Rec league athletes do whatever it takes to stay in the game

Ryan Barnum a 35-year-old recreational league hockey goalie trains with Elizabeth Evans, a Pilates trainer Thursday, February 6, 2014 at Athletic Performance Center in Raleigh.
Ryan Barnum a 35-year-old recreational league hockey goalie trains with Elizabeth Evans, a Pilates trainer Thursday, February 6, 2014 at Athletic Performance Center in Raleigh.

The type of athletic training once available only to pro athletes is finding a new audience: recreation league athletes and hard-core runners and triathletes driven to stay in the game even when there is no multimillion-dollar contract on the line.

“We see a lot of people whose interest in performance spills over from their professional life,” says Greg Saxton, general manager with Athletic Performance Center at Raleigh Orthopaedics.

“We operate an athletic training room for the public,” says Yusuf Boyd, who started BioMechaniks, a training center in Charlotte and Memphis, after five years as strength and conditioning coach with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. “Our goal is to keep you in the game.”

It’s a goal that’s driving an employment boom among personal trainers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of personal trainers in the United States grew by 44 percent from 2001 to 2011. Further, the subset of that group dealing with more specific training and rehab issues – athletic trainers and exercise physiologists – is expected to see job growth of 19 percent by 2022.

There are a variety of certifications and degrees out there. To check a trainer’s credentials, ask for his or her certifications and education, then spend some time on the Internet to learn what exactly they require.

That growth is driven by people, such as Ryan Barnum, 35, of Raleigh, who continue to thrive on the games of their youth.

“It’s my first passion,” Barnum says. “I love the game.”

That game is adult league hockey, in which Barnum, with a herniated disc and bad hips, continues to play goalie. It’s a passion that drives him through grueling workouts four days at week at the Athletic Performance Center at Raleigh Orthopaedics.

Gabe Straub, 33, started playing T-ball at age 7; played football, baseball and track in high school; and went on to play baseball at Guilford College.

When their competitive days are over, some high school and college ballplayers turn to softball – the “beer league,” as Straub refers to it. Straub, though, has continued playing baseball, in adult leagues first in Greensboro and now in Raleigh.

“Last year was my best year in 10 years,” says Straub, who participates in a customized strength and conditioning program at APC, where he also works as a sports dietician and coach.

“I batted .400, up from the lower .300s, had an on-base percentage of about .500 and played in a more competitive league with younger guys,” says Straub, whose regimen includes everything from relieving stiffness and soreness with foam roller massage and a new technique called trigger point dry needling (in which needles are plunged into muscle), to power lifting and cross training.

Talk and testing

BioMechaniks’ Boyd, who has about 80 clients, says his program “starts with a conversation.”

“Someone will come in, for instance, and say, ‘I’ve been running with knee pain for five years,’ ” says Boyd. “We’ll do a movement efficiency screening to see where their movement may be lacking.”

With runners, he says, the problem often doesn’t start where the pain is. An ankle issue, for instance, may be causing movement issues and pain on up the line, in the knee or hip.

Saxton with APC says their involvement with patients and clients – patients have injuries, clients are there to improve performance – begins with a standard 60- to 90-minute evaluation that includes a session on a high-tech treadmill. Results are analyzed and a customized program is designed for each athlete. The evaluation session costs $189; follow-up sessions vary in cost depending on what’s required.

If a mechanical issue is detected – something’s broken or may need surgery to fix – Saxton says the athlete is referred to Raleigh Orthopaedics.

Running with pain

Mtu Pugh of Charlotte played football and basketball in high school and went on to play a year of basketball at Yale University. Competitive by nature, Pugh got into running, eventually doing the Chicago and New York marathons – and racking up a torn ACL and meniscus in the process. Though Pugh says running marathons isn’t an obsession, the health and stress-release benefits derived from running are. Last summer, after tearing the meniscus in his right knee, he sought help rehabbing from Boyd at BioMechaniks.

“I learned a couple things,” Pugh, 42, says. “One was something I’d known in the back of my mind: stretching is really helpful and necessary. And I also learned that I have specific areas where I am not very flexible, specifically my ankles and hips.”

Today, Pugh devotes up to a half hour to a prescribed warm-up routine before he runs. It’s cut into the time allotted for his run – as a vice president with Matthews-based Family Dollar and with two kids ages 7 and 9, his free time is limited – but he’s running injury free.

“If I want to keep running, this is something I have to do,” he says.

Likewise for outfielder Straub and goalie Barnum.

Despite Straub’s breakthrough year last year, he keeps his aspirations in check. Asked if his .400 year got him thinking about playing at a more competitive level – a la Dennis Quaid in “The Rookie” – he laughs.

“We joke about that,” he says, “but no. The level of competition and skill level is night and day. ... I still feel like I can contribute and get something out of it. I want to prove I can still play – not prove it to others, to myself.”

As far as Barnum is concerned, Cam Ward needn’t be looking over his shoulder pads. He might like to move up from his current B/C league to B-level competition, but his goal is simply to stay in the crease.

“My nephew asked me how long I plan to keep playing hockey,” Barnum says. “I told him I’m going to play until my body tells me I can’t play anymore.

“If that doesn’t happen until I’m 60,” he adds, “I’ll play till I’m 60.”