For pole vaulter Alysha Newman, the sport fits her work ethic and drive perfectly.
Regardless of the preparation and training that leads to becoming a Canadian record holder and one of the best in the world, no two jumps are the same. Every time Alysha Newman takes off from the catwalk, it's a pursuit of perfection in technique, mind, body and execution.
A crucial component that separates top athletes from good ones is an innate mental makeup, and last year Newman spoke about her recovery from a concussion that shattered that confidence. She says the experience humbled her and allowed her to celebrate the small wins and find the excitement in the small details that can get tedious at this stage in her career. Her perspective has also changed into a version of herself.
"I think one thing that I had to persevere with was to literally not focus on what I was doing wrong, instead focus on the positive and my strengths," Newman said. “As you know from athletes, we have this schedule to be our best selves. I've worked on all my weaknesses and I've turned weaknesses into strengths, but this late in my career - I've probably got two more Olympics in me - there's no point trying to fix that , because I already have the habits. w let's focus on what I'm great at.”
To be a great pole vaulter you have to be good at many additional disciplines, and Alysha Newman spoke to Muscle & Fitness about all that goes into breaking world record heights.
Courtesy of Alysha Newman
The making of an Olympic pole vaulter
At the beginning you have to be a good sprinter. You have to be fast, but it's like a head-to-toe thing. A lot of gymnasts become pole vaulters just because we get that body awareness at such a young age and can be aware in the air when you have the pole and connect your neck to the pole. Sprinting and running technique always comes first and goes into gymnastics, your body perception and physical strength. We're like an all-round athlete from head to toe. We do plyometrics, weightlifting, and all of our workouts are periodized. Every year we see the biggest gathering of the year - mine is usually in August - and we work backwards. We'll probably only peak three or four times a year and you'll be jumping the highest at those times, but the coach plans for that to happen at certain competitions. That's what's really unique about athletics. People always wonder why the best of the best don't always win or break world records. That's because you can't physically stay at that level in athletics for that long without getting injured. It's cool that our workouts are scheduled to culminate with good running form, balance, body awareness and strength about three times a year.
The basics to become a great pole vaulter
We do very long exercises. crunches or anything like that. It's head down rope climbing. We do pole rope climbing, wall bars, where you lie on your back and raise your legs, but we don't do hip grinds; we crunch our shoulders. When we talk about abdominal strength in pole vaulting, it literally goes from the chin to the pelvic region. So it's our lats, core, obliques and all that stuff that gets activated as we do core work. Another amazing thing we do is hold medicine balls over our heads and do a lot of hurdling. So, heavy weight overhead for strength and balance, and it activates the core as well.
As track and field athletes, we try to stay dynamic before and static after. Lots of jogging or cycling before exercise to get the muscles moving. I know some athletes like to do the contrast bath, but I've never been one to do it just because I like to feel elastic. I like when I'm training to be a little tighter because I want to feel a little resistance. I don't want to feel too good. I like to do a little warm-up—we call it gentle exercise. Arm swings, karaoke [running drill] and we do a lot of band work, also to open the joints. We usually end up doing about three to four 60- to 100-meter dashes just to get those legs moving. In Toronto we have this awesome twisty course so we do it like a downhill to get the feet moving as fast as possible before training.
I actually only do technique twice a week. The other four days are usually plyo, sprinting, tempo running, strength training, and med ball training. You don't always want to overtrain one thing. You have to adapt, be in different scenarios and situations to hit every single core muscle you need. I do watch movies, but I actually do pole vault work - I probably only do four to six hours a week out of my 30 hours of training.
Courtesy of Alysha Newman
For Alysha Newman, it's mostly mental
I think people think it's very physical and in pole vaulting for us it's often 90 percent mental. It means grabbing a higher and stiffer bar, being on top of these giant objects, and catapulting yourself against gravity. I think a lot of people underestimate literally taking a human body and flinging it over a bar. Even my coaches, who have never pole vaulted themselves, will say, “You are in such great shape. You look so good," but sometimes I'm just mentally drained. I think people often don't understand the connection between the brain and the body. Last year was a huge thing for me. I just couldn't make that connection to my body. I ran, lifted weights and was the strongest I've ever been - the lowest body fat percentage I've ever had and it was the worst year of my career. We call them "Monsters of Doubt". You have to be able to drop everything, put fear aside and be bigger than these doubt monsters.
With age comes wisdom
I think as an athlete you're often so competitive when you're on the track. It doesn't matter who you're with. I train with guys all the time and to this day I think I'm better than everyone else. But sometimes it's not about being number one in practice. It's knowing when to stop and when your body is at its limit and has enough for the day. For me, it was body conscious knowing that you might not have been completely satisfied, but your body was getting better. That was such a key component and that's why I do hypnotherapy because I really want to learn how to connect my mind to my body and know when enough is enough. The older I get, the less I have to put in those hours of hard work and it's more about rest, sleep, nutrition and grooming off the track. That's where you'll see those extra percentage gains by taking care of yourself off the track more than on it.
A day at the gym for Alysha Newman
I usually get to the track around 10 or 10:30. We all see each other and talk about what we're going to do, and then we go for a jog or a 10-minute bike ride every five minutes; it just depends on what day of the week it is. Then we move on to our general exercises. We do a lot of band work and then do our Xcels and then we head off to pole vault practice if it's pole vault day.
We do a lot of sleigh rides. We do a lot of boxing horse exercises. They have this huge box right in front of the pole vault pit and they're doing drills to avoid the run-up. You're just doing pole work on the actual pole. Then we go back and start working - just before you bend the bar - we call it a start. So you work on raising your arms, activating yourself and having fast feet at the start. Then they decide to see where you are energetically and we decide which pole you are going to that day. We're slowly working our way back to full approach and that's your competition length on the runway. We'll probably jump 12-15 times in a workout and then when everyone's happy or you can't do it anymore because you're mentally drained, we'll head out to do med ball drills, horizontal bar drills, giants , rope climbing, wall bars - we call them boopcas with the rings, so you swing upside down on the rings and we always end with a tempo run. It's not a 100 percent effort. It's about 60 to 70 percent with 100 meter walking in between. Then do a static stretch and head to some physio, treatment, or a massage conditioner. Sometimes I even do hypnotherapy right after.