In it for the long haul
I was a golfer long before I became a runner. During my 20s, playing golf was just about my only exercise. I walked and carried my bag whenever I could, but by the last few holes I would be tired, my feet and lower back would throb, and my game would inevitably deteriorate. I once took a golf-buddies trip to Ireland, playing 36 holes a day for four days straight, and I really thought I might not make it back home.
I laugh about it now, but at the time, for a guy in his late 20s who had played high-school sports, it was disheartening. I took up running for reasons that had nothing to do with golf. At 30, I was recently divorced and had a family history of high blood pressure and cholesterol. Running was cathartic, and I liked the way I looked and felt as I progressed. As my fitness improved, I began noticing a surprising benefit to my golf game: I was energized toward the end of rounds, and my feet and back no longer hurt. I also began playing better and hitting the ball farther. My handicap dropped from 18 to 13, and I started winning more matches against my friends and co-workers. I'm telling you, having a bounce in your step coming down the stretch of a close match is an advantage when your opponent is waning. I'm 44 now, and I can say becoming a runner is one of the best decisions I ever made. It was a lot of work in the beginning, but my quality of life and overall fitness were worth it. Not to mention it really helped my golf game. —Alan P. Pittman
It's all about inching your way to the top
It doesn't have to be badass. The archives of modern snow pornography—reel after reel of skiers hurtling off cliffs into the chutes and powder fields of remote, highly avalanche-prone peaks—make us forget that backcountry skiing's original heyday in this country was in the 1930s. With wooden skis and leather heel straps, adventurous types found mellow downhill opportunities in hiking trails, logging roads and streambeds. Then chairlifts were invented, and soon skiing would largely come to mean buying an obscenely priced ticket to wait in line to be mechanically transported to the same spot, over and over like a twisted, freezing version of Groundhog Day, to battle your way down a trail as paved and chaotic as the interstate you drove to the mountain that morning.
How long until it's golf season again?
As a Northeasterner forced to put the clubs away in winter, luckily my love of skiing has renewed since I got my first touring setup. The key pieces are bindings that can lock or unlock the heel, and climbing skins, which are synthetic strips that stick to the base of the ski and have angled fibers that grip the snow. Together, these pieces allow you to essentially cross-country-ski uphill. You never get cold and the workout to your thighs and ass can't be overstated. The steeper the grade, the heavier your skis and boots become. If there's one thing I've learned from my time inside the ropes at PGA Tour events, it's that the world's best golfers (see Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods) tend to sport incredibly thick posteriors. So as I make my slow ascent, steadily slogging the elevation for what will probably be my only run of the day, the notion that I'm getting stronger for golf keeps me moving.
But the best training benefit, I think, is psychological. Setting out into the wilderness you're allowed no break from good judgment. Triple bogeys out here are serious, even fatal. The same attributes that backcountry skiing develops—self-reliance, anticipation of hazards, strong nerves and humility—travel well in tournament golf.
And just like golf, most important is the company you keep. Whether it's Vermont or Alaska, it's going to be a long day, so make sure you're with people you like. Unless everyone is really trustworthy, a fivesome feels like one too many.
The upside of mixing things up
Golf requires us to be different kinds of athletes. It demands power off the tee, precision from the fairways and finesse on and around the greens. It's also a stop-and-go sport, offering periods of serenity with moments of intense pressure, and it forces us to stay in the moment. The worst thing a golfer can do is cling to that three-putt double or fear the water hole ahead.
For those reasons, I train for and compete in triathlons to sharpen my game off the course. Instead of just swimming or just cycling or just running, triathlons make me strive to become a master of three sports and to seamlessly transition from being one kind of athlete to another. In doing so, I'm constantly tricking my body, never letting it get comfortable or complacent.
As soon as I find my groove in the bike saddle, for example, I become a runner. Similarly, right after hitting a ball as far down the fairway as possible, my next shot is generally about accuracy, not about power. And since each of the three sports in a triathlon requires a different level of strength and tension, training for triathlons helps me master the technique of activating certain parts of my physical and mental strength while neutralizing others. While swimming, for example, my upper body is far more physically active than my lower body, and I let my mind wander. While biking, my lower body is fully engaged and I force myself to focus on my surroundings.
Lastly, since triathlons take three to six hours to finish (depending on whether I'm competing in at an Olympic distance or a half Ironman), I have no choice but to stay in the moment. The journey of a triathlon would be spoiled if I spent all those hours thinking about the finish line. The journey on a golf course, too, is best experienced one shot at a time.
Taking pleasure from the pain
I was first drawn to CrossFit by friends who bragged about how it beat them into submission. In no other world would this be an effective sales pitch. You should go to this restaurant. I got so sick there!
But I got it with CrossFit. The hour-long classes have a way of inflicting intense discomfort in a "Why did I ever sign up for this?" sort of fashion. Yet when it's over, there is a profound sense of accomplishment—even euphoria—that you came out the other side in one piece.
I should mention that when I signed up for my first sessions last March, golf wasn't the first consideration. I suspected getting stronger could help my game, but as I was set to turn 40, this was really more a way to counter the encroaching reality of middle age.
If only in my mind, I believe it's helping. A typical CrossFit class features some type of weightlifting discipline—cleans, snatches, squats—where I rank slightly above pathetic. I tend to fare better in the high intensity interval Workout of the Day, or "WOD", where you're often forced to perform a grueling series of exercises like pull-ups, burpees and squats in quick succession. I don't go every day because time is short and it's not cheap (my CrossFit "box" in Norwalk, Conn., is $185 a month for unlimited classes). But I've applied enough of CrossFit's principles into my at-home workouts that it's put me in better shape than ever.
The direct benefits are apparent in a sport like ice hockey, another one of my passions, both in my improved endurance and in winning battles for the puck with other players. But in golf, the gains are subtle. I'm not necessarily hitting it farther. But I'm more stable over the ball, which allows for a better turn and helps to counter an occasional hook. I'm better equipped to advance the ball out of heavy rough, and can happily walk 18 holes with a bag on my shoulder without fatiguing. More important is I don't feel like a guy who just turned 40. For an exercise regimen that beats the crap out of me, it's at least helping to massage my ego. —Sam Weinman
When every second counts
Our fearless editor asked me to write about mountain biking versus golf, which obviously led me to thinking about mountain biking versus road biking. But hold tight. I'll get to golf in a sentence or two.
When I'm on my road bike, I tend to space out a bit. There isn't as much to pay attention to immediately around me. (Except for cars. Always pay attention to cars.) The pavement is predictable. I just get into a zone and pedal. When I'm on the mountain bike—well, that's a whole different story. I pretty much go into survival mode: All of the focus is on the two feet in front of me. Root, rock, salamander, tree, cliff—it's about picking the best line possible—and staying on the bike. That singleness of focus and attention to minutia is the same mental state that is necessary to play decent golf.
Mountain biking teaches me how to take an activity that is going to take a long time and focus on every individual second. At the end, I can look back and see all of these little moments—that good outside to inside line around that banked corner, the quick redirecting of the bike to avoid a front tire-rock collision—and see how if you put all those little things together, I've got a full, successful ride. It's the same deal on the golf course: I've learned that I play my best golf when I experience the round as a series of shots, not as a full round (or, as a number). I'm trying to be successful in the little moments, so that the round as a whole can be successful.
Also the cardio is awesome, I'm pretty sure holding onto the handle bars makes my hands/forearms stronger, and riding makes my quads ginormous. Not quite Jack Nicklaus status. Yet. —Keely Levins
Turning up the heat
I've always thought of working out as a form of torture. After all, who would submit themselves to that kind of pain without the carrot of looking marginally better dangling over them?
I almost never work out, but I decided to give Bikram Yoga a try. Why not? A friend of mine who plays the mini-tours swears by it, and I've heard rumors of Tiger Woods being a Bikram Yogi when he was at Stanford.
Bikram Yoga is a series of 26 different yoga postures done in a room that hovers just above 100 degrees. The heat is supposed to help you sweat out toxins. The stretches are designed around your spine. As a golfer, that all sounds pretty appealing.
Needless to say, Bikram Yoga is hard. Really, really hard. Especially at first. From the second you walk into that room, the heat, and the thought of exercising in it for 90 minutes, totally owns you. But it's a steep learning curve that levels out quickly.
The series of movements, the heat, the breathing, the timing; it all stays the same no matter how often you do it. It becomes a routine, a cleansing disconnect from the madness outside. I felt more flexible, and that I didn't need to sleep as much.
The thing with Bikram Yoga is that it requires a lot of buy-in from the person doing it—you can't pop in for a quick session like you can outside for a short run. Sessions are always 90 minutes. Factor-in travel to and from the location, and the inevitable shower after, and you're talking about a more than two-hour commitment every time you do it.
But that buy-in does have positives. If you know you have Bikram Yoga in the morning, for example, that third beer starts to look a lot less appealing. You end up drinking more water and eating healthier because if you don't, that heat will punish you for it. You start choosing to adopt a better lifestyle because the alternative just isn't worth it anymore.
In all, I do think Bikram Yoga can help your golf, but probably not as much as it helps improve your general lifestyle. If your sole purpose is improving your game, there are plenty of golf-specific workout plans you should opt for instead. Bikram Yoga is the choice for someone intent on turning over a new leaf, on and off the course. —Luke Kerr-Dineen
Maximizing your strokes
A fitness expert said once that the best gym machines are the ones no one is using. Like the rowing machine at my local Y. Unlike the (mind-numbing) stair climbers or treadmills, it's usually free and it promises what the expert promoted: workout balance. Legs, arms, back, abs strengthened, extension and endurance required. Gotta' help your golf game, right? Gaining a few seconds on your "split" time—your speed over a 250-meter stretch—is akin to shaving decimals off your handicap. Just that easy.
I met my first "erg" when I joined the local rowing club's indoor winter program to find out what my son's sport was about. The following spring, like a range rat transitioning to the golf course, I tried rowing on the water. Oh boy. Think of that first downhill/sidehill shot of the day compared to the swings you took on the perfectly flat range matt. But on every stroke. Balance, tempo, timing are big. (So is light grip pressure, believe it or not.)
I've stayed with rowing, on and off, for three reasons. 1.) I'm terrible at it, and I don't tend to stick with things I'm terrible at. So it's good for me, I guess. 2.) Rowing on the water, especially at those moments when you and your fellow boat mates are in sync, feeling the "shell" glide under you (which happens about as often as with your golf swing) is exhilarating. 3.) I love the people who do it.
Early in the morning we row out of an industrial stretch along the Norwalk River, past the barges and the fishing-boat docks, under the I-95 bridge, to the Long Island Sound, often just as the sun's coming up. It's hard work, but also the perfect way to launch a day. You may have read The Boys in the Boat or watched rowing in the Olympics, heard that rowing's the most brutal of all endurance sports. All true for the Olympians. But not for you. Rowing is fun. —Bob Carney