Bill Brangiforte WOW: Fitness, Aging and Sunfish Racing

Posted September 01, 2011

Although I am not big on New Year’s resolutions, this year I made one. I wanted to do everything possible to prepare for the North Americans in Barrington. I decided this preparation would include three things: On the water training, fitness training and education. Since it would be two months before we would be sailing again, I decided to focus on the last two first. For this WOW, I want to discuss some learning experiences on fitness. The other two are subjects for future WOWs.

After dealing with endless snowstorms in January, I finally started working out in Feb. One week later, I broke my shoulder. I was really bummed out, realizing it would be months before I could get in the gym or sail. However, as in other occurrences in life, when something bad happens, there is often something good that comes from it. In this case, the silver lining was an education on staying in shape while getting older. After pouting for awhile and letting the shoulder heal, I decided to try some physical therapy. The P.T. guys were great (one was a sailor) and set up a program to get me back on the water ASAP. I also read a great book by Former Laser world champion Michael Blackburn, called Sail Fitter. This is a summary of what I learned.

The most important muscles used in singlehanded sailing are the quads (front of leg), core (abs and lower back) and biceps. The lower quads are the main muscle supporting the body when hiking. These can be strengthened by standard gym exercises like leg extensions, lunges and squats (instead of me trying to explain any exercises, it would be best to go to YouTube and see the proper form.) For more sailing specific work, make a hiking bench or try my new favorite- sitting on a balance ball while locking your feet under a weight rack. After your toes are locked under the rack, slide back on your hamstrings and do crunches- this is the best sailing exercise ever, since it works your core at the same time.

Another great exercise for the legs is bike riding. Not only is bike riding great for your legs, it is even better for your cardiovascular system. We all know how important that is, particularly as we get older, but you would be surprised how much it helps your sailing. Having good cardio endurance helps keep your head in the game during a long race, or back to back races. Gisele talked me into getting a spinning bike this winter. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but I have come to really enjoy it. We get the DVDs that have 30 and 45 minute classes, and thanks to my competitiveness, I try very hard to keep up with the instructors in the videos. Of course, any kind of cardio work, such as running, biking, or the use of Elliptical machines, will improve your stamina, and thus your sailing.

Ok, now comes the warning! Any time you are working a muscle, like the quads, you must work the muscle on the other side of the body. In this case, the hamstring must get equal work. If you do not work the antagonist muscle, you will get a muscle imbalance. This is really bad, particularly for us older folks. You can do hamstring work by doing leg curls- either with a machine or balance ball.

Core work is easy and kind of fun. There are lots of ways to work the core and if you go to google, you see hundreds of examples. Again, make sure you work the lower back to oppose the abs. Having a strong core is very fast in moderate air, as it helps you to drive the boat through the waves and flatten it in the puffs.

The biceps, and particularly, the brachialis are the main sheeting muscles. These muscles can be strengthened by doing a bicep exercise called hammer curls. Be careful to balance bicep work with triceps work as well. The triceps can be worked with machines, free weights or even push-ups. My P.T. guys had me doing a lot of triceps work, since I also tore a biceps tendon, and they wanted me to strengthen the opposing muscle. I think working the triceps is really good for sailing, since it helps with steering upwind in waves.

Since I have so many problems with my arms (tendonitis in both elbows and a torn biceps tendon) they wanted me to learn a new way of sheeting. They wanted me to try sheeting underhand. I tried this and it just doesn’t work. They also had me doing a lot of upper back work, so that I would incorporate the lats into sheeting. This helped a little, but more importantly, had another affect. By strengthening your upper back, you improve your posture. Having good posture is fast! If you ask a top Laser how to go faster in breeze, he will tell you” it’s easy- just drop your shoulders”. In order to do this, you must have good posture. Another time when it is fast is in 5-10 kts, when you keep your shoulders outside of your butt , to keep the boat on a steady heel (more on this tech. in a later WOW) Posture improving exercises include – Lat pull downs, rows, and, most importantly, scapular abductions. I plan on doing these a lot from now on, as my posture is still bad.

Two other good exercises to help the aging sailor are wrist curls, using a wrist roller (I made one using a 1.25” dowel, an old Cunningham line and a 3lb. weight) and anything involving shoulder stabilization movements. The wrist roller strengthens the forearms, which helps with sheeting and helps prevent tennis elbow. The shoulder stabilization exercises also help with sheeting and rapid trimming at the leeward mark. More importantly, doing stabilization exercises helps prevent injury to our aging shoulders. I have noticed a trend in shoulder work; it seems like knowledgeable coaches and trainers are having their athletes doing more stabilization work and less bench and military presses- since these muscles are more for show, than actual work! I recently read Finn sailor Zach Railey does lots of stabilization work to improve his sheeting skills. If a big strong kid like Zach does them, it certainly encourages me to do the same.

I know this seems like a lot of stuff to do, especially with our busy lives. The way I justify it, is that it makes a real difference! It makes you a faster sailor, helps prevent injury, helps with daily activities, helps keep the doctor away and even makes you look better. It is really a good investment in time! Here are some tips to getting in workouts:

When I was preparing for the N.A.s, I was pressed for time, but determined to be in the best possible shape, so I set up the following plan:

  1. There would be no time to go to the gym- all workouts would be at home.
  2. Knowing that the spinning classes involved both leg work and Cardio; this was my first priority. I would do at least three classes a week. If there was extra time at night, I would do a 45 min. class, if it was busy night, I would sneak in a 30 min. class
  3. Two other nights a week I would do core work. One of these nights, I would ad Upper body (Shoulder stab. And arm work) on the other night, I would do legs. Each workout would take 30-40 mins. This routine allows plenty of rest between workouts, to allow the shoulders and legs time to recover.

While it is fun to go to the gym, all of the exercises mentioned here can be done at home. The best piece of equipment (next to the bike) is a stability ball. These balls are inexpensive and allow you to do dozens of challenging exercises. With the ball, a few light dumbbells, and a homemade wrist roller, you can do every exercise needed to strengthen your body for sailing. The best part is that it can all be done, in a short time, while watching TV or listening to music. Just be sure to start off easy and use light weights, particularly on shoulder exercises.

One final note, although I don’t want to sound like your mother, proper nutrition goes a long way when trying to stay healthy. Clean proteins, good complex carbs, such as oatmeal, and lots of fruits and veggies help you recover faster after exercise and fuel your muscles for the next workout. Personally, I find that the day after a leg work out, I can’t get enough food into me. While some foods may work better for some people than others, it is really worth taking nutrition into consideration, as it has a big affect on your health, and fitness.

Bill



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