I remember the feeling of getting accepted to Boston College as if it were yesterday. I had come home from high school sailing practice and found a big envelope waiting for me on the counter. I rushed into the bathroom and locked the door so I could open the letter in
solitude. In reading the opening lines, a big smile emerged on my face. Not only would I be receiving a college education, but I was also going to be competing in college sailing events, something I had wanted since I started sailing the Optimist. No one, however, had ever told me how physically demanding college sailing would be.
Since a young age, my coaches have always drilled into my head that fitness is what separates elite sailors from average sailors. As a Laser Radial sailor and a member of the U.S. Sailing Team during high school, there were fitness expectations that we were held to. Looking back at the summer before my freshman year, I had thought that because I had gym-training background and I was an active Radial sailor, I would be just fine. I was wrong.
College sailing events are different from other regattas. There aren’t only two or three races a day; every weekend there is a competition with as many as 18 races over two days. That’s a ton of racing, but there’s also practicing four days a week. The drain can become problematic without the proper fitness and endurance. Additionally, the grueling cold New England climate brings breezy Nor’easters in spring, and somehow they always seem to coincide perfectly with weekend regattas. The true test of personal accomplishment is when you can say that handling 18 races in 20 to 30 knots in 35-degree weather is easy. This is a feat that even some second-semester seniors have difficulty stating they have fully mastered.
Thinking back to areas I could have focused on in the gym, two muscle groups stand out. First, quadriceps strength is everything in a boat with a hiking strap. I remember team racing during my freshman year and having to hold a pin on someone in windy conditions. I bent my knees and rested for five seconds, and in that time, I lost my grip on my pair, and my team lost the race. That disappointment of letting the team down is something I still cannot erase from my mind, and it drives me to push myself at every workout today.
Core strength is another important area of focus. Your core allows you to extend your body far away from the boat while protecting your back from injury. If I had honed these two areas, I would have enhanced my fitness and instead would have had a fonder memory of winning with my teammates.
As important as leg and core strength are, it’s also crucial to go to the gym with an effective plan and an efficient mentality. For example, in the beginning of my college career, I would show up to the gym and do the exercises that our trainer laid out for us. I would push myself and make gains here and there, but as time progressed, I realized I wasn’t making the necessary advancements to be in national-championship form. In order to take control of the goals I had set for myself, I sat down with my trainer, and we came up with a plan to get me in better hiking shape. We programmed certain exercises into my training that I would have to go the extra mile and complete outside of team workouts. I saw the most improvements in my strength with exercises like cleans and front and back squats. These exercises focus on raw power that would help me efficiently hike the first two minutes off the starting line.
Once I had the power, the next focus was on endurance, which would get me through the rest of the upwind leg. There are plenty of cross-training exercises I’ve found useful for hiking endurance over the years. Rowing, cycling, running and swimming are at the top of my list for cardio. Always mixing it up and changing the exercise from day to day has helped me activate more muscle groups and keeps me from getting bored of the same thing.
Cardio is an important part of college sailing when you know you’re going to have to endure long 18-race days on the water every weekend. Additionally, with programming in short high-intensity workouts, I saw tremendous progress in my hiking ability. These kinds of workouts really focus on getting your heart rate up for a short amount of time. The all-out effort you put into them builds up lactic acid, and your body experiences pain. After weeks of high-intensity training, I found I was able to endure pain longer than I have had before.
When pushing yourself to your physical limits, your body is bound to get sore. Stretching and yoga are useful tools that protect your body from injury and lengthen muscle groups. As an athlete, I find that my body performs at its best when I stretch before and after physical activity. The areas I really try to focus on are the muscles hit hard by hiking. I will allot more time for my quads and hip flexors because they’re constantly activated in the boat during windy conditions. As a second-semester senior, I can now look back and realize that even with all the training and fitness progress I have made while in college, many of these gains could have been knocked out in high school. If I could go back, I would be sure to set up a fitness program that would emphasize hiking strength and endurance. It’s hard to admit, but there are plenty of moments in my youth where time was wasted and championships were lost due to lack of fitness. So the best advice I can give to every incoming freshman is to come in more fit than you think you need to be and be willing to work, but also have fun. Erika Reineke, a member of the U.S. Sailing Team, is the 2017 Quantum Women’s Sailor of the Year.