The Art of Training with Function, Growth and Longevity

By Merrell Brand Advocate, Dan Kosick

Let’s start with the fact that I am not a certified athletic trainer but I am a fitness enthusiast of 25 plus years who has overcome cancer, the amputation of my right leg above the knee, competed on a national team for 7 years, overcome two major sports related injuries and then decided to become an endurance athlete as I entered into my 40s. What I’m going to share isn’t going to be about form or technique to add to your training. It’s about looking at your inner self to find the foundations of the training process that can lead to a life filled with growth and opportunities through functional training.  

Everyone has a starting point. Your starting point may be what you believe is your lowest moment, biggest challenge or the day you decided to put “You” first. My starting point was when I was 16 years old, finished 6 months of chemo therapy and recently had my right leg amputated above the knee. As a teen, my main goal was to play in high school sports again after my amputation. Realistically, I knew I had limitations and not every sport and/or position would be possible to participate in but I also knew I had opportunities to still compete and that was all I needed to get started. Do you see your opportunities or are you fixated on the obstacle? Here’s a little hint, every obstacle is an opportunity but are you willing to go through some grit and growth to find the successes you desire?  

I was a half ass high school swimmer before I was faced with my cancer and I gave just enough effort during practice so the coach would just leave me alone. I can’t even tell you what my motivation was to be on the swim team at that time but luckily I remembered how good of a workout swimming could be if and when I tried. So, after being faced with the biggest obstacle of my life I knew swimming was the one activity that allowed me to get into shape again and it would allow me to stay somewhat hidden from the public since I was quite self-conscious as a new amputee in the peak of the game of trying to find your social worth in high school. What would be your activity of choice to get started? Your chosen activity can serve as the function to your future opportunities.   

The first day I hopped into the pool I could feel the stares of the half dozen swimmers and two coaches in the pool area. It was if they were waiting to see if this skinny frail boy with new baby fine hair that might of weighed 120 lbs. after getting wet was going to need to be rescued. It was simply an uncomfortable feeling but I now know growth doesn’t happen when you are comfortable. Here is where I started to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable physically, mentally and socially. Growth is not meant to be easy, are you willing to be uncomfortable to grow? Your ability to manage your discomfort will improve with time and it will serve as a function in your progress.  

When you take that first step into the growth zone there is a high probability you’ll think you don’t have what it takes for the long haul but all you really need to know is SUDS. Show Up! Do Something! Showing up may be the biggest obstacle you ever face but you need to remind yourself that all your opportunities in life won’t ever have a chance unless you first show up. If you are truly ready to start, then you find a way to show up. It may not be perfect but it will be something. You don’t need to over complicate things or beat yourself up over perfection. Start by making things simple and simply practice showing up. Once we show up we are almost always bound to do something and now we have planted a seed to finding function to our training. Creating the habit of showing up will have lifelong benefits. 

Showing up and doing something will lead to strength and success. This is why we are in the training game, correct? Don’t we all want to have the strength when it’s needed and tally up the successes that make us hungry for more opportunities? I do. Up until this point in my life, I had very little knowledge on how to add function to my training and this is where I believe most people get stuck. Here is where people may show up to a gym, track and/or purchase an expensive piece of exercise equipment but then find frustrations because there isn’t much function or plan to their training program. Fortunately, I had some guidance with professionals who started to teach me how to add function to my training so I had measurable results towards my new goals. I highly recommend talking with professionals in the fitness industry that have the specific knowledge and understanding about your interests and how to guide you in your training. Trying to teach yourself how to train may lead to burnout and possible injury. 

 All of my training through my early to mid-20s was focused on being the best alpine ski racer I could be. Every exercise and activity I did served a function in my skiing performance. My training wasn’t just about becoming stronger, it was focused on how to make my body work for me towards my goals and not against me. Training that lacks function in your goals may work against you and limit your success. As a result, you’ll limit your opportunities. If training wasn’t making me a better alpine ski racer than I did not include it because it did not serve a function in my life at that time. This focus and mentality earned me successes as an alpine ski racer which eventually led to my position as a member of the US Adaptive Alpine Ski Team and representing our country in two Paralympic games. This was a major goal in my life that came and went but the seeds I continued to plant help lead to a lifetime of training with function. Always in search of obstacles to achieve new opportunities. With everyone, time brings new goals and many changes to our body and mind. Change is inevitable and adaptations of our functions are how we can not only survive but continue to thrive. Words for advice, put your successes in your mental piggy bank so that you can draw on them for fuel towards your future opportunities. 

As I approached my mid 30’s, I was 10 years removed from competing, a new father who recently finished graduate school and just beginning a new career with new fitness goals that realistically aligned with my life. My current and future training needed to adjust to my lifestyle and provide function to achieving these new goals. My newest physical goal was being able to run 10 miles of trails. I first started by tapping into my mental piggy bank from my successes on the ski team for some initial motivation and then I headed to my local high school track to see what my “real” starting point was going to be. Reality hit quick, I struggled with all my might to run one complete loop (1/4 mile) around the track without stopping. Running is one of the most challenging activities an amputee could choose. I was in decent physical shape from going to the gym a few days a week, but I had not attempted to run any significant distance in over a decade. I personally would never pick running as my starter activity as an intro to physical fitness because the level of discomfort would probably overwhelm me and discourage me from showing up. Luckily, I had an established mindset of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. I knew being uncomfortable meant I was in the growth zone and I was ready to show up for my new goal of becoming a trail runner.   

How much time are you willing to give to achieve your goals? It isn’t meant to be easy and all things that are easy are difficult at first. My goal to run 10 miles of trails took me approximately 2 years from that first day I went to that high school track and barely made it once around with a heart rate probably spiking around 185 bpm. My training over those 2 years had to fit into being a father, coach and working fulltime. All my minutes in the gym and on the trails had to serve a function to who I was. If my training was too time consuming, too exhausting for me to show up for my other priorities and/or too expensive to maintain then it would never had worked and would have left me short of my goals. I logged every success in my mental piggy bank for continued motivation no matter how slow it may had felt at times and most importantly I literally broke down my training to one step at a time. My mentality was if I could go this far today then why can’t I go one step farther tomorrow and if I couldn’t my goal would be to go that one step further. It’s only one step, right? Just think of the things you could accomplish in life if you literally tried to tack on one more each day. How hard is it to do one pushup in a day? For most, not too difficult, but have you ever tried to do 365 pushups in a day? With this mentality, that could possibly be a goal you could achieve in a year.

The things you work the hardest for often become your most valuable possessions. I remember when I was 7 years old and I opted to turn down a play date with a friend to earn $13 cleaning my entire house to buy the set of the 1983 Topps football player trading cards. The NFL rookie class of 1983 included hall of famers such as Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly and Eric Dickerson to just name a few of this all-star draft year. I treasured that set of trading cards and to this day I still have that set of cards tucked away because it carries much monetary and sentimental value to me. Just like this set of trading cards, I earned the ability to run 10 miles of trails and I wasn’t going to throw it away. Matter of fact, I wanted to add to it. My piggy bank was full of motivation, I had a functional training regimen that fit my lifestyle and I recognized all the opportunities that came from my progress with high hopes of more opportunities to come. This freight train was now moving and it wasn’t coming to a stop anytime soon. 

Here comes 40 and I am going to run 50 miles. This sentence would never have been a thought 5 years earlier when I was struggling to make it around that high school track as an above knee amputee. Do you notice the confidence in that sentence, “I am going to run 50 miles”. With every success I experienced in my training process, I gained more confidence in my abilities. I no longer spoke with doubt. I learned to visualize my future successes and more importantly I imagined picking myself up after failures to continue my pursuit for my future goals. I found motivation in the thought of the obstacles that would be between me and my opportunities. That kind of thinking became very useful when the unexpected happened. Mike Tyson said it best, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”   

 The first significant injury came at the start of what I thought was going to be my biggest year of events. I was having some fun training on a grip rig when fatigue set in and I came falling back onto the palm of my hand. The force of the ground into my hand blew the bones out of the back of my elbow. I had dislocated my left elbow and broke 3 bones in my arm without my elbow even touching the ground. It would have been easy to put all my training on hold and call the year a wash but my mind was not focused on the injury and new limitations, it was focused on the rest of my body that was completely healthy. My training needed to adapt and that is what I did. I now trained as an amputee with one functional arm. This is called unilateral training and science has done 1000s of studies on its benefits. The numbers don’t lie, an untrained limb can have an increase in strength through unilateral training exercises. The function of my training needed to completely change so that I could continue to progress towards my goals. I was not willing to stop my training. In less than 4 months, I was able to participate in events and I had negligible differences in strength between my two arms.  

 About one year later came my next significant injury. I was in the gym doing a routine workout when I was struck with an intense shock through my left arm, neck and head. I had ruptured a disk between my C5 and C6 vertebrae. I later found out many of the disks in my neck had a higher rate of degeneration most likely related to some crashes I took while I was a ski racer. I spent the next few months doing what I could to keep the discomfort and symptoms of the ruptured disk at ease but continued to stay focused on completing my first 50 mile trail running event. I felt fragile and this once again forced me to take a hard look at how I was training. What routines and exercises was I doing that needed to be adjusted to provide the least amount of risk to my neck until I was ready for the inevitable neck fusion surgery? It’s amazing the knowledge and information you can gather from professionals that will allow you to maintain high levels of activity while causing less stress on specific areas of your body. The key was to find these professionals and to learn from them. Fortunately, I trained in a gym that the owner/head trainer dedicated his life to functional training techniques that avoid and/or minimize further damage to preexisting injuries. He was a college football player that was pushed to train in ways that gave him several injuries. He knew there had to be better ways to train so he dedicated his life and career to learning them and teaching others these techniques. Have you ever talked with a professional certified trainer? The costs to learn proper training that allows you to avoid injuries and continue to progress to your goals are minimal to the consequences of having a serious injury that could have been prevented.

Today, I am now in my 40s, I continue to show up, reach my goals and always assess the function of my training to fit my current life state. I have not cut back or slowed down, I merely adapt, progress and find new opportunities through new obstacles. Over the past few years, I have completed several endurance events which include ultra-trail running races and some of the most difficult day hikes across our country. There are a lot of ways to work out and train but if you are working out or training in ways that you aren’t going to use every day or work towards a specific goal, than it is not functional. Think of training as a lifelong habit that needs to adapt with you and work for you. Training is a process that needs to be embraced. It is not something that should come and go or be ridged. It flows with our entire life and becomes our body’s guide to opportunities, growth and longevity.