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The Peak of Fitness

A small group of dedicated athletes tackle a challenging cycling trip through Italy's Dolomites.

The mountains are calling. The jagged and distinctive Dolomite range—part of the Italian Alps in northeastern Italy—features 90,000 acres of mountainous terrain, perfect for outdoor adventure enthusiasts from across the globe, including a dedicated group led by PJ O’Clair, owner of ClubXcel and Northeast Pilates Education Center and a cycling enthusiast.

O’Clair’s Functional Strength for Athletes (FSA) program helps “type A” participants—mostly cyclists and runners—train to reach new heights, quite literally! This year, 12 clients participated.

“We were scheduled for 6 days of riding; every day we would face sustained climbs with some steep (up to 14%) grades and approximately 6,000–10,000 feet of vertical,” says O’Clair. “This was not about mileage; it was about how many passes we would climb each day and how many feet/meters we would cover. In 6 days we did well over 35,000 feet of vertical and in high altitude of up to 10,000 feet.”

A little help from a friend. This wasn’t O’Clair’s first time building such a program, though this particular trip was the most extensive, she says. She felt confident crafting it because she’d previously received guidance from her friend Bill Fabrocini, PT, CSCS. Fabrocini, who has worked with pro cyclists like Lance Armstrong and Tejay van Garderen, helped her fine-tune prior training plans.

The first step was to determine riders’ baseline mobility. O’Clair used the Functional Movement Screen, which revealed that just about everyone needed to hinge and resist rotation better.

“It was truly just establishing functional patterns and getting them mobile,” she explains. “We did a lot of myofascial release using rollers for both the upper and lower body. We did loads of breath work, core work and pliability training; the goal was to get all parts to work fluidly.”

Ready for adventure. “The main body of the program is 12 weeks, done during the winter months, which in New England is our offseason from competing and racing,” says O’Clair. “This year I offered a 4-week preprogram in December based on mobility, myofascial release and core strength. Then, because our winter was extended this year, I offered a 4-week postprogram to keep people moving and ready for the great outdoors when weather permitted. So, in total, this year we did 20 weeks of training.”

Out of the 12 original participants, only three were able to make the trip to Italy. According to O’Clair, each of them felt ready and motivated to take on the arduous adventure.

“Our biggest challenges were hours in the saddle, sustained climbs, the altitude and, of course, sharing the road with the Italian drivers in their Ferraris and motorcycles,” she laughs.

Reaching new heights. “Being in it with my clients enhanced my understanding of what level of grit is necessary to climb one pass for 2.5–3 hours—it’s so much about breathing and focus. Yes, it requires glutes, quads and other muscle strength, but the mental game has to be there.”

The program’s participants noted some significant benefits.

“Being a competitive athlete, I have a tendency to overtrain,” says 65-year-old Terry Cowman. “This program is progressive in nature, from flexibility and awareness to explosive power and strength; it also has a high cardio component, maximizes range of motion and requires full-body effort.”

Sixty-five-year-old Freddy Cicerchia adds, “My goals were to become a stronger climber and cyclist and increase my overall strength and flexibility. I noticed this year specifically (I’ve done two other years with PJ) that my heart rate to power on the bike is about 7–8 beats lower! And the legs are definitely stronger in climbing.”

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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