James Cracknell change

James Cracknell in the boat race: Behind the scenes with injury, innovation and inner voice (pt 2)

“We couldn’t think about what James couldn’t do, we had to think differently about what he could do.”
Catch up on part one of this blog, outlining the size of the task ahead, until injury struck.
We’d just got going with some specific interval training on the ergometer to target VO2max, using short interval/rest ratios, such as 15s on, 15s off for 10-20mins, which was met with “I’ve never done anything like that before and I can really feel it”, from James. I’d also got James building the weight training, as muscle, strength and power, were the biggest focus. Here the balance was to progress quickly without James getting too sore.
The rib had started to get tender and I’d begun to adapt some of the sessions towards cycling on the Wattbike, with some sprint interval sessions.
Then on 25th Sept,
“My rib has thrown up a curveball but the good thing is that it’s not cracked. In fact the D6/D7 intercostal vertebral joint had popped out. About to try the erg and should be back in the boat tomorrow. Will let you know how it goes”
“So I have a modified Wattbike session for you that is a hybrid based on your rib, mixing ergo and bike to avoid loading too much on the thorax.”
The next week or so, James kept trying to row on the water and the ergo but it just seemed to aggravate the rib and cause back spasms. For several weeks through October we were back and forth on a daily basis, between James, Rob Baker (Head Coach), Milosz (the Cambridge physio and conditioning coach), trying numerous combinations of training;
  • Extended Wattbike sessions
  • Sprint interval Wattbike sessions
  • All-out 30-60s Wattbike sprints
  • Leg press to load the legs without too much compression
  • Tank rowing to try out the rib
  • Row-perfect to ease loading on the rib
James was keeping the hope alive of performing in the 2k at the British Ergo champs on 10/11/18 and 5k on 1/12/18, where all the emphasis was on proving his worth and competitiveness for a place in the boat. Unfortunately, the rib didn’t heal with this mix of rowing, cycling and weights.
Injury strikes
Then on 24/10/18
“There was an illness today so I subbed into a 4- but it set the rib back a fair bit I think. Erg and bike were good this morning and hope it will have eased off by tomorrow but pretty pissed off.”
And on 30/10/18;
“Saw a doc and the rib is cracked. I reckon I’m yours until Dec. No erg for a few weeks so hit me up big. I reckon good to go by Dec so Rob might say no boat until Dec. By then I can hit weights and erg. So for tomorrow load me up on the bike.”
The problem was that by this point the gains coming from cycling were beginning to plateau and there was some concern that stooping over a bike wasn’t the best for the rib. The issue was about minimising any loading through the thorax, so;
  • no ergo
  • no rowing
  • no leg press
  • no deadlift
  • no bench press
  • no bench pull
  • no pull downs
  • limited cycling!
Inner voice
This was one of the low points for James and would prove mentally a hard few months ahead, as the inner voice is full of doubts, questions, uncertainty, surrounded by others fully fit progressing, unifying as a team in the boat, while James was solo in the boat club doing his modified training. James expressed this several times about whether it was worth it, he just couldn’t see his rib healing, being competitive in the time frame.
What do you do in this circumstance, when your options for climbing are severely limited, when the route you wanted to take gets shut down, along with a hundred other routes, when the mountain top appears to get higher and higher and everyone is climbing steadily but you’re slipping back?
Innovation focus
The answer is to do what you can. We couldn’t think about what James couldn’t do, we had to think differently about what he could do.
  • No rowing, no ergo, no Rowperfect = Wattbike, cross-trainer
  • Limited Wattbike, cross-trainer doesn’t challenge enough at the top end = uphill treadmill walking with dumbbells progressing to running
  • No leg press = leg extension and leg curl
  • No bench press or bench pull = upright row, bent over fly, cable cross overs, dumbbell curls, wrist curls, tricep extension
  • No deadlift or squatting = back extension
  • No hanging leg lifts = plank
The alternatives weren’t ideal by a long shot, but they were the best we had and allowed us to attack James’ fitness from every conceivable angle. They also offered variety, we could progress them, challenge James and this empowered his efforts. He could challenge his drive into the sessions, feel the discomfort of the exercise, be challenged in ways that made him feel weak, but that he quickly adapted to and became strong. In the meantime, the positive action, progressions weren’t confined to the training;
  • Maximise recovery
  • Optimise nutrition
  • Prioritise sleep
  • Optimise pre-performance routine for when he needs to be competitive, optimised warm-up, supplements, breathing training, pacing strategy!
  • Break studying into 20 mins blocks to prevent back aching from long periods of writing
Through this, James missed the milestones, the 2k ergo, the 5k ergo the fours head race and this was difficult for him to cope with. He effectively trained solo through all of November and December with my crazy ideas and plans and sadistic training, taken with huge faith that it will all add up. James made the flight to the Banyoles training camp in early January, where he supplemented his training with additional mobility to keep his back and movement flexible. He got sight of the goal opening up as he began to trial in the 2 seat, requiring him to be lighter and more dynamic (cue further tweaks, e.g. selected fasted training and powerful movements). He eventually won the seat-racing and barring further injury (cue a phase of reminders to make sure he was investing in additional stretching and mobility, extra sets of weights to nudge the strength along, keep doing the basics brilliantly), he would be in the boat. Not only that, but leadership and influence on those around him. In the words of the CUBC president
“He brings the fire. He brings the kind of intensity you only read about. You just know James is always going and it makes you think, ‘well I better be going too.’ And the factors that made him a really good rower are all still there. It just carries through into everything he does. His toughness, his tenacity. He dealt with injury earlier in the year, but he has just stayed incredibly focused. His ambition is that this club is 100% ready come race day.” – Dara Alizadeh
Driven by purpose
And so today at 46 James competes, but he does so much more than this – he inspires. We have to remember why James is doing this. He’s studying human evolution in order to better inform his guidance for government policy for encouraging active lifestyle to combat metabolic diseases such as diabetes. He’s also doing this to aspire to a goal comfortably outside his reach, to show that it’s never too late to try. He is committed to a purpose that is beyond 30s reps, 1.5k repetitions, 5k tests, seats in a boat, the race itself – the goal is bigger than him and his endeavours.
So if you’ve ever contemplated something then quickly dismissed it on account of it being too challenging or for fear of not hitting your goal, channel your inner James and give it a Crack.

If you enjoyed this blog then you might like my Applied Pro Physiology course, taking many of the principles I’ve demonstrated here and showing you how to put them into practice with the athletes and coaches you’re working with.

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