Strength and Endurance – Friends or Foes?

Neal Henderson MS CSCS

    Long discussed, contested, and practiced is the idea of using strength training to enhance or improve endurance performance.  As a physiologist, coach, former elite triathlete, and strength and conditioning specialist, I do have some experience in this area.   In fact, I am asked the question of whether endurance athletes should perform strength training several times each week.  I was involved in research regarding this very topic during my graduate studies – and no, I can’t tell you with 100% scientific back-up that it is either beneficial or harmful to endurance performance.  I can tell you that for every scientific paper that touts a benefit of strength training on endurance performance, there is at least one paper that proves the opposite – that strength training interferes with improvements in endurance, as well as the converse.  Unfortunately, most of the literature on the topic has missed the boat in several areas – at least as it applies to serious endurance athletes.

    First, most of the subjects in the studies that have evaluated concurrent strength and endurance (let’s simpify this to S-E training) have used initially sedentary subjects.  To make the leap of faith that an untrained person will respond in a similar fashion to a highly trained (or even well-trained) endurance athlete is one that I’m not ready to make…are you?  Second, most training studies have used very short durations of concurrent training such that there may not be the actual responses one would expect with either type of training.  It has been shown that during the initial 8 weeks of strength training alone, the primary improvements in measured strength are due to improved neuromuscular firing and coordination – not in any real change in the muscle fibers’ ability to produce force.  So, most studies 8-weeks long or less out shouldn’t even call themselves studies about strength training.

    We also know that endurance training changes can occur in 8-12 weeks, though it typically takes 4-6 months of consecutive training to reach peak endurance performance.  To date, there has not been a study published that has utilized greater than 16-weeks of concurrent training – most ranged from 8-12 weeks.  For me, I’d like to see what happens over 16-24 weeks to really have a firm grasp on what actually can and does happen.  Another major problem with the existing research is that the strength protocols are standard 3 days per week with 3 sets of 10 repetitions performed doing movements that aren’t specific to the sport(s) being trained.  Does anyone really believe that doing bench press is going to improve running performance?  I guess if the running performance measured is the running of the bulls…then being able to push your fellow competitors out of the way and avoid getting gored could be a considered a benefit.  In most other running contexts, I can’t think of any potential benefit of being able to push more weight with the upper body.

    Finally, very few studies of concurrent S-E training have actually measured endurance performance.  As a physiologist and coach, I can say that VO2 max is not a measure of endurance performance…it is simply a measure of maximal aerobic activity.  Last time I checked, I didn’t get a race time or place based off of my last VO2 max test value…I still had to swim, bike, and run and get to the finish line to have an actual endurance performance.  It is possible to improve endurance performance without changing VO2 max…economy of movement is one aspect that few researchers have measured with S-E training.
    Since there isn’t much data that relates to triathletes…what should you do?  Well, sometimes you have to read between the lines.  If you go through the list and read each of the papers, you might find a few golden nuggets or pearls of wisdom.  To save you the time and drudgery of reading through several drab scientific texts, here are some key ideas to help you form an educated opinion supported by research.  Here is another article that might be worthy of your time if you’re really interested in the subject.

1. Concurrent strength and endurance training can lower injury rate in runners.

– Strength training does not only affect muscles – it can improve the strength and integrity of tendons.  Having stronger tendons can be effective in reducing over-use injuries such as tendonitis.  If you aren’t injured or don’t get injured as frequently, you are likely to be able to train more (and more effectively), which will likely make you faster over the long-term (if you are training effectively and recovering from your training).

2. Strength training will improve neuromuscular coordination and peak sprint power development.

– This is more important for athletes competing in events that require some kind of sprint effort.  Multisport athletes who qualify in this area would be: XTERRA athletes, elites racing in draft-legal format events, and athletes who dabble in road cycling – especially mass start events.  If you’re an Ironman athlete, you shouldn’t be doing too much sprinting in training or racing…unless you’re doing it all wrong.

3. If you aren’t doing any endurance training, then strength training might maintain some level of endurance performance.

– Don’t try this at home.  Seriously, you are a multisport athlete who competes in endurance competitions.  If you spend long periods of time not doing any endurance training…well, you won’t have much endurance.  Sure, doing some strength training might keep you from losing all of your fitness gains…but you’d be better off not doing strength training and using that time to do some endurance training.

4. Know your limits.  If you are already taxed by the amount of endurance training that you are performing, you likely will not see any benefit from added training of any kind. 

– Often times, endurance athletes need to initially decrease their training volume when adding strength training as the metabolic and mechanical demands on the muscles are considerable.  It is extremely important to be doing the right kind of lifts or movements.  Using poor mechanics or the wrong kind of strength training can lead you down the wrong road.  Remember, train like an athlete – not like the beefcake or fitness model at the gym.  Perform strength exercises that mimic the movements that you make while swimming, cycling, and running – specificity is important!

    So, remember – it’s all about making the choice based on your personal goals, abilities, and capacities.  If you are thinking of adding strength training to your training routine, it’s usually best to start during your transition and base training phases.  Be sure that if you do not have a background with strength training that you consult a strength and conditioning specialist who can help you devise an appropriate routine and teach you proper (and safe) mechanics for your movements.  During periods of high endurance-specific training demand, be cautious with strength training.  It’s usually better to go into maintenance mode for strength workouts once you get into the competitive season. 

    Author Neal Henderson, MS CSCS is a USA Triathlon Elite certified coach and National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.  He is the Sport Science Manager at Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and used to squat 500 pounds and power-clean 225 pounds as a high school athlete before turning to triathlon racing in college.

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Sharpen up: Tapering effectively for your ultimate race

By Dave Scott

Have you ever wondered why you can, at times, train like a demon but race like a sloth? You’ve seemingly done all of the preparation, but come race day, your confidence fades and your performance is dreadful. So what went wrong? Are you mentally soft, emotionally fragile? Physically, has your taper just plain backfired?

Let’s not answer these questions right away. Instead, let’s take a look at the factors that will ultimately determine the success of your performance-whether you have one final race left this season (or if you’re racing a winter tri or single-sport event) or just want a bit of time to think things through and get it right before next season. Sharpening and tapering for your key races should include a checklist of items to eliminate the guesswork. For a race of four hours or less your checklist must address these key areas:

1.    Physical factors
2.    Psychological and emotional
3.    Nutritional
4.    Race awareness

Physical factors
Rule one: Allow your body to rest and rebuild over the final four weeks. Rest does not mean easy training. Maintaining the same percentage of high-intensity training during the final four weeks is of paramount importance for optimal race performance. You cannot just cruise through all of your sessions. The nervous system needs to be stimulated.

So what does intensity really mean? The total percentage of faster-paced efforts should be around 8 to 20 percent of your total workout time per week for each discipline: swim, bike, run. For example, you may ride three times per week for a total of six hours. Within this six-hour timeframe, up to 20 percent should be at a higher intensity: 8 to 20 percent of 360 minutes equals 29 to 72 minutes. Follow a similar formula for all three disciplines.

Spread these high-intensity minutes over the three days by including repeats or steady tempo sessions at your optimal race pace. A sample workout could include: 7 x 4 minutes (8 percent) or 8 x 9 minutes (20 percent). Perform each repeat at a pace comparable to your previous higher-intensity training sessions. Elevating the percentage of your training that’s high-intensity or raising the intensity higher than it’s been in previous sessions will only lead to fatigue on race day.

Rule two: Drop your total weekly training time as per the following schedule:
•    Week 4 (i.e., four weeks out from your race): Reduce your overall weekly training time by 10 percent
•    Week 3: Reduce your overall weekly training time by 15 percent
•    Week 2: Reduce your overall weekly training time by 30 percent
•    Week 1: Reduce your overall weekly training time by 60 percent

Rule three: Throughout the taper, do at least 15 to 25 minutes of aerobic intensity training two to three times per week per discipline. The aerobic heart rate allows the morphine-like endorphins to hit your system. This feel-good emphasis is vital during the taper. Stimulating your muscles and breathing rate to a broken conversation pace alleviates anxiety, and the sessions will remind your mind and body that you did a workout. These aerobic sessions can be mixed in with the above higher-intensity sessions or completed on another training day. For example, if you have a higher-intensity block on the bike designated for your Tuesday session, you could warm up for 15 to 20 minutes, then insert the higher-intensity block followed by the aerobic work and finish with a cool-down of five to 10 minutes. This workout may be a bit long for some, in which case my advice is to insert the aerobic block on a non-intensity day.

Let’s take a look at week four for an athlete preparing for an Olympic-distance race. Training time per week could look like this:
•    Run: 4 hours/240 minutes
•    Bike: 6 hours/360 minutes
•    Swim: 2 hours/120 minutes

Based on the above then, the higher-intensity (HI) training (i.e., 8 to 20 percent of the total weekly time) would look like this:
•    Run: 20 to 48 minutes per week
•    Bike: 29 to 72 minutes per week
•    Swim: 5 to 12 minutes per week

Psychological and emotional
Rule one: Write down four to 10 key words that describe you when you’ve felt fantastic in a training session. For example, a swim-workout description might include the following: fluid, powerful catch, hips floating to the surface. Write these down and recite them with your eyes closed: Visualize yourself on race day experiencing the same feelings.

Rule two: Decide what you can control in your race and determine how you’re going to do it. This requires you to have a mental map of the racecourse. Learn the course, either by viewing it online or discussing it with others. In a best-case scenario, view the course first-hand during the final days leading up to the event.

Rule three: Controlling your emotions will alleviate your anxiety about the race. Recognize what you do well and decide how these skills will guide you during the race. Also, minimize the stressors in your daily routine and take comfort in the routines that provide a psychological and emotional lift to your race preparation.

While I was preparing for the Ironman in 1994 I was advised by a sport psychologist to focus only on those things I was able to control and let go of everything else. This allowed me to avoid wrestling with the mundane psychological turmoil that could have hampered my final sharpening for  the race.

Rule four: Select three alternative goals for your race and write these down.

•    Level 1 is a solid race. The race may unfold with a few hurdles, but you will overcome these diversions.
•    Level 2 is a race that mimics your preparation. Your potential is reflected in the race outcome. This race is extremely gratifying.
•    Level 3 is a race that supersedes your expectations. You have visualized a day where you will unleash a race  that is 10 to 20 percent above your expectations. This is not a dream but an achievable goal.

Rule one: Maintain your weight within one percent of your race weight over the final four weeks. Ideally, you are still trying to shed a few pounds during the taper. Plan on a loss of 0.8 percent of your body weight per week.

Rule two: Practice eating your pre-race meal one time per week before your higher-intensity workouts.

Rule three: Plan out your race nutrition. Break your total fluid and calorie intake down into measurable goals for every 10 to 15 minutes of racing.

Rule four: Increase your intake of antioxidant foods and glutamine to combat any potential illness over the final four weeks. Try to select four to six servings per day of antioxidant fruits and/or vegetables. Glutamine is primarily stored in the lungs and skeletal muscle. Athletes that are prone to infections, allergies and slower recovery quite often have low plasma glutamine levels. If this is you, consider taking a glutamine supplement of 10 to 20 grams four times per week during the taper.

Race awareness
Take a look at the following taper checklist and be sure you are organized and ready before the event.
1.    Practice using your race equipment: shoes, aerobars, swim/bike/run apparel
2.    Get to bed early
3.    Go over the course and have a mental map of the course and terrain
4.    Lay out your race plan: pace in each discipline, your fueling intervals and strong sections of the race.
5.    Beginning three days before the event, finish dinner at an hour that allows for a 10-hour spread between dinner and breakfast. For example, if your race starts at 7 a.m. and you plan to eat breakfast two to 2.5 hours before the start, then you should finish your dinner the night before by 6:30 p.m. This allows sufficient nutrient-transit time between meals and allows your breakfast to partially digest before competition.
6.    Warm up before your event. The ideal warm-up will allow you to hit your aerobic zone for eight to 12 minutes and should include four to six short efforts near race pace. Plan on a total warm-up of between 15 and 30 minutes.
7.    Think about your breathing (deep and steady) at the start of the race.
8.    Stand up frequently on the bike during the first five to 10 miles. Stretching your back and calves, while allowing for a subtle change in muscle recruitment, will enhance your overall ride.

Lastly, do what you can do in the moment. Concentrate on the short term. Use the skills that allowed you to peak for the event. Confidence, tenacity and perseverance will prevail, so just let it happen.   

Dave Scott is a six-time Ironman world champion and the first inductee into the Ironman Hall of Fame. Today, Dave continues to live up to his reputation as “The Man” through his many speaking engagements, sport clinics and race-sponsored activities. He currently trains several top-10 Ironman professionals and age-group triathletes and recently completed a DVD on nutrition called The Art and Science of Fueling, for Pre-, During and Post-Endurance Training and Racing, available at

Junk the junk by training with purpose

By Matt Russ

Before you begin your training for the day you should ask yourself one question: “What is the specific purpose of this workout?” If you do not know the answer, then it is likely the value of the workout will be equally in doubt. In order for your fitness to improve, you must place a new stressor on your body and then allow yourself to recover from it. If it is the same amount of physical stress, or less, or if recovery does not occur, then overload will not take place. Fatigue is not necessarily a good indicator of progress, either. If you begin a workout fatigued, sore and generally tired and then go through the motions, you are only breaking your body down further and delaying recovery. Being tired does not in any way mean that you are getting faster.

When I examine an athlete’s training plan for the first time I usually find a lot of junk miles. These are the miles that do not really have a specific purpose but are there because the athlete feels they need to train that day. The junk workout is almost always general in format and redundant. Often this time would be better spent recovering or performing a shorter, more specific workout that targets a particular limiter. Do not confuse hours with quality training. Your long workout addresses a particular fitness substrate: endurance. Endurance is very important, even the most important fitness substrate for long events, but it is certainly not the only one.

Define the purpose
The athlete that simply trains the most does not win. The athlete that trains the most effectively does. Assume your limiter is climbing on the bike. To address this limiter you could go ride several hours on a hilly course.

Before you choose your workouts you should identify your fitness limiters and your goals for the season. Are you a weak climber? Does your economy and form need work? Do you lack power in the flats? What sport do you need to spend the most time addressing? Your workouts should address these questions specifically. Now think about your goals and peak race(s). When is your race? What is the racecourse like? Where will your weakness be? The answers to these questions should largely determine how your training plan builds out.

Now that you know what to target, you must choose the right workouts at the right time. If you are an underpowered cyclist, strength training during your base phase will help increase force production. In consideration, you will have to lower your weekly saddle hours as you spend more training time in the gym. If you are a weak swimmer, spend time correcting your stroke. This may mean reducing the run and bike on some weeks as you spend more time in the water or with a coach. Realize that a general plan will not address your needs specifically. In order to reach your true potential you may need a plan that is as unique as you are. 

Training requires energy
We often have athletes come to us chronically injured, burned out, and/or over-trained. By reducing their training volume to a more manageable level we are able to make these athletes faster. In reviewing their training plans we get rid of the junk miles first. It is a mental adjustment for them when we step down volume. Only when they have more energy to train effectively and become more balanced in their bodies and lifestyle do they get on board. The athletes begin to get faster and they realize some of the shorter workouts are some of the hardest and most effective. Reducing their total hours does not mean they do not train hard. In fact, they are able to train much harder than when they were chronically fatigued. They just don’t train as often (instead, they make every workout count by ensuring every training session has a purpose and is designed to contribute to overall fitness development) and are allowed more recovery time. You only have a finite amount of energy to put forth. Where, when and how you apply your energy determines the efficacy of your training.

There is always a compulsion to do more. This is a natural impulse, but adding in a workout that has no real purpose can work against you. When your body is broken down and you are training simply because you feel you have to, it is non-productive. Resist that compulsion to throw random workouts in that may impair recovery. Only train with purpose.

Don’t confuse quantity with high-quality training. The athlete that trains 15 hours of random miles per week is not as effective as the athlete training 10 hours of directed and specific training. This athlete targets strength, power, aerobic capacity, endurance, or anaerobic endurance, in the right mix, at the right time.

Matt Russ has coached and trained elite athletes from around the country and internationally for over 10 years. He currently holds expert licenses from USA Triathlon, USA Cycling and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is head coach and owner of The Sport Factory and works with athletes of all levels full time. He is a freelance author and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines and Web sites. Visit for more information, or e-mail him at

Tri To Eat Like A Kenyan

Bill Nadeau, MS

Tri to eat like a Kenyan
There is a great deal of interest in the training habits of the world’s elite athletes. Of particular interest to all endurance athletes alike is that of Kenyan runners, since they have dominated the field of distance running for over a decade.   Books have been written and running camps have been developed to mimic the Kenyan’s training habits. Surprisingly, the other important piece of the Kenyan training puzzle, nutrition, has only recently been analyzed and has yet to be incorporated into any structured training program. It is likely that they are eating differently than other athletes, since imitating their running habits have only allowed others to inch slightly closer to the Kenyan athletic level. This poses the question of whether we should be placing a greater emphasis on nutrition as a key element of a complete training program. Almost certainly the answer is yes, and is based on evidence, which has shown that most American and European distance runners are not even following the current nutritional recommendations by sports nutrition experts for endurance athletes, whereas the Kenyan diet simply and gracefully mirrors the expert’s suggestions. Perhaps we should turn to the Kenyans for some nutritional guidance. 

What is the Kenyan diet?
A group of sport and nutrition experts led by Yannis Pitsiladis from the International Centre for East African Running Science based in Glasgow studied a group of ten elite Kenyan middle distance runners during their peak training season in 2004. Their diet was found to be very simple. The group of runners consumed five different meals spaced around two different running workouts. Interestingly, their food intake was primarily from vegetables, grains and starches (86%), such as bread, rice, potatoes, porridge, cabbage, kidney beans, and ugali (the national dish of Kenya composed of corn meal paste), and less so from meat (14%), which was mostly beef. Their fluid intake was sufficient at 2.3 liters per day; however, just over half of that fluid came from tea. The runners drank about 1.1 liters of water and 1.2 liters of tea per day.

Basic, but rich!
The Kenyan diet is so basic yet so sustainable. They rely on their agriculturally rich land to supply them with food for life and for sport. Further, unlike most westernized societies, the Kenyans are not presented with a superfluous amount of food choices and diet pressures everywhere they go. They rarely if ever consume candy, soda, or processed foods.   They eat to survive and prosper rather than to indulge.

So you should go to the store and buy ugali?
Not exactly, it is more important to examine the nutrient composition of their food rather than attempt to mimic what they eat. This is for practicalities sake and because all food is broken down in the body to its basic elements, no matter what it started as.

The Kenyans ingested about 76.5% of their total daily calories from carbohydrate, such as ugali, vegetables, and other starches, which equated to 10.4 grams per kg of body weight per day or in total about 600 grams per day. Experts recommend endurance athletes consume about 7-12 grams of carbohydrate per kg body weight per day (for moderate to heavy training intensities).  The Kenyans were right on the mark. About 13.4% of their total calories came from fat, with most of these fat calories from milk. Finally, about 10.1% of their total calories came from protein, such as beef and milk, which equated to 1.3 grams per kg of body weight per day or in total about 75 grams per day. Experts recommend endurance athletes consume about 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kg per day. Again, the Kenyans were right on.

That’s a lot of carbs. Should triathletes really eat that much carbs?
Carbohydrate is the primary source of fuel for muscle and brain activity. It also supplies the needed vitamins and minerals to the diet that a high fat or high protein diet lacks. Furthermore, it is valuable throughout the training cycle; before the event carbohydrates can maximize muscle glycogen stores, during the event they can prevent hypoglycemia and improve performance, and after the event they can optimize repletion of endogenous carbohydrate stores and improve ones mood state over training.

What about the Kenyan’s fat intake?
The Kenyan’s diet was very moderate in fat. The primary source of fat in their diet was from the full-fat milk that was added to their tea. They consumed no “junk food” and therefore excessive amounts of fat were not a concern. Certain types of fat can be very advantageous to the triathletes’ diet because they supply essential fats in a calorie dense package. However, because fat is so calorie dense, it is important to limit unnecessary junk foods to keep fat intake at a moderate level.

Shouldn’t you eat more protein to gain strength?
It is important for endurance athletes to obtain more protein than sedentary individuals, but since most people consume about twice as much protein as recommended, adequate protein intake for athletes is not a concern. Nevertheless, there are some supporters for high protein diets for athletes, but these fads are unlikely to be backed by scientific studies.

Kenyans are runners and I’m a triathlete. Would it work for me?
The Kenyans that were studied are middle distance runners who train about 10-14 miles, or about 1.2 hours per day over two training sessions. This duration of training may be significantly less than that of individuals training for longer endurance events and triathlons. However, the two big differences between these Kenyans and endurance triathletes are the requirement for a great number of calories by triathletes and the necessity and ability of triathletes to consume food during their workout.

There are several noteworthy aspects of the Kenyan diet that can be advantageous for triathletes.

       –  They always ate within one hour post-workout to promote muscle repair and replenish glycogen stores.
       –  Their macronutrient intake paralleled the recommendations by nutrition experts for endurance athletes.
       –  The Kenyans obtained all of their essential vitamins and minerals from nutrient dense food and relied on
          non-nutrient dense food, like sugar added to tea, to supply the remainder of their calories.
        – The Kenyan diet was not entirely focused on meat, which is slow and difficult to digest.   In fact, vegetarian
          (or semi-vegetarian) diets that are cautiously planned can provide enough energy and nutrients to support
          health and athletic performance.


Although the Kenyan diet focuses on the unique foods native to the country and has fueled some of the worlds best distance runners, we should not deem it necessary to eat exactly what they eat. What should be taken from this report is that they eat a balanced and nutritious diet that supplies them with all of the essential vitamins and minerals in a way that matches the current recommendations of carbohydrate, fat and protein intake for endurance athletes. 

William J. Nadeau, Jr. (Bill) earned a Bachelor of Science from Bowdoin College in 1998 and a Masters of Science from the University of New Hampshire in microbiology in 2001. Currently, Bill is a pursuing his second Masters in nutrition at Boston University and aims to become credentialed as a Registered Dietitian. He is also a sports nutritionist for


Instant Classic for the ages: 2007 Fiesta Bowl

Instant Analysis: Fiesta Bowl 

  By Matt Zemek
Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 2, 2007

Decades from now, the first BCS bowl game ever broadcast by the FOX television network will likely remain the best. In the immediate aftermath of a breathtaking event, only one thing can be said: the 2007 Fiesta Bowl could be the greatest game in college football’s 138-year history.


When do you know a game is something beyond special? How can a game rise to the very top of a sport that’s been played since 1869? What is it that takes a mere sporting event and turns it into the experience of a lifetime? The answers to these great questions were all found in Glendale, Arizona, on a New Year’s night for the ages.

Boise State’s 43-42 overtime victory over Oklahoma represented a seminal sports moment… and not just for the deliriously happy state of Idaho. This game–which displayed all the very best elements of collegiate athletics–merits consideration for “Greatest Of All Time” (GOAT) status. The reason is deceptively simple: this game possessed so many stirring and stunning plot twists that the remarkable became forgotten at numerous points along the way.

In a game that took over four hours to play (even with new clock rules aimed at shortening a college football contest), a succession of bold narratives kept getting eclipsed by new events that created even more dramatic storylines. The 2007 Fiesta Bowl was an ecstatic experience that just kept getting better and better and better, and it was only because of Boise State head coach Chris Petersen that this contest ended as soon as it did.

As they say in show business, let’s take it from the top, shall we?

Boise State’s early 14-0 lead suggested the possibility of an upset blowout, which would have made for a sensational story in its own right. Then Oklahoma counterpunched and narrowed the lead to 14-10, suggesting that it was only a matter of time before the Sooners took over. This led to the “little guy puts up good fight but gets overwhelmed” narrative, which has a fair amount of poignancy to it. But after 25 minutes of entertaining and unpredictable football, the fun was just starting.

When Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky got turned around and then threw a floater to the sideline on his back foot, no one in University of Phoenix Stadium could have thought that Drisan James would score a touchdown for the Broncos. But in a game where the unexpected became the expected on a routine basis, the BSU receiver faked out a slow Sooner cornerback, made a sharp cut inside, and then sprinted down the sidelines before diving inside the pylon for an incredible touchdown just before halftime. Boise State had been solid up to that point; Drisan James’ touchdown gave the Broncos a new measure of momentum while adding to the stature of the WAC champions. As the teams walked to the locker room, the folks in Boise were getting noisy–they knew their team had crossed the threshold from “playing over their heads” to “being legitimately great.” But as the night’s events would show, the Broncos still had a lot of greatness left to achieve.

After continuing to take advantage of a meltdown by Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson, the Broncos claimed a 28-10 third-quarter lead. The screaming irony from the first three quarters of play was that Thompson played with the same paralyzed look that Boise’s Jared Zabransky displayed in a nightmarish performance at Georgia in 2005. Zabransky–the MVP of this Fiesta Bowl–saw a psychologist this past spring to address anxiety problems that hampered his performance in 2005. The Georgia loss–in which Zabransky threw four picks–represented the low point in the Boise quarterback’s year. As the Broncos amassed their 18-point bulge, Zabransky watched as an opposing quarterback drowned in mistakes. This instance of role reversal created an even more compelling Fiesta Bowl narrative.

Then, just when the Broncos seemed poised to run away and hide, a sick joke from the football gods stunned the little guy against the big-name program from Norman.

Five minutes and 31 seconds remained in the third quarter. Oklahoma chose to punt on fourth down, an act of resignation as much as anything else. A beaten Sooner team and its thunderstruck coach, Bob Stoops, seemed to be throwing in the towel. It was at this moment that the 2007 Fiesta Bowl began to assume mythical proportions as a game that would break all the rules and defy all the odds.

Precisely when Stoops and Oklahoma were conceding yet another possession, the ensuing Sooner punt hit a Boise State blocker. The Sooners recovered the loose ball, pounded the ball into the end zone, and closed the gap to 28-17. And even while Boise State’s physical and imposing defense continued to stuff Oklahoma’s rushing attack, the Sooners did manage to tack on a field goal and creep within eight points as the fourth quarter began. The moment had to be humorous for seasoned observers of football: Stoops, an undeniably great coach, had a horrible night as a decision maker; yet, his worst decision of the night turned out to provide him with the best results. Once again, it seemed as though Goliath was finally beginning to wear down David, only in a more dramatic way with the clock ticking down. The noose got tighter for everyone involved in this increasingly intriguing affair. Midway through the fourth quarter, Stoops would eschew another fourth-down near midfield, as he chose to punt the ball to Boise State once again. When the Sooners foolishly used up their timeouts just before the four-minute mark of regulation, the Oklahoma outlook darkened considerably. The dramatic tension inside the domed stadium grew exponentially.

And then things got reallyinteresting.

Oklahoma earned one final possession with the football, and the Sooners marched downfield to score a touchdown inside the two-minute mark, with Thompson finally steadying himself and acting like the superb signal caller he had been for the duration of the 2006 season. But with OU out of timeouts and down by two points, it seemed that Stoops’ poor game management decisions would finally catch up with him. This was made even more likely when an illegal shift penalty forced the Sooners to attempt their game-tying two-point try from the Boise State 7. That penalty came on a play when Oklahoma thought it had converted the tying two-pointer on a fade pass. And thatfade pass came one play after Boise State had seemingly won the game by denying OU’s firsttwo-point try, only to find that defensive pass interference was called on a Boise State cornerback. The call was questionable, given that the ball seemed uncatchable (a recurring theme on the night as far as pass interference penalties were concerned). Moreover, the Boise defender seemed to be doing nothing more than playing patty-cake with Sooner receiver Quentin Chaney. The flag–being dubious and somewhat late–was reminiscent of the questionable flag thrown against Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. It only added to the drama that was unfolding in the Desert.

All told, the ball was snapped on three separate two-point attempts. And on OU’s third try from the BSU 7–after one penalty against each team–Thompson found a receiver in the middle of the end zone to tie the game at 28 with 1:26 remaining. OU–down big at one point, outcoached all night long, and turnover-plagued for most of the proceedings–had somehow staved off defeat for the moment. The Sooners survived a host of miscues, deficient line play, an injury to star receiver Malcolm Kelly, and Boise’s excellence to dig out of the 18-point ditch they faced a quarter earlier. By enduring three two-point conversion attempts, Oklahoma produced three unbearable stomach-punch reactions that toyed with the emotions of everyone who had a strong emotional investment in this game. This story–a rollicking epic novel of a football fight–just kept getting better and better… though it didn’t seem humanly possible that it could.

The narratives just kept getting more poignant and powerful as the proceedings continued to the amazement of all.

Right after Oklahoma finally tied things up in the dying minutes, escaping near-certain death in a Houdini act of extraordinary proportions, Jared Zabransky–so much of a rock all night long–suddenly crumbled in one devastating and achingly brief moment. Out of the blue, Boise’s brilliant quarterback threw a pick-six to Oklahoma’s Marcus Walker with 1:02 left to give the Sooners a 35-28 lead. After a virtually perfect night under center in a performance that destroyed all his career demons, Zabransky–with just one errant flick of his wrist–had seemingly doomed the team he led to the brink of gridiron glory. The power of the moment was undeniable; so, too, was the sense that the little guy’s run was done. The fatal, final error had been committed. The armor had cracked. The big mistake was made. The heavyweight favorite had broken the will of the upstart that had proved its worth… but would not have a victory to show for it. The little guy belonged on the big stage, but after Oklahoma took the lead on that stunning interception return, it was the Sooners who seemed ready to stand on the victory stage. The narrative–at this point–was enough to make Broncos-Sooners a great college football game and a well-above-average BCS bowl that was far better than anyone could have hoped for.

The best, improbably but undeniably, was yet to come. (Are you beginning to sense how special this game was as you review it in your mind? If a friend of yours didn’t see it, make sure a tape gets to his VCR.)

With Boise State facing a 4th and 18 at midfield with under 20 seconds left, a dream was about to die after coming oh-so-close to reality. At least, that’s what happens in 99.9 percent of all college football games that have ever been played in human history. On this night, one great game evoked the memory of another great game, as Boise State-Oklahoma–in a brief but astonishing sequence–turned into Chargers-Dolphins from the 1981 NFL playoffs. No, it wasn’t Don Strock to Duriel Harris to Tony Nathan, but it sure felt like it. Zabransky threw for 15 yards to Drisan James, who–while cutting to his right and exploding toward the middle of the field–lateraled to Jerard Rabb, who was sprinting toward the left sideline while shellshocked Sooner defenders were wrong-footed in their pursuit of James. Rabb’s sprint ended in triumph, as he dove inside the pylon (much as James, his fellow receiver, had done at the end of the first half of play) to score a touchdown with seven seconds remaining. Anthony Montgomery’s extra point sent this game into overtime. With perfect execution on a play few teams dare to attempt, the Broncos–perfectly drilled by Petersen, their coach–had done the unthinkable: no, not winning, but tying a game on a hook-and-lateral after being counted out just seconds earlier.

After a madcap finish to regulation time, it didn’t seem possible that anything could surprise anyone who was watching this game, in person or on television. But as this game continued to prove until its very last moments and beyond, each turn of events was a surprise unto itself.

The end to this game came quickly, but not in a way anyone ever could have imagined. After Adrian Peterson scored a touchdown on Oklahoma’s first and only play of overtime to give the Sooners a 42-35 lead, the Broncos–with their backs to the wall–would use two more incredibly creative plays to win a game that had been within their grasp several times before.

On a 4th and 3 from the OU 6, Petersen–who now owns the town of Boise the way few men could ever own any municipality, anywhere and anytime–ordered up a halfback pass from receiver Vinny Perretta to tight end Derek Schouman. It scored a touchdown to bring the Broncos within a point. Then, instead of following conventional wisdom, Petersen decided to go for two and end the game–win or lose–on one play from the three-yard line. After showing one look to OU’s defense, Stoops responded by calling timeout for Oklahoma.

No problem for the Boise State head coach.

Petersen used a different formation, confident in the knowledge that the Sooners wouldn’t be ready for the next best offering from his bottomless bag of tricks. Sure enough, they weren’t.

Zabransky–who went from the brink of victory to the brink of defeat to overtime and back to the brink of defeat–executed a Statue of Liberty play, and star running back Ian Johnson strolled into the left side of the end zone for the winning–yes, winning–two-point conversion. Had the Sooners won, justice would have been served in the sense that Oklahoma would have profited from favorable officiating after a year of suffering the worst and most outrageous calls imaginable. But in an even stronger sense, Boise State’s win was the fairest outcome of them all. The effort, physicality, resilience, perseverance, creativity and fearlessness of the boys from Boise deserved to be rewarded with a landscape-changing, small conference-affirming, playoff-validating moment in the history of college football. The fact that the little guy beat the brand name made an astonishing sporting event that much more satisfying and significant.

And when the game was over, there was still one more moment that added to the superabundant spectacle in the suburbs of Phoenix. Ian Johnson, scorer of the game-winning two-point conversion, gained a victory even bigger than the football conquest he had just completed: he proposed to his girlfriend, and she said “yes.”

Want to know what makes a game special on a legendary scale? This game had it all… or at least, as close to everything as humanly possible.

You can’t beat a late comeback. Wait, this game did.

You can’t beat three two-point attempts for a tie in the final minutes. Wait, this game did.

You can’t beat the heartbreakingly late mistake by the big underdog. Wait, this game did.

You can’t beat the underdog pulling off a hook-and-lateral reminiscent of an epic NFL playoff game to tie the score with 7 seconds left. Wait, this game did.

You can’t beat a decorated running back (Adrian Peterson of OU) scoring a touchdown in overtime of a game he didn’t have to play after suffering a midseason injury. Wait, this game did.

You can’t beat a fourth-down halfback option pass for a touchdown to keep an overtime game going. Wait, this game did.

You can’t beat a Statue of Liberty play to win the game on a ballsy two-point try, one play after a fourth-down halfback option pass for a touchdown to keep the game going in the first place. Oh, wait: this game did!

And you just can’t beat that kind of “can you top this?” finish when it’s followed, off the field, by the football hero proposing to his cheerleader girlfriend, who accepts the proposal and leaps into her man’s waiting arms.

Nope–you can’t beat that.

The Boise State Broncos didn’t just become the hero to the WAC, all non-BCS conferences, underdogs everywhere, and kids who love to dream big. Chris Petersen’s team didn’t just complete a 13-0 season while validating the BCS’s decision to install a fifth game that provisionally allowed for non-traditional teams to have their moment in the college football spotlight. No, as big as Boise State’s victory is in the college football world of today, the magic of this moment lies in the fact that it gave a treasured American sport the best game in its long and colorful history. Just four years after the Civil War ended, the story of college football began. On the first night of 2007, the Boise State Broncos gave that story its most beautiful and breathtaking chapter.



Now That’s a Fiesta!

Broncos earn respect with improbable victory



By Pat Forde

GLENDALE, Ariz. — At the end of a game unlike any college football has ever witnessed, two of the great female icons in American culture staged a harmonic, hypnotic, borderline hallucinogenic convergence.

Boise State introduced Cinderella to Lady Liberty.

A head-to-toe, shining-beacon-to-glass-slipper miracle ensued.

Jared Zabransky

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Jared Zabransky passed for 262 yards and three touchdowns.


The Broncos culminated an unrivaled string of gusto-laden, do-or-die trick plays with one of the oldest in the book, the Statue of Liberty. And when Ian Johnson grabbed Jared Zabransky’s behind-the-back handoff, scooted around the left side and scored two titanic points to beat lordly Oklahoma 43-42 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, magic bloomed in the desert.

“It doesn’t even seem real to me,” Boise State offensive tackle Andrew Woodruff said, perplexedly rubbing his burr-headed scalp on the field while the Broncos fans roared in the stands.

Reality was further challenged when Johnson followed his winning run with an on-field wedding proposal to his flabbergasted cheerleader girlfriend. But, please, one blockbuster story at a time.

The big picture: The Valley of the Stun was the stage as an indomitable bunch of dreamers in orange pants landed the mightiest populist blow of college football’s modern era. They were Hickory High in helmets, George Mason in cleats. They knocked off a gridiron giant one decade to the day after the burial of Pokey Allen, the beloved Boise coach who brought the program up to Division I-A status just 11 years ago.

The doors to the sport’s throne room seem thrown open as never before.

Check the plaque at the lady’s feet on Liberty Island this morning and see if the familiar sonnet has been changed. See if it now reads, “Give me your non-BCS teams tired of being disrespected, your poor of football budget, your huddled masses of mid-major strivers yearning to play in the grandest bowl games.” And see if Lady Liberty is wearing a Boise State jersey today.

The Broncos entered their first Bowl Championship Series game undefeated but unloved in some elitist quarters. The Western Athletic Conference champions were made a steep underdog to the twice-beaten Sooners, and were suspected by some of fraudulence. They carried not just their own quest for nationwide credibility into this game, but the hopes and dreams of every alleged mid-major team that had been snubbed by a system of the rich, for the rich and by the rich.

Boise got its respect by beating the seven-time national champion Sooners in an overwrought overtime. But beyond the big picture was the delicious, utterly improbable manner in which the Broncos did it.

The method was true madness. And true genius. No coaching staff has ever ended a game with so much daring.

Out of conventional offensive options, first-year head coach Chris Petersen and first-year offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin went straight sandlot. They showed a career’s worth of guts in calling one gadget play after another, rescuing Boise in a game it first had seemingly locked up, then had seemingly lost.

Asked if there could possibly be anything left in the playbook after this, the 30-year-old Harsin shook his head and smiled.

“No, no,” he said. “We threw it all out right there.”

They threw it out in the following order:

Ian Johnson

AP Photo/Matt York
Ian Johnson scored the game-winner on a two-point conversion in OT.


The last of the 21 points scored in the final 86 seconds of regulation came on a preposterous play: a 50-yard hook-and-lateral pass from Zabransky to Drisan James to Jerard Rabb — a combination that will be the Tinker to Evers to Chance of Boise State lore for the next century or so. Rabb crossed the goal line with all of seven seconds left to play, saving the Broncos from what seemed to be imminent defeat.

Boise practices the play every week in its final full practice before games.

“The guys love it,” Petersen said. “We probably run it 10 times because they love it.”

So it’s a fun play to practice. Whether it’s an effective play is another matter entirely.

“Can I say something?” interjected linebacker Korey Hall in the postgame press conference. “It doesn’t work in practice usually.”

Harsin confirmed this.

“It never works,” he said. “Ever.”

Pause. Another smile.

“Then we do it and it works.”

Zabransky, who looked like he’d lost the game just a minute earlier with a brutal pick-six gift to Oklahoma cornerback Marcus Walker, fired a 15-yard pass to James. The wideout curled just a step or two toward the middle of the field before flipping a lateral to Rabb, who grabbed it and swiftly outflanked the Sooners secondary and sprinted the final 35 yards to the end zone.

It was as shocking a last-gasp play as anything but Cal’s five-lateral slalom through the Stanford band. It might also have been the most daring last-gasp call (that worked) of all time.

But it was only the first in Boise State’s trick play trifecta.

The next one came when the game was threatening to end with a violent anticlimax. On the first play of overtime, Oklahoma star back Adrian Peterson slashed off left tackle 25 yards for a stand-up touchdown. Suddenly the new life gained by the hook-and-lateral play was in danger of being extinguished.

A designed throwback from tailback Vinny Perretta to Zabransky was aborted on Boise’s first play, as Perretta wisely ate the ball for no gain. Five plays later, the Broncos had crept to the Oklahoma 5-yard line, but faced a fourth-and-2.

Harsin went to the trick bag again. Zabransky went in motion to the left. Perretta, at quarterback, took the shotgun snap and rolled right, then lofted a lovely spiral toward the right corner of the end zone. Tight end Derek Schouman cradled it for the touchdown.

But that only made the score 42-41, which left Petersen with a decision: play for the tie or go all-in. Win or lose, in a single play.

Jerard Rabb

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Jerard Rabb finished off the hook and ladder with a dive into the end zone.


Petersen left his kicker on the sideline. Oklahoma called timeout. Boise State’s brain trust called the play: Statue Left.

When Zabransky called it in the huddle, confidence flowed.

“We just won this game,” receiver Legedu Naanee announced.

“When he said Statue I thought, ‘Ohhh, brother, we’re going to do it in style,'” Johnson said.

Boise had run the play once before this season, against Idaho, and gained a first down on it. In a credit to Oklahoma’s scouting, Sooners linebacker Rufus Alexander said they’d seen the play on tape and had prepared for it.

But they weren’t quite prepared enough to stop Boise’s perfect execution.

Zabransky took the snap and feigned a throw in the right flat to Boise’s three-man bunch formation. As the Sooners flew in that direction, Zabransky calmly stuck the ball behind his back with his left hand — a twist on the conventional handoff he’d convinced Harsin would work earlier in the season.

Johnson then crisply reversed course, circled behind Zabransky and lifted the ball from his grasp. Virtually unimpeded by a bamboozled defense, the nation’s touchdown leader crossed the goal line one final time in this dream season.

Bedlam, commingled with outright shock at the audacity of the call, ensued.

Johnson charged to the corner stands where his 56 family members were gathered. He jumped into their embrace, only to bring a banister falling down on him, cutting his leg. Pain was incidental at this moment, though. After hugging his father, the idiosyncratic star runner “started moseying over” to his girlfriend, Chrissy Popadics.

Johnson actually got the idea while attending the Insight Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium last week. One of the Fiesta Bowl committee members, Tyler Hanson, suggested to Johnson that he propose postgame.

“Maybe I will,” Johnson told Hanson.

Still, he opted to leave the engagement ring at the team hotel. Just in case things didn’t turn out well in the game.

“I didn’t want to bring it and then always remember a loss,” he said.

In the locker room after the game, Johnson embraced a beaming Hanson, thanking him for his inspiration. Here’s the play-by-play from the proposal:

Ian Johnson

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
Running back Ian Johnson proposed to girlfriend and Broncos cheerleader Chrissy Popadics after Boise State’s win.

With a national audience watching at home, Johnson dropped on one knee (“I nearly slipped”) and asked for her hand in marriage. The poor girl, already delirious over the game’s dramatic end, spluttered out a breathless acceptance. Johnson had pulled his finest misdirection play yet.

“I had my hopes up [for an impending engagement], but that was it,” Popadics said. “We had talked about it and he said, ‘Not for a while.'”

Explained Johnson: “There’s no better time than on national TV after the game-winning two-point conversion.”

Minutes later, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops classily jogged up a tunnel to congratulate Johnson. On the victory, I think. Not the proposal.

Johnson’s teammates were surprised by No. 41’s move. But not shocked.

“I came in with Ian freshman year, and he’s a little different guy,” safety Marty Tadman said — and when the heavily tattooed Tadman says you’re a little different, you’re a little different. “You’ve got to think of the weirdest circumstance he’d do that in, and this is probably it.”

No bowl game has ever ended with circumstances this weird, piled improbably upon one another. When the final plot twist had played out and the final trickeration had worked, Boise State had beaten Oklahoma with a magical mix of determination and imagination.

The Idaho Statesman
fiesta_bowl.jpgIan Johnson scores the winning two point conversion at University of Phoenix Sadium before the Fiesta Bowl Monday.

Cinderella joined forces with Lady Liberty. The result was part fairy tale, part American Dream come true.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for He can be reached at