Survival of the fittest

IT seemed like a routine assignment at first. Arrangements had been made, the editor explained, to meet the renowned strength and conditioning coach Mike McGurn at Dublin Airport at 9am the next day.

Grand. A little bit early on a Saturday for this reporter’s taste maybe, but no sweat. It was only on the second phone call that the alarm bells started to ring.

Suddenly, there was talk about a gym and workouts. Eh, excuse me?

“Mike is going to be giving you a taste of what he does with the rugby boys,” the editor said. He may have laughed. Or maybe that was Michael Moynihan who, suspiciously, had cried off at the last minute.

McGurn’s CV didn’t need any introduction. This is a guy who had spent six years revolutionising the training regime of the Irish rugby team and who helped Bernard Dunne to a world title.

The guy’s fingerprints are everywhere. St Helen’s, The Ospreys, the Irish International Rules side, Fermanagh’s senior footballers. He’s just recently hooked up with Armagh and is checking in with the All Blacks in the New Year.

McGurn is an innovator. When he started with the Irish team they were “a team of body builders and distance runners. They were all obsessed with their body weight, putting on more weight, getting bigger on their upper body.

“Coming from a rugby league background, I was more about power and speed, which revolutionised training for the national players. Training became a lot sharper. It went from being maybe an hour and twenty to 40 minutes, maximum.

“It was the same with the gym sessions. They went from an hour and twenty to 30-40 minutes, but they were a lot more intense.” They didn’t just become more intense, they became more rugby-specific too.

He did the same with Dunne, abandoning the age old boxing practise of starting the day with a five-mile run — which he believes only makes a fighter slower — and replacing it with quick, intense gym sessions. We touched base the night before to confirm the details for the following day’s little experiment, but the most pressing issue was that of breakfast and, specifically, whether it would be wise to risk having one.

“Have something light,” said McGurn.

Oh dear, we thought.

Half a bowl of Special K the next morning and it was off to the airport and I couldn’t get a quote from Tommy Bowe out of my mind. “There were days when I wanted to cry,” he had once said of McGurn’s sessions.

The man, as you would expect, is built like the proverbial outhouse. Before we started, there was the paperwork.

Are you fit? Any old injuries? Are you on any medication? Any history of any medical problems in the family? Thankfully, he stopped short of enquiring about next of kin.

McGurn’s ethos is to make training so hard that matches are easy in comparison and that a player, boxer or athlete can perform the same tasks with the same precision in the last minute as he or she can in the first. Fatigue can make the simplest of tasks, like passing or catching a ball, all but impossible but the plan for this particular morning was merely to provide a taster for what the pros go through.

So he said, anyway.

“I’m not going to kill you,” he said with a smile which I was trying to decide was that of an assassin’s or not. “That’s not what I’m about.” We started with a power circuit in the gym.

First up was a squat. Eight lifts of a 20kg bar with 10kg on barbells either side — 40kg all told — and all attached to a Smith machine. Basically, it’s a weight-lifting exercise but one where the bar is attached to rails on either side.

Next on the itinerary was the barbell jammer in which one of the circular barbells was removed and the open-end wedged into a corner. The idea then is raise the other remaining barbell repeatedly above your head with each arm.

The intention is to push through with your whole body, not just your arm, by bending and straightening the knees. Get it right and it is almost like dancing — but with a very heavy partner. The total weight here is 30kg.

The circuit ends with a contact drill off the floor where we both jump to our feet and run into one another, chest first. The purpose of this, as with all three exercises, is to work every muscle in the body in short, sharp bursts.

Away we go.

The Smith machine takes some getting used to, as does the stance. “Keep your heels on the floor,” Mike shouts. “Thrust your whole body upwards. Faster. That’s it.”

The plan is to do the circuit three times with only a 15-second breather in between. By the second lap, the body begins to pick up the rhythm of what is required but, by the third, fatigue is rapidly setting in. The barbell jammer is particularly hard and the last contact session is pure torture.

The end can’t come soon enough.

When we’re done, my only thought is to sit down before I collapse. Sweat is dripping down my nose, I’m gulping in oceans of air and a feeling of nausea is threatening to take over.

The photographer is grinning like a Cheshire cat and mumbling something along the lines of “rather you than me”. I feel like I’m about to hurl and the whole thing has lasted just two minutes and 37 seconds.

Think about that. One minute I was standing there feeling perfectly okay and, 157 seconds later, my body had been “totally depleted of its energy reserves,” as Mike put it.

Let’s put this in perspective. This particular guinea pig may push pens for a living but I’m a hack that is relatively fit to his own modest level and one that is no stranger to a football pitch, gym or squash court.

Even so, the difference between that level of fitness and that of a world-class professional athlete is frightening. I benched 40kg on the Smith machine, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll do somewhere between 130-180kg.

That’s almost five times the weight.

Even Bernard Dunne, who weighs three stone less than me, is able to bench 110kg. The same applies to the barbell jammer where the rugby boys deal with twice the weight and Dunne an extra 10 kilos.

Ready for the kicker? O’Connell and O’Driscoll would do that circuit, not for two-and-a-half minutes, but for 27. Dunne repeats it over and over again for a full half hour, maybe even 36 minutes, so as to replicate the length of a 12-round bout.

And there was me, all but crying ‘no mas’ after a handful of minutes and needing a trip to the changing rooms to hold my head under a cold tap and stand next to a toilet bowl in case I saw my Special K again.

“That sort of gives you a perception of how hard and how fit these guys actually are,” says McGurn later. “They would then supplement the power circuit with 10-12 minutes of really hard wrestling fitness.”

We tried that too. I lay flat on the ground with a ball tucked under my arm. Then he slumped down on top and told me to extricate myself. It was like trying to stand up in a washing machine.

When the roles were reversed, he flipped me over like a pancake. By then I was running on fumes. The second circuit, involving more dumbbells, benches and presses, saw to that.

Again, it was all done at pace within a handful of minutes and the effects were much the same. My stomach didn’t seem to know which way was up and the first stages of disorientation soon began to kick in.

A simple ball drill later and we were done. By the time it was over, my body was beginning to forgive me but experience told me that the days ahead wouldn’t be fun.

Sure enough, I almost needed a crane to get out of bed the next day. My muscles were in all sorts of trouble and it was Wednesday before I could stand up or sit down without wincing.

And you know what? I couldn’t wait to do it again.

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