I had my stereotype of sailors blown to the wind last week.
My limited experience with sailing and sailors gave me the impression that they didn't really have to be in great shape. After all, I've known way too many sailors who had pot bellies and used rum and cigarettes as their performance-enhancing drugs.
At the insistence of College of Charleston Director of Sailing Greg Fisher, I observed a workout last week and was surprised to see athletes with track star quadriceps knocking out multiple pull-ups with good form and going all out on interval training on stationary bikes.
Increasingly, sports that previously didn't see the benefits of top physical fitness are turning toward workouts tailored specifically to their sport.
Tiger Woods was the ambassador of physical fitness and sport-specific training for golfers.
And this past summer, NASCAR competitors Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kane proved they were fast off the racetrack as well when participating at the Charleston Sprint Triathlon Series. Photos of Johnson and Kane, who finished in the top quarter of the field, showed they had lean bodies with shredded muscle.
Same goes for most of the college's sailing team.
Fisher says the team, which won the prestigious Leonard M. Fowle Trophy for collegiate sailing last June, benefited last year from fitness programs developed by a new trainer.
Daniel Williams, 25, started working at the college 13 months ago as the assistant director of sports performance with several teams, including the baseball, softball, equestrian and track teams along with sailing.
"I didn't know anything about sailing before coming into this job," admits Williams, noting that he read Fisher's book, "Sailboat Racing With Greg Fisher," as a starting point.
But unlike other trainers the team had, Williams actually went out to watch sailing practices and even sailed himself in order to come up with focused, sport-specific team workouts.
"Ninety percent of strength coaches probably wouldn't take sailing seriously. These kids deserve the best that I could give them, and I think it's an interesting sport with its own unique set of demands," says Williams.
Notably, Williams recognized the demands on the core muscle groups and shoulders from long periods of holding the "hike" position, or leaning off the edge of the sailboat to balance it.
He worked in the "GHD (glute ham device) hollow hold" exercise, which focuses on core strength and endurance, that was similar to the hike, only without the benefit of holding a rope. The hollow hold, he added, has been used by gymnasts for decades to develop core strength.
"This (the GHD hollow hold) is harder than what they do on the boat, so they don't fatigue as quickly while competing," says Williams.
Williams says one of the results of having worked with the sailing team for a year already is that they came back this summer fitter than they were from the previous summer.
"This is a very antsy group," says Williams. "I started off this year with a basic, baseline workout, and these kids wanted to do more. They've been working all summer and were ready for tougher workouts."
Sailing team co-captain Sarah Somes of Grosse Pointe, Mich., already knew the benefits of being fitter than other sailors. She ran cross-country in high school and had a fitness edge while sailing. Yet she never had a fitness program tailored to benefit her sailing.
"It's a huge benefit," says Somes, a senior. "I'm able to push through the whole day, and you can tell when your competitors are tiring."
Co-captain Brooks Clark of Newport Beach, Calif., says the training not only helps the team physically but mentally because fatigue doesn't play as much of a factor in decision-making.
Though Fisher is a veteran in the sport of sailing, he has never worked with a trainer who fine-tuned a program and motivated the team as well as Williams has for the college.
"He's a great asset for our school," says Fisher. "He does a tremendous job of motivating the team. It's rare for team members to miss a group workout."
Besides fitness and a mental edge, the workouts bring the team together in ways that they wouldn't otherwise.
"Not only are team members in separate boats, but they are racing against each other. These workouts are an opportunity for the team to come together as one and support each other."