Brain Training

July 12, 2014

Keka Schermerhorn

“Sometimes I think we forget about training our brain. We spend all of our time training our body but we forget about the brain. If you can train the brain, your body will go so much further than you think it can.”

Dani Horan won the North East Regional for the second consecutive year, despite her weekend not going as she planned.

In late April, Horan posted a video of a successful 195.5-lb. hang squat snatch.  

“I planned to open (Event 1) with 165, then 175 and 185,” Horan said. “But I hurt my back three weeks (before the regional), so I changed the plan.”

The former competitive equestrian jumper suffered a horse-related injury years ago, and the old injury tends to manifest itself at inopportune times. Previously, she hurt her back nine days before the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games, where Horan competed with the team from her affiliate Champlain Valley CrossFit.

Horan believes this recent strain was a result of getting a deep-tissue massage and following it up with a lifting session.

Jade Jenny, head trainer of Champlain Valley CrossFit, in Williston, Vermont, has been working with Horan to assure the injury doesn’t get aggravated.

“It’s not the first time, and it wasn’t from picking something up real heavy with shitty form,” Jenny said. “In fact, it wasn’t heavy at all. I think it was just cumulative stress and her position was just off a little and she strained her back. We’ve worked on some basic positioning recently, and have continued to do lots of trunk work, placing a little more emphasis recently on the low back.”

Horan opened with a successful 155-lb. snatch. She followed it up with a 165-lb. lift and was no-repped on her 175-lb. attempt. Her heaviest lift for Event 1 was 165 lb., which ended up being enough for a first-place tie in the event.

While that would be her only first place of the weekend, Horan finished outside of the top five just once with a sixth-place finish on Event 6, the legless rope climb and sprint.

“I definitely wasn't 100 percent at the regional, but I gave 100 percent every workout,” Horan said. “I competed at the East Coast Championships this winter on a less-than-24-hour sprained ankle. I knew that it would mentally be good for me. It paid off. When I was in discomfort at the regional, I just kept telling myself the faster I go, the sooner it will be over.”

Always striving for a competitive edge, Horan has been aggressively addressing her weaknesses. Jenny, who has been responsible for Horan’s programming, saw the need for improvement in Horan’s endurance.

“I believe in pretty basic programming,” Jenny said. “While it’s definitely high volume, we aren’t doing anything radical or crazy. We started with a larger emphasis on endurance and mono-structural work earlier in the season, as those are her biggest struggles.”

Horan also started working with Brian MacKenzie of CrossFit Endurance.

“I knew that he would be the one to help me out,” Horan said. “I sent him an email asking him if he would be interested in helping me and we went from there. Brian programs all of my endurance met-cons and Jade programs everything else. I like being able to work with both of them.”

The additional help seemed to be the perfect prescription for her endurance woes.

“She has always had good gymnastics and she is one of the stronger girls at the Games level,” Jenny said. “So endurance has had the most emphasis. This focus has helped her a lot in her longer workouts, and we’ve also seen that it has helped with her pacing going toward the end of workouts.”

Her plan for Events 3 and 4 was to just keep moving steadily. She started the events in the middle of the pack in her heats, but was able to keep moving consistently while others slowed down. She ended up finishing second in her heat for both events, which meant a second place overall for Nasty Girls V2 and a fourth place overall for the strict handstand push-up, front squat, burpee triplet.

Horan also recruited Dawn Fletcher of Mentality WOD to help her with her mental toughness.

“One of my biggest weaknesses used to be the mental aspect of competing. This year it is no longer a weakness thanks to Dawn,” Horan said. “If it wasn't for her and all the training we had done prior to the regional, I wouldn't have been able to handle certain situations this year.”  

Fletcher works with athletes, helping them improve physically and mentally.

“Dani wanted to make sure that her mindset was helping her perform her best and not keeping her back at all,” Fletcher said. “She wanted to challenge herself and create some new thought patterns that could help take her performance to the next level.”

Part of the mental game plan at the regionals included staying away from social media and the Leaderboard and “staying in my own head,” Horan said. 

“Sometimes I think we forget about training our brain. We spend all of our time training our body but we forget about the brain,” Horan said. “If you can train the brain, your body will go so much further than you think it can.”

Besides dialing in on her weaknesses, Horan has started keeping better track of her nutrition and taking advantage of recovery tools. She hasn’t had a full day of rest all season.

“We’ve gone pretty much to zero complete rest days,” Jenny said. “Always doing something, 10-km row, 5-km run, going hiking, biking—so she is always doing something, keeping herself moving, I can’t remember the last day she did nothing.”

As she heads back to Carson, California, for the second time as an individual, Horan feels she is as prepared as ever to face the trials of the Games.

“I have learned that you need to prepare for the unknown, you need to be prepared to tackle something you've never done before in training,” Horan said. “That is something that excites me the most about the Games, taking on new challenges that haven't been faced while training.”

Horan is thrilled to be representing Champlain Valley CrossFit alongside men’s North East Regional winner Mathew Fraser.

“How awesome is it that Champlain Valley CrossFit took first for men and women in the North East?” Horan said. “Has any other gym done that in a region? And we're from Vermont.”

Jenny added: “I think there is something about Vermont—we just have healthy, athletic people here. The goal coming in was of course for them both to qualify, with the thought in mind that it would be super cool for them both to win. I think we are just lucky. We just happened to get some damn good athletes in our gym that are willing to work hard.”

With friends and family making the long trip to California, Horan is looking forward to their support on the stands.

“My goal is to perform to the best of my abilities. Leave it all on the floor, every workout,” Horan said. “My grandfather is flying out again this year, and it means the world to me having him there."  

Jenny however, has a more specific goal for Horan.

“She finished 18th last year,” Jenny said, “and our team finished 18th the year before. So just try not to finish 18th. But honestly, obviously do better, and I definitely feel she has the ability to be in the top 10 and maybe toward the podium depending on what comes up, how she feels and how she performs.”