When it comes to determination, hard work, and endurance, Jen Ator has it all in the bag. Jen recently competed in the Ironman race, and is the Fitness Director at Women’s Health Magazine. Being one of the magazine’s experts, she writes and manages fitness content online and in print, and shows us all how it’s done in their online fitness videos. Jen is the author of “Shape-Up Shortcuts: Score a HOTTER, HEALTHIER BODY in HALF THE TIME!”, and has appeared on Good Morning America, The Steve Harvey Show, Today, Extra. Her expert advice and tips can be read in numerous contributions in various national print and online publications. We asked Jen all about her experience training for Ironman, and what life is like being one of the nations top fitness experts.
BB: First off, tell us about how you came upon landing the title as Fitness Director for Women’s Health Magazine!
February 2015 will mark my six-year anniversary at Women’s Health. After working at Men’s Health magazine, I was hired as an assistant Fitness Editor for Women’s Health. I worked tirelessly to take on more responsibilities—like becoming a certified strength and condition specialist, writing my first book, helping to develop Women’s Health fitness apps, working on the video content—and grow my role at the magazine.
BB: What sparked your passion for fitness and healthy living?
Sports have played a pivotal role in my life. I grew up in an environment that was very driven by being active and enjoying sports and fitness. I competed in gymnastics, swimming, basketball, field hockey, and lacrosse, ultimately focusing on field hockey and lacrosse in high school. I loved the lessons I learned from being involved in sports: how to be disciplined and committed; how to be a good teammate and leader; how to deal with and grow from failure; and how it feels to accomplish something you have worked tirelessly for. I played DI lacrosse at Ohio University where I also studied at the Scripps School of Journalism. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and it was in college that I realized I could combine that passion with my love for sports and fitness.
BB: You just competed in the Ironman World Championships as Apolo Ohno’s teammate. What was that experience like?
It was by far the most challenging, daunting, and intimidating challenge I’ve ever accepted; it was also the most eye-opening, transformative, and life-changing. Being able to go through this journey with a teammate was really helpful—there was always someone who could understand exactly what you were going through. Having Olympic speed-skating legend Apolo Ohno be that teammate was an honor and privilege. We may have been coming from vastly different athletic backgrounds, but our goal was the same: Stay focused and optimistic, make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we were blessed to share, and look back with zero regrets.
BB: Did you discover a part of you that you didn’t know existed while training for Iron Man or competing in it?
I think I rediscovered a piece of myself that I thought I had lost. In the year following my knee surgery [ACL reconstruction and meniscus repair], I had started to doubt that I would ever get back to the fitness level that I had been at before—let alone achieve anything greater. I began to reframe my goals; I started settling for less. When I decided to take on this challenge, I knew it was the push I needed too. This experience helped me find the athlete I was before—the person who, on and off the field, fought hard for what she wanted, stayed fiercely optimistic against even the most dire odds, and never, ever gave up.
BB: You had great guidance from Iron Man Champions during your training. What was the most important advice you received?
There is so much priceless advice I received during training; six-time Ironman Champion Luke McKenzie taught me that Ironman training—and especially the race itself—is a constant practice of staying in the moment (a lesson that has helped me in the rest of my life, as well). My coach Lee Gardner, owner of Trismarter in Colorado, taught me that Ironman is 70 percent about consistency—which taught me to be proud of myself for getting out of bed each morning and making the effort, even if a workout didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. But probably the most impactful advice was from Hines Ward, who visited the Women’s Health office in New York City when we first kicked off the Mission Apolo: Built with Chocolate Milk campaign to share his experiences of becoming an Ironman. As he was leaving he said three words: Embrace the journey. No one’s going to tell you that the road to an Ironman is easy. It’s daunting, draining, and at times defeating. But we often don’t realize until too late that each cumulative step you take along the way is part of the achievement itself. It’s not just the moment you cross the finish line that should be celebrated—it’s the process that gets you there that you have to appreciate, and even enjoy. The six-month experience went by in the blink of an eye, and the morning following the race, I was so glad to know that I truly cherished every minute of the ride.
BB: Finishing the Ironman Race must have been such a rewarding feeling! Outside of your work with Women’s Health and training with Olympic champions, how do you maintain the Balanced Babe lifestyle?
I think it’s really important to determine what your priorities are. We all have limited time and energy, and it’s crucial that you are making the most of it and spending it on the things that matter—to you. I’m someone who believes you can have it all—you just might not be able to have it all at the same time. I know there are going to be times in life where certain things will take priority and others will have to take a back seat (like during this experience, sleep and my training took priority, while I had to make a number of sacrifices in my social life). But at the end of the day I try to check in and make sure that the balance I’m striking is making me happy. If it’s not, that’s when I know I need to make a change to some aspect of my life.
BB: What advice do you have for women who are looking to take their physical health to the next level, whether it is training for a marathon, or trying to motivate themselves to visit the gym?
It’s okay to be nervous or scared—but you have to fight those emotions and just take the leap of faith, take that first step. In the beginning I was so afraid of failing; it took me the entire six months to realize that I am stronger and more capable than I have ever given myself credit. Like so many women, I was the only person standing in my way of success. I think it’s important to remember that you don’t have to want to be an Ironman just because that’s what I did, or run a marathon because that’s what your best friend did. Taking your fitness to the next level means setting a goal that feels intimidating and exhilarating…for you. That could mean entering a power-lifting competition, doing a mud run, or doing a major solo hike. And then once you have your goal, my two biggest tips are build a team and have a bad day plan. Next to training, support is the most important factor for success. Having people in your corner makes you more engaged, motivated, and ultimately, successful. And then having a bad day plan—because they will happen along the way. Knowing how you’ll combat fear, frustration, and other setbacks is essential to staying on track. (For example, I either journal—or call my dad.)
BB: What powerful advice! It seems like what you’re saying can be utilized in other areas of women’s lives as well. I know that for entrepreneurs, the first step is taking that leap of faith and not being afraid of failing. We women should follow this mantra more often. Now that you’ve completed Ironman, what are your next steps?
After completing the Kona Ironman, I realized how important it is to encourage and support others to help them achieve their biggest dreams. I want to work to help people more in that capacity. Also, there may be another book in me somewhere!