Take an imaginary glance at the calendar of Dr. Jennifer Ashton and you might wonder how this busy Englewood OB-GYN gets everything done.
A wife and mother of two, Ashton opened her Englewood medical practice, Hygeia Gynecology, four years ago. Now she has a new health and wellness book, Your Body Beautiful, and a new passion – triathlon training.
"The best thing about a triathlon is that there is something for everyone, at every age and at every fitness level," Ashton, an enthusiastic newcomer on the tri-state triathlon scene, raves. "It's a myth that it's only for the super-fit."
A practicing physician with patients ranging in age from 8 to 98, Ashton tackled her first triathlon in 2011 and is gearing up for her second season – a trio of regional events that will include the West Point Triathlon in August.
"It's a great race," she says. "West Point has a nationally ranked champion triathlon team, and lots of cadets do this race, making it lots of fun and very competitive. Nothing like the Army triathlon team racing next to you to push your pace."
This summer, Ashton has one more reason to be excited: Her daughter, Chloe, a 12-year-old standout-ice hockey player, will be biking, swimming and running alongside mom and dad.
"It's a great way to spend time together," Ashton says, "and training for triathlons does take a decent amount of time, so it's nice that we get to do it together."
Their 14-year-old son, Alex, an avid soccer and lacrosse player, also might join in.
"I decided to start doing triathlons because I love exercising and have always worked out but felt like it would be fun to have a goal to reach or a challenge to train for," Ashton says. "When I was in high school, I played field hockey and lacrosse, but I haven't competed in any sport since then and I really missed it. A friend, Neil Strahl, is a serious triathlete, and he encouraged me to try it."
Ashton also credits her brother, a New York City plastic surgeon and veteran of nine marathons, with inspiring her to get outside her comfort zone and push herself mentally and physically.
Ashton began training for a sprint-distance triathlon (750-meter swim, 20K bike ride, 5K run) in January 2011 with Andres Herrara of Bergen County Multisport.
"He is an amazing coach and can train any level of athlete and around any injury," she says. "He trained me around Achilles tendonitis and H1N1 influenza, and still by the time the race came, I was extremely well prepared. In my first race, I placed sixth in my age group. I even passed an 18-year-old on the run. I couldn't believe it."
With that, Ashton was hooked.
"The addicting thing about triathlons is that, going in, most everyone will have one strong event, one weak event and one average event," she says. "They're also incredibly social, and the participants tend to be very non-judgmental. It's a very welcoming sport, and that sets it apart from other sports."
Ashton's newest goal is to try an Olympic- distance race (1.5K swim, 40K bike ride and 10K run) this season.
To be mentally and physically ready, she suggests training six months in advance. And as a physician, she's particularly mindful of the risks.
"With any such sport where you are putting in hours of training, there is a risk of overuse injuries," she says. "The big ones are Achilles tendonitis and shoulder and knee injuries. I learned that pushing through an overuse injury is never a good idea.
"In addition, for me, increasing my caloric intake was a lesson I learned quickly," Ashton says. "Doing this degree of exercise every day requires that you increase the fuel you put in your tank. Just two weeks into my training, I dropped too much weight. I did some calculations and realized that I need to consume 80 grams of protein a day in order to not break down muscle as fuel."
The cross-training aspect of triathlons appeals to her. Even during an Achilles tendonitis injury, an overuse injury unrelated to her training that sidelined her running schedule for three months, she never lost cardio conditioning because she was swimming and cycling throughout her recovery. Ashton credits Herrera and the physical therapy staff at Excel Orthopedic Rehabilitation in Waldwick with enabling her to recover and do well in her first two races.
"They both really understand triathlons and triathletes," she says.
Alongside Herrera, Ashton maintains a rigorous, "non-negotiable" training schedule, ramping it up in the months before a race and adopting a slower pace post-race to ward off mental fatigue. She trains six days a week, incorporating cardio workouts and resistance training to build strength, speed and flexibility.
"Training for a triathlon took me to a level of intensity I had never experienced before," she says. "In our house, it's a foregone conclusion that I will be working out two hours every morning."
She highly recommends working out with a USAT-certified triathlon trainer or coach because "the best training for races involves different strategies used months in advance."
"Unlike running a marathon, where you just run farther and farther until you hit 26 miles," Ashton says, "triathlon training has different philosophies and techniques based on the three sports involved. Some weeks are devoted to endurance work, others to speed and others to threshold intervals. Working with an expert is invaluable."
Incredibly, she still finds time to see patients and write best-selling books about women's health and wellness.
"In my years as a physician, I've seen women in their 30s and 40s put themselves on auto-pilot," she says. "Increasingly, though, celebrities like Halle Berry are bringing attention to the fact that, today, women in their 40s can be healthier, more fit and more beautiful than they were 10 or 20 years earlier."
Though she is a role model to millions of women, Ashton is quick to praise her patients – half of whom are under the age of 21 – as sources of inspiration.
"Many are incredible young athletes," she says, "and they are role models to me, too. They inspire me to try things I've never done before. At 43, I am in the best shape of my life. That's an incredible feeling."
Ashton's friend and fellow physician Dr. Mehmet Oz agrees.
"Jen has found the fountain of youth through her triathlons and looks younger every day," he says. "I love her passion for exercise that allows her to live fully and be so incredibly fit."
Ashton's Tips on Top-Notch Training
1. Successful training requires planning, commitment and patience. Ashton uses trainingpeaks.com, a free online training tool that lets her track her workouts and progress.
2. Get seven to nine hours of sleep every night. "The best workouts will not work if you don't allow your body to rest, recharge and recover every night."
3. To reduce inflammation after a workout, sip one ounce of tart cherry juice.
4. To replace carbs and protein immediately after a workout, drink low-fat chocolate milk.
5. Practice the swim, bike and run in realistic conditions so you are ready for race day. "This means swim in open water, know your bike well and run the course."
6. Push yourself in every workout, unless it is a "recovery" workout. "If I don't grimace at least once, I don't feel like I made progress."
Staying Healthy, Strong and Sexy
In her latest book, Your Body Beautiful ($26), Dr. Jennifer Ashton has created a five-part plan to a healthier lifestyle. Ashton offers a simple eating guide for keeping energy high and weight low, a time-conscious fitness program, a step-by-step sleep plan and more. The book is available online and in bookstores.