published at 08.05.2015, 09:47

Fit for purpose

Making Life a Ride with Maria Costello

To be able to compete in any form of professional sport in your 40s is virtually unheard of. But when your sport is motorcycle racing and your rivals are adrenaline-charged males intent on beating you any which way they can, then in addition to natural talent, you’ve got to be at the top of your game – physically and mentally – just to stay in the hunt. Fortunately, age appears to be no barrier for Maria Costello, MBE, who has turned to CrossFit to help maintain her success and longevity in this high-octane, dog-eat-dog world.

Ask anyone to name a professional athlete who competed successfully in top-level sport in their late 30s and chances are they will mention Manchester United star Ryan Giggs, who attributed his staying power in professional football to years of practising yoga. No doubt the flexibility and strength it gave him kept Ryan in the game for much longer than many of the team-mates he came through the ranks with, but he’s on the bench now – and it’s the coaches’ rather than the subs’ bench. Not so for professional racer Maria Costello, who at the tender age of 41, believes she is still reaching her physical and mental peak, and has a dedication to CrossFit to thank for her strong body and mind.

Maria races in the toughest and arguably the most dangerous kind of motorcycle racing there is – ‘the roads’. This consists of events like the Isle of Man TT which tests (wo)men and their machines to the limits over six, 37 ¾ miles laps of the legendary Mountain Course, with over 200 corners to negotiate each lap. Average lap speeds are now in excess of 130 mph, which on narrow, twisting public roads with stone walls, buildings and thousands of spectators, has to be seen to be believed. Then there is the NorthWest 200, Ireland’s largest sporting event and one of the most spectacular motorsport meetings in the world, where riders race against each other on a nine-mile ‘triangle’ course between the towns of Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine, reaching speeds in excess of 200 mph on public roads.

Just to remember what lies ahead of you at such dizzying speeds requires supreme levels of mental concentration because unlike most sports, there is simply no margin for error. Crashes are often fatal and every year are met with calls for these kind of events to be banned. Ask any rider though and they will tell you that nothing else compares to the rush that comes from racing 200 horsepower Superbikes on roads that were never conceived for racing, with their elevation changes, blind corners, flat-out sections and jumps. They will also tell you that only a fool would fail to prepare themselves physically for this kind of challenge.

Beating the boys at their own game is tough enough and requires 100 per cent commitment, but when an entire team is depending on your ability to muscle a 1000cc BMW Superbike around a roads course for up to one-and-a-half hours, you owe it to them to be in the best shape ever. For this reason alone, Maria enlisted the help of the military – a former Royal Marine to be precise – to use the CrossFit discipline to help prepare her body for some of the toughest sporting challenges out there.

“I totally love CrossFit because of what it has given me in return,” says Maria. “Lots of professionals had given up on me and my body because of the injuries I’ve sustained in the past. I’ve broken 24 bones over the years and that was taking its toll. However, starting CrossFit somehow brought my body back to life and I can now do things that people were telling me not to do. I want my body to last as long as possible and CrossFit really works for me and my sport. I’m really lucky to have a great coach in Jack Fleckney, who is very specific and correct in his training routines, and I’m reaping the benefits of that.”

For the uninitiated, CrossFit is a core strength and conditioning programme that is designed to enhance your physical ability in ten recognised fitness domains. Through a series of physical challenges involving constant bearing functional movement performed at high intensity, athletes can reach new levels of cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. Ask anyone who does it and they will talk about the camaraderie and community feeling that comes from group workouts, and how being healthier, stronger and fitter positively impacts so many other areas of your life. It’s no easy ticket to helping you reach your fitness goals, but a lot more fun than a gruelling, ineffective gym routine, according to expert CrossFit trainer Jack Fleckney.

“Forget about traditional gym work with long treadmill-based cardio and then hitting some isolation weights – this is all about intensity of workouts under loading,” says the former Marine who was inspired to study CrossFit after working alongside some US Navy Seals in Afghanistan, who were early adopters of the discipline.

“The majority of people that train in gyms don’t really know what they’re doing or have a clue what is actually beneficial for them. CrossFit has become popular because the mix between weightlifting, gymnastics and conditioning works. It’s also suitable for all, from young to old, because everything is scalable. I started working with Maria in September last year. Her exercises prior to that were repetitive and she’d lost a lot of mobility. She also had injuries that she was worried about. We needed time to give her the confidence to realise that she could do the movements that others had said were not possible. And working together has made these injuries go away, contrary to what the specialists were saying.”

A competent CrossFit coach has a good understanding of injuries and what needs to be done to train the body and the person. If injuries are an issue, then air squats are not weight-bearing, but can still have a positive effect. Then general fitness can be improved by adding a combination of compound exercises like Olympic lifts, squatting, pressing, deadlifting, and then, gymnastics-wise, learning how to use your own body weight.

Maria’s general fitness is well above average, due to years of racing and because she enjoys regular cycling, snowboarding and general outdoor sports, so Jack’s strategy was to build mental strength and GPP (general physical purpose) so that these skills can be transferred onto the bike when racing. “We work on a pyramid of layers to make her physically stronger, then get her power-to-weight ratio up, then get her mentally strong,” he says. “When she’s doing a race like the TT, she’s on that bike for well over an hour, so we need to help give her the mental capacity to keep switched on throughout the duration. She works hard and does everything I ask of her, she’s very good.”

As any coach will tell you, routine is the enemy and it’s important to vary your workouts, keeping them intense and fresh. Watching Maria go through a series of deadlifts, squats, presses and snatches, before moving on to burpees, dips and sit-ups, makes you realise how serious her racing ambitions are. For Maria, it has always been about getting stuck in and beating the boys at their own game, wherever the race is and whatever the risks involved.

“Do the risks scare me? Obviously not enough to put me off,” she says with a smile. “Don’t get me wrong, I understand the dangers and I know that preparation is everything in racing – not just my BMW bike but my body and my mind too. I’m lucky enough to do something with my life that’s amazing, and I really love it. I don’t know who I’d be without my racing – that’s a more scary thought to me than thinking about the risks involved.”

Photos: Scott Chalmers