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Olympic Fitness: Pole Vault

Fitness, General, Human Interest

This blog is one in a series about how watching the Tokyo Olympic Games can inspire your own fitness and fun.

Track and field events have begun in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. While some of these sports similar to our normal activities — like running, jumping and throwing — others are unlike anything most of us do.

One of those more unusual sports is pole vault. It’s amazing to watch pole-vaulters seemingly defy gravity as they run down the track, plant their poles and gracefully launch their bodies to ever-increasing heights.

One such athlete is our own Dr. Gail Jones, a cardiologist at Northwest Regional Heart & Vascular who competed in pole vault for UCLA during her undergraduate years. She took time to share her knowledge of pole vaulting and ideas for what the rest of us can learn from the sport.

Becoming a pole-vaulter

Dr. Jones’ sports career actually began in gymnastics. In high school, she also ran hurdles and relays.

She planned to quit track as she prepared to attend UCLA, but her mom signed her up for a pole-vaulting camp that summer. Dr. Jones enjoyed the new sport so much, she deferred her college enrollment and spent a year training for pole vault.

“I was fortunate to be able to walk onto the UCLA team the following year,” Dr. Jones says. “My favorite part about my time pole-vaulting was the people the I was able to meet and train with (including a number of Olympians) as well as being on the UCLA track team. This was truly a dream come true for me.”

The hidden demands of pole vaulting

Like Dr. Jones, many pole-vaulters come from other sports: gymnastics, running, hurdles and other track events. More and more, though, are starting to train in pole vault from a young age.

Dr. Jones says TV audiences rarely understand how technical pole vaulting is. She describes how every athlete has their own set of poles. Different poles are used for different heights, and each is carefully sized to make sure the pole bends the perfect way for each athlete.

Each vaulter also customizes their poles with tape, chalk, spray glue and other measures to make their grip on the pole just right. “I still remember using lighter fluid to remove the film from my hands after a day jumping,” Dr. Jones recalls.

She also notes that some of the more dramatic injuries in pole vault occur when a pole breaks mid-jump, sending a vaulter tumbling. That’s what happened in Tokyo to U.S. gold medal hopeful Sandi Morris, forcing her to withdraw due to a hip injury.

“By the time you are at the Olympic level, every detail counts,” Dr. Jones explains.

“Every athlete at this level is amazing and the smallest detail can make or break competing at the Olympics. … It comes down to peaking at the right time, diet, having the exact right equipment, mentally being in the right space, and on and on.”

She adds that, as spectators, we often lose sight of how hard these events are and that every Olympian represents the absolute best in the entire world.

Learning from pole-vaulters

Even if you’re unlikely to start flinging your body to amazing heights anytime soon, there’s plenty to learn from watching Olympic pole-vaulters. Dr. Jones suggests watching the incredible core and upper body strength of vaulters, as well as their unique running style and power. “This is very different from distance runners or sprinters, but no less athletic,” she notes.

She also says her experience in the sport taught her there’s no one right way to work out. “Find activities that you like and a schedule that works for you,” she says. “Don't be afraid to think outside the box and go for it.”

But go for it slowly at first, she adds. “Going all out on Monday, only to be too sore to work out the rest of the week is counterproductive,” she says. “Find ways to move, even if they seem silly or insignificant.”

If walking around your house for two minutes is all you can do, start there, Dr. Jones advises. You can gradually increase the minutes and eventually add stairs. Don’t forget that activities like yard work count too.

“My grandmother used soup cans as weights to maintain strength as she got older,” Dr. Jones recalls. “Do what you like, can stick to and feel good about.”

While we may never be Olympians, we can all move in ways that keep us strong and healthy as we get older. “My first pole-vaulting coach was Earl Bell. His father, William (Doc) Bell holds the world record for his age group in pole vault at age 95,” Dr. Jones explains. “Fitness can be a lifelong endeavor.”

An active lifestyle helps keep your heart in top shape. Be sure to talk with your primary care provider before you start new activities. If you don’t have your own doctor or nurse practitioner, give us a call at 503-261-6929. We’ll help you find one who fits your style and location.