Wellness: Training Tough Mudders

Whether working with a top athlete or a couch potato, South Hadley-based personal trainer Bill Chaffee likes to travel light, work hard and mix things up.

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Thursday, August 04, 2011
Photo By Tom Vannah
Bill Chaffee demonstrates an exercise that involves nothing more than two trees and the will to defy gravity.

When Amanda Abramson joined a dozen of her co-workers at a few of Saga Communications' local radio stations in plans to participate in the famously grueling Tough Mudder at Mount Snow in May—the 13-person team called itself the "Dirty Mudder Fudders"—she could have just taken her chances, relied on her strong athletic background, done some running, maybe hit the gym, and hoped to survive what is billed as "probably the toughest event on the planet."

Instead, Abramson turned to South Hadley-based personal trainer Bill Chaffee.

Chaffee, 57, is a familiar face on the New England outdoor recreation scene, particularly in the skiing and ski racing community. A top-level ski instructor and certified guide who cut his teeth teaching and guiding in the big mountains of Aspen and Telluride in the '70s and '80s, Chaffee has a resume that ranges beyond alpine sport and includes experience coaching golf and working as a canopy tour guide. The customized training methods he uses with his clients at Bill Chaffee Coaching (www.billchaffeecoaching.com) come not only endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine, where he earned his certification, but based on a lifetime of firsthand experience.

For Abramson and colleagues Amanda Jo Parker (on-air talent at Bear Country 95.3) and Ashli Stemple (who recently left Hits 94.3 in Amherst for a job in the Boston area), Chaffee's training methods were ideal for the event they were about to undertake. The longtime coach effectively led the three teammates on a journey into what for many people—even so-called jocks—remains largely uncharted territory: the realm of total fitness.

"Tough Mudder is not your average lame-ass mud run or spirit-crushing 'endurance' road race," proclaims the website toughmudder.com. "Our 10-12 mile obstacle courses are designed by British Special Forces to test all-around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. Forget finish times. Simply completing a Tough Mudder is a badge of honor... [T]he course will have 10-12 miles of hills, mud, water, ropes, walls, electric shocks, and of course, fire. ... Thankfully, at Tough Mudder we mix up the drudgery with belly-crawling, wall-climbing, mud-slogging, ice-water dunking, monkey-bar traversing, huge slip 'n' slides, etc."

On a warm summer morning late last month, the Valley Advocate dropped by Chaffee's studio, located in his home on Greenwood Lane in South Hadley, on a wooded property surrounded by undeveloped conservation land, to watch the coach put Abramson through her paces. As one might expect of a woman who chose to participate in what's been described as "Ironman meets Burning Man," Abramson—Chaffee calls her "Double A," while he refers to Parker as "AJ" and Stemple as "AV"—is a high-energy person who looks and moves like an athlete. Over the course of about 45 minutes, Chaffee ran Abramson through perhaps a dozen different exercises, none lasting more than a few minutes, each designed to work a different part of her body while also working the whole.

There is nothing about Bill Chaffee that fits the stereotype of the whistle-blowing, clipboard-toting drill sergeant bullying athletes through long, mind-numbingly dull workout routines. Nor does his studio look much like what you'll find in most standard-issue gyms. For the most part, Chaffee eschews weight machines; he looks instead to simple but cutting-edge training equipment like the TRX Suspension System, a strap system that uses body weight to intensify resistance, to build functional strength and improve flexibility, balance and core stability all at once.

On this particular day, he has Abramson work the big muscles in her legs by doing squats and lunges with the TRX straps. Then he introduces her to the Battling Ropes, two lengths of long, thick rope that attach to a fixed point about 25 feet away. Abramson laughs as she sends waves of force undulating through the rope, the resistance working her arms, back, shoulders and core to failure in just a few minutes. Then it's on to some drills with a 20-pound medicine ball, some running, a round of a savage concoction of bounding and pushups called "burpies," and then a few exercises involving trees. Chaffee has Abramson do most of her work outside. Given the number and variety of exercises, the workout seems to be over before it has even started, although Abramson looks plenty knackered from the effort.

For Chaffee, the freedom of not having to use static machines allows for a tremendous amount of creativity, which in turn allows him to tailor every workout to his clients' specific needs.

"Lots of people feel that they don't have time, are uncomfortable in a busy health club or lose interest in boring exercise routines," he says. "Without personalized and varied programs, many people give up on exercise before they attain real results." By working with equipment he can transport easily, by finding ways to use trees and hills, fences and stairs, Chaffee keeps the training varied, interesting and progressive.

After the workout session, Chaffee answered a few questions about training Tough Mudder Fudders, or anyone else:

Valley Advocate: How did the Tough Mudder event turn out for the two Amandas and Ashli?

Bill Chaffee: AA and AV finished in about five hours. AJ got taken out by hypothermia about eight miles in. All of them pushed themselves past their perceived limitations and I couldn't be prouder to have had a part in that.

VA: Although they obviously came with a specific and pretty big ambition, how is your approach to their training exemplary of "total" fitness training?

BC: My goal with the Tough Mudders was to prepare them to be the best athletes they could be and help them find confidence in their own abilities in conditions similar to what they would encounter at Mt. Snow. We did lots of trail and hill running with short bursts of high-intensity exercise at intervals (burpies, pushups, hill crawls, jumping over obstacles), with some balance moves (fence walks) thrown in, too.

VA: Why is it important to keep the body struggling for balance while doing various exercises?

BC: I've found that by challenging all of the body's systems (cardio, muscles, balance, vision) in workouts, my clients become better prepared for, not only their athletic endeavors, but for moving more efficiently and confidently through their daily lives.

VA: You're big on the outdoors as a place to train. Why?

BC: I love taking my clients outdoors to exercise: there's fresh air, a bit of vitamin D from the sun and some really fun ways to include the landscape in workouts. Also, studies have shown that exercising outdoors is, in many ways, more beneficial than indoor workouts.

VA: Have you thought about specializing as a Tough Mudder coach?

BC: TM specialization would be a tough one, although I'm willing to train Mudders anytime. I do enjoy working with motivated athletes that have specific goals. That said, my basic philosophy on personal training is that everybody, whether sedentary, weekend exerciser or fitness fanatic, has an athlete inside them. I enjoy challenging my clients to develop that inner athlete with innovative, fun and never boring sessions.

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