People recognize me at the post office.” (18)

    Author: Suzanne Lainson; Licensed content of Jobs In Sports.

    1 The Boston Globe, September 23, 1990.
    2 The Houston Chronicle, June 2, 1996.
    3 The Wall Street Journal, February 16, 1996.
    4 The Denver Post, April 29, 1995.
    5 (Colorado Springs) Gazette-Telegraph, September 17, 1995.
    6 Rocky Mountain News, May 24, 1992; (Colorado Springs) Gazette-Telegraph, May 19, 1992; The New York Times, January 7, 1998.
    7 Denver Post, September 16, 1995.
    8 Rocky Mountain News, May 29, 1994.
    9 The Denver Post, July 14, 1996.
    10 Rocky Mountain News, November 10, 1991.
    11 The Denver Post, July 14, 1996.
    12 The Denver Post, March 18, 1998.
    13 The Denver Post, March 18, 1998.
    14 The Denver Post, July 14, 1996.
    15 Bicycling, May, 1995.
    16 The New York Post, January 18, 1998.
    17 Bicycling, May, 1995.
    18 Rocky Mountain News, June 11, 1995.

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