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Changing Approaches to Get Off the Bench

By Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, CISSN on April 22, 2017, categorized in Endurance, Strength + Conditioning

Changing Approaches to Get Off the Bench

I have now spent over two decades in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people of all shapes, sizes and abilities achieve their fitness goals. Every single person I work with has their own personal aches, pains, and a story. Whenever they tell me they couldn’t do something because of these obstacles, I tell them about the boy on the bench.

The Boy on the Bench

As a young boy, I loved to run. It came easy to me. I was blessed with the genetics for it, both speed and endurance. Before school on the playground, during gym class, at recess and playing games around the neighborhood – I was always running. It brought me happiness, pure and simple.

Then, when I was nine years old, I began to experience pain whenever I ran. Crippling, debilitating pain. It presented in my entire lower legs: my shins, ankles and feet. I had just begun to play a handful of sports and came from a family of six boys where athletics were front and center, so this development was devastating.

A Life of Riding the Bench

Determined and strong-willed, however, I continued to play sports, but the pain continued as well. And it became progressively worse. At age ten I played on an elite soccer team that went on to win the state championships, yet I spent most of the season and the majority of the final game sitting quietly in pain on the bench.

In my teens I switched from soccer to football in the spring, but the change in sports made no difference. The more I ran, the more pain I experienced. In addition to the physical discomfort, the pain was now mental as well. I wanted to play. I wanted to run. I tried changing shoes, taping my ankles, wearing sports braces, but nothing helped.

Like my early years playing soccer, I spent the majority of my high-school football years riding the bench. Each summer I would participate in “Hell Week,” the two-week hard-core conditioning camp to prepare the football team for the upcoming season, and, by the final day, I could barely walk let alone run. I would then spend the rest of the season standing on the sidelines and sitting on the bench, playing an occasional play or two.

Time for a Different Approach

Unable to run but unwilling to give up my passion for exercise, I began to focus on what I could do instead of what I could not. So, while still in high school, I started lifting weights and working out religiously. I put together a simple home gym in the basement and began to read everything I could on strength training and conditioning. Lifting weights gave me the outlet I needed when running wasn’t an option.

During college and my twenties, I focused on strength training. A mix of free weights and machines, a typical guy “vanity” workout. But I missed running.

So I started back slowly. Very slowly. Short runs. Short races. I cross-trained. I continued with the strength training, but began focusing more on running-related lower-body workouts and core exercises. I read everything I could on strength and conditioning for runners, especially shin splints and issues of the lower extremities. After many months of slow, consistent, progressive training, the running-related pain that plagued my childhood slowly faded away.

Constantly Correcting Imbalances and Addressing Weaknesses

It would be great to say that my problems were solved, that I continued to run pain-free. Not true. As continued to run longer distances and more frequently, I experienced many of the common running-related issues. The difference was that now, as soon as the weaknesses and imbalances presented themselves, I identified and corrected them.

Fast forward to today: I have completed over 70 marathons, many under 3 hours, and even won a small marathon. I have done several ultra marathons including a 50-miler and a 36-mile run from sea level to the 10,000 foot summit of Haleakala on the island of Maui. I have completed 23 Ironman triathlons around the world, on six of the seven continents, along with the Ironman World Championships. I have written books about running.

But what is most important to me, much more than the number of races I have completed or personal best times, is that I am now running pain-free.

Identify what personal pains, aches and stories are obstacles in your path. Address them head-on and move forward. Having a modified goal is something you shouldn’t be ashamed of. Believe in yourself and you will get where you need to go.

What obstacles are you working through in your training?


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