My first strongman Competition – a chat with Jess Riddell

You competed at your first strongman competition in February this year, how was the experience for you?

It was my first strength event – so I was quite nervous leading up to it and unsure of what to expect – it’s a big change moving from Ironman triathlons where you’re on your own for hours versus having a coach right beside you all day.

It was really fun! Much tougher on my body than I had anticipated – I was very thankful to have a great coaching team there on the day to keep me focused when I needed to be and laughing between events – the support crew were epic too!

 

How did you get into strongman to start with?

Atlas Stones!!! I’d been eyeing them off since I stated my training in Powerlifting at Panthers.  I’ve been bugging my coach, Col to let me try them pretty much since my first week of training and with the Strongman comp being held at Panthers I finally got my chance! It was pretty epic to finally pick up the 72kg stone on comp day.

 

 

For all our readers, who aren’t proficient in the differences, could you briefly explain the differences between strongman and powerlifting? And the differences between strongman and crossfit?

Cruel to ask a beginner in both Powerlifting and Strongman to answer that!! Powerlifting is Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift.  Strongman has about 20 different events – with 6 being combined for the event I competed in.  Powerlifting (at least for me so far) is far more technical. Crossfit is a whole different world!

 

So what’s the next competition for you?

In May – I’m competing in my first Powerlifting competition.

What does your training schedule look like at the moment leading into competition?

Col is great at making sure my training is still fun despite any competitions looming – I use one day a week for Strongman training and have 2 focused Powerlifting sessions a week. On top of this I run 2 days a week and train with an exercise physiologist once – so I train 6 days a week most weeks.

In terms of what my specific training blocks looks like – I leave that to Col, in an effort to step back from over-training and always train to a plan, I don’t get my programs in advance, so I have a great life – I just turn up at training and lift, I literally never know what’s coming.  For a control freak who’s trying to reform, it’s taken some getting used to!!

 

I know you have a heart condition, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), can you give us a better understanding of what that is, and what it means for your day-to-day life?

It comes under the Dysautonomia umbrella and it means my autonomic system no longer works the way it should – really simply the autonomic system controls all the automatic responses in your body, so the things your body does without you having to think about them – like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, swallowing, temperature control etc.  It means for me things such as my heart rate is really high (especially when I exercise), and I have to closely manage fatigue.  Thankfully I’m not much of a fainter, but it’s a typical side effect of the condition.

Day-to-day I have my POTS really well managed – but it’s taken 2.5 years to get back to a level of fitness where I can compete again.  It’s not that fun to tap out of training (or work) when my POTS flares up and it usually means a few weeks of rest and limited training, if any. I’m very thankful that I have the level of support I do around me, it makes it possible for me to train and compete again and they are pretty quick to notice the signs if my POTS is starting to flare up. I’m fairly structured in terms of diet, exercise, medication and work and this helps me keep my POTS symptoms managed. Finding this right balance took a long time – which was frustrating! I still have to remind myself frequently that I have a limited pool of energy, so I need to choose well what I spend it on – I don’t recover as quickly as a “normal” person, so if I push too hard one day, it will likely mean I miss training tomorrow.

 

How does POTS affect your training schedule?

The reality of POTS is tough – I went from racing Ironman Triathlon to nothing in a matter of weeks – I was that fatigued, so when I was diagnosed and started what became my “new normal” of living with POTS I started from a pretty low exercise tolerance, it took a long time to rebuild back to where I am today – there was about 12 months of riding a stationary bike in the early days, for a maximum of 20 minutes, 3 times a week.  It took me 97 weeks from diagnosis to get back to running 10kms (you bet I counted and hounded my team to reach that milestone – I might also be a little determined!).  That 10km race and the medal from it mean more to me than I can explain, it might seem a little strange to cherish a fluro pink medal more than an ironman one – but I always took my health for granted before and while the training for my ironman races was hard, it was nothing compared to what it took to get back to running 10kms.

These days, the impact of POTS for me? For one – it means I have an epic team around me, without whom I couldn’t do what I do in terms of training or competing – they make all of this possible (which isn’t just a shameless plug!) I’ve worked with my EP Dan since the week I was diagnosed, so he’s literally put me back together as a functioning human and works to keep me there along with a team of other allied health people (I swear the list is growing, but to give you some perspective: Physio, dietician, sports psych, massage, my heart team and coach make up the regulars who all communicate freely to keep me healthy.)

From a training perspective, POTS means there’s always a level of flexibility built in to my sessions to allow for how I’m feeling on the day.  I also had to learn to speak up and admit when I’m struggling with fatigue. I’m fairly stubborn so that’s been a tough lesson to learn – I’ve almost dropped multiple bars on my head before admitting I was cooked!  Luckily both Col and Dan are great at saving me from both dropping bars on my head and myself when I don’t admit I’m struggling.

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