Can I get a pole vaulter's physique without a pole and the limbo stick thingie?
August 25, 2008 1:29 PM   Subscribe

Without actually pole vaulting, how would I, a woman who is a marathon runner, approach a closer approximation of the pole vaulter physique?

I admit it - I was totally inspired by the Olympics, especially by the women pole vaulters. I have Googled "pole vaulter physique" and similar keyword combinations but the results were, ah, not always SFW.

I am a female who runs ~2 marathons a year - about 40-50 miles per week - and I only occasionally cross train with half-hearted attempts at weight lifting. I'm 5'3" and about 110, but am definitely not cut/ripped like the pole vaulter ladies. I would describe my fat distribution as "proportional" rather than either pear- or apple-shaped So, without a pole vault, and without quitting my job, is there anything I can do to get closer to their breathtaking fitness? I have seen the debates here regarding "abs are made in the kitchen vs. made in the gym" (though I'm not solely talking about abs) and wondered if anyone had any experience either (a) obtaining a pole vaulter's physique or (b) training someone else to do so.

The diet question: Lots of veggies and mostly lean meats; very few carbs; a gallon of water a day. I do drink beer several times a week but it does not seem to make me gain weight (though I know there is controversy regarding the abdominal effect of said beer). Oh, I eat lots of almonds as well. I appear to be eating plenty of calories, as I do not lose weight when my mileage increases. Also, I'm mid-30's.

Thanks to anyone who has insight into this question.
posted by Punctual to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I suspect most of what you're seeing us upper-body muscle mass (which may not actually help you run marathons, but looks dead sexy.) Up your protein/cals a bit if you need to and do more upper-body weightlifting!
posted by restless_nomad at 1:40 PM on August 25, 2008

Pole vaulting requires a lot of raw, explosive strength. Pole vaulters would do weight training, plyometrics, speed work, stuff that burns fat and produces strong, functional musculature.

Marathon training, I'm sorry to say, is about the exact OPPOSITE of what you want to do. Long, slow, distance cardio is the enemy of building muscle. It's not going to produce the hormonal response you need and will actually eat away at the muscles you want to build the explosive power (and cut physique). Look at top marathoners, and top pole vaulters and sprinters and other athletes whose sports are essentially bursts of movement. Their training regimens and sports are very different and do very different things to their bodies.

If you are serious about getting a pole-vaulters body, you need to train more like a pole vaulter. Cut out the long runs and throw in sprinting. Get yourself to a gym and do some weight training. Not isolation movements like bicep curls, do functional strength training. Buy a copy of "Starting Strength," read it cover-to-cover, and then do the beginner's program. You won't bulk up, I promise you, but you will get shitloads stronger and will build the muscle that is the heart of the physique you want.

Then try a program like Crossfit, whose core is fast, explosive workouts. Start with the scaled workouts and make sure you pay attention to how the exercises are done. Or look up Tabata intervales and high intensity interval training (HIIT).

Abs ARE made in the kitchen, as in to get as "cut" (i.e. low body fat) as a pole-vaulter you need to eat clean. It seems you are. But abs are a muscle. And if you don't train to build muscles, no amount of clean eating is going to magically make them appear.
posted by schroedinger at 2:00 PM on August 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'll let someone else tackle the details of how to sculpt your body. But I would point out that, with everyone at the elite level already doing everything they can with their training and diet, it boils down to physical talent (i.e. genetics). Slow-twitch types will excel at marathons, and the fast-twitch types will excel at athletics. All have to be lean and limber, but in different ways.
posted by randomstriker at 2:00 PM on August 25, 2008

Second the upper body muscle mass, as that's probably what you're missing. If you're a marathoner and are largely training distance, perhaps mix it up and run one night of sprints and incorporate pull-ups/pushups, etc? Many of the tracks in my area have a set of bars for pull-ups right next to them. If you have access to a gym and regularly go, working in pull-ups (or lat pull-downs, to start) and push-ups will definitely start building up your arms, back and chest.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 2:02 PM on August 25, 2008

Yeah, upper-body weight lifting is what you need to add. Also keep in mind that elite pole vaulters are not 5-foot-3, so YMMV. Yelena Isinbayeva is 5-9, Stacy Dragila is 5-7, and they're both considered short for pole vaulters.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:05 PM on August 25, 2008

Get your bodyfat down to a point where it starts to affect your hormone levels.
Hit the weights, hard.
ad nauseum.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:10 PM on August 25, 2008

Get your bodyfat down to a point where it starts to affect your hormone levels.

I was wondering about this as I watched the Olympics, too. Is it pretty much a given that any female athlete competing in the Olympics likely does not menstruate? They seem to have body fat levels that rival those of the men in most cases. (pile-on question, sorry)
posted by peep at 2:22 PM on August 25, 2008

pushups, pullups and handstands.
posted by gnutron at 2:25 PM on August 25, 2008

Is it pretty much a given that any female athlete competing in the Olympics likely does not menstruate? They seem to have body fat levels that rival those of the men in most cases.

It depends on the event. Distance runners and gymnasts are likely to suffer from amenorrhea. Shot putters, not so much. And even then, it's certainly not a given.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:27 PM on August 25, 2008

Response by poster: peep, I was wondering about the hormone levels and the relation to body fat several posters mentioned and have since been obsessively Googling this relationship. I believe they are talking about HGH - human growth hormone - that is released with HIIT? I think if a woman is <10% or so body fat, she does not menstruate. Not sure about the Olympians but agree with your assessment that their levels appear similar to the male atheletes.
posted by Punctual at 2:30 PM on August 25, 2008

pushups, pullups and handstands.

Really? I thought it was more like "squats, lifts, and presses". The Stumptious Weight Training site is linked to all the time, and it has been incredibly helpful for my own mental resistance to weight training.
posted by muddgirl at 2:30 PM on August 25, 2008

As others have stated above, more upper body weight training. However, some people (likely the olympians you admire) do have a genetic advantage when it come to building muscle. I've got a long and lean runner's build and could weight train for months without adding bulk, but I've got soccer teammates who don't lift because they build muscle rapidly and don't like how it looks (apparently a lot of women who do build muscle don't like it). My noodle arms are envious.
posted by emd3737 at 2:35 PM on August 25, 2008

Best answer: ahhh! conflicting advice abounds!

Okay, let's break this up:

1) I wouldn't say Marathon cardio is the "worst enemy of muscle-building". There's nothing inherently wrong with running for a long time, you're just going to burn a lot of calories doing it.

2) The reason you don't see much weight loss when you increase your mileage is that running marathon miles, as a whole, doesn't burn that many calories. Maybe 100 calories a mile. You increase your mileage by 10 for a week? that's a 1000 calories, almost 1/3 of a pound. That's also 5 beers.

3) As others have alluded to, to get that physique, you have to build mass and lower your body fat percentage. There are two ways to do this:

a) lost body fat. This is the more annoying way. eating clean (which you are already doing to a 80% extent), and counting calories.

b) building muscle. yay! for option b, you get to eat more. To build muscle, your body needs EXCESS calories. this is really hard for people to understand. If your weight is constant, and you go lift a ton, and your diet stays the same, you won't put on any mass! you have to eat good, clean protein calories.

you're also going to have to start lifting. with weights. Don't worry about CrossFit. It's not ideal for this purpose. regular weight training is an easier, more effective way to put on muscle mass than CrossFit, though Crossfit does a good job of getting people in shape.

You're a marathon runner, and you're not going to want to give that up. You also don't have a lot of time, since you're running 40 - 50 miles a week. So this is what I would do:

Divide a year into Marathon Season and Pole Vaulting Season. (this is what I do, except I don't call it pole vaulting season). Marathon Season, which starts now, puts you on track to run your two marathons, one in Nov/Dec, and another in February/March.

After marathon season ends, don't run 50 miles a week. Run 15 - 20. You can still do a 10 mile long run every week so you don't lose the long distance legs, which leaves you 5 - 10 miles a week to work on getting faster. Here you do 100 m interval sprints. 200 m sprints. fartleks. You're not running as much, but you're getting faster! You're anaerobically working your legs. This will also help your marathon times, so it won't be all for nothing!

In the remaining time (the other free time you've saved from not running the additional 20 to 30 miles a week), LIFT. Don't do isolation exercises. Do squats, deadlifts, bench presses. Those compound exercises everyone talks about. Use as much weight as you can do, aim for 5 - 8 reps, try to keep increasing the weight. Don't do low weight/high reps and don't be one of those girls in the gym doing bicep curls with 5 lb dumbbells.

I hope this helps. Personally, I like the women high jumpers more. That russian girl who got 2nd place? hubba hubba!
posted by unexpected at 2:52 PM on August 25, 2008 [8 favorites]

unexpected said it quite well. Be aggressive - seek higher poundages (while maintaining good form) rather than higher reps. Think strength and power, not endurance, though endurance is your strong suit.

In a past AskMe answer I wrote, "What kind of exercises = bang for the buck? Here they are, in order of most important. Squats, deadlifts, bench presses, rows, overhead presses."

Do not neglect those lifts. Spread them out, in quantities of 4-6 sets of 4-8 heavy repetitions, over the course of the week. After 2-3 months, consider doing your presses twice a week. Consider squatting twice a week.

Keeping those basic compound lifts in your repertoire is critical in the steady production of natural growth hormones in the body, and that is absolutely what you need to kickstart and maintain the rate of muscle growth you're looking for.

And we're not talking getting so big it's "gross". You may be much better informed than 99% of people, so I'm not saying it's you - but those 99% tend to think that implementing aggressive, heavy lifting will skip right over "toned" and "lean" and throw you straight into "beefcake" territory. Not so. You will simply reach your goals much faster than the million-rep curl monkeys you see in the gym each day.
posted by crunch buttsteak at 12:52 PM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Unexpected wrote a good post, with one exception. Crossfit is a fine program to put on mass, if that is your goal. Crossfit includes lots of: cleans, squats, deadlifts, bench, overhead pressing, and gymnastic movements. If one is eating to gain weight on the crossfit program, putting on muscle is not a problem.

If you don't believe me, google pics of Greg Amundson. He is a crossfit trainer, and a big, strong guy. There are plenty of other examples of big crossfitters.

If crossfit doesn't synch up with your marathon training well, or you don't like it, no problem. It is definitely not the only program out there. But it is a good program, and I just wanted to point out that crossfit and gaining muscle are not mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it.

Lastly, crunch buttsteak is correct as usual. I would add Pullups and Dips to his list of 'bang for buck' exercises, but otherwise, great post.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 5:47 PM on August 26, 2008

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