When you think of the Scottish Highland Games, traditionally you picture a large man in a kilt, strolling along carrying a telephone pole. Not a 5’5″ former female swimmer. Well, Heidi King is here to take over and she doesn’t care what you think a Games athlete should look like. She’s too busy smashing PRs and making her Dad proud!
What are your athletic accomplishments before Highland Games? Do you have a track and field background?
I ran track but did not do any throwing. When I was 13-14 years old I was on the city swim team and won state in the 200 meter breast stroke. As an adult I ran several 5k, 10k and three Ragnar races.
How did you get into Highland Games?
My great greatgrandfather came to America from Scotland so I have always had a connection to the Scottish culture. I would go every year to a local festival and watch the athletes throw. One year, I decided I wanted to learn more about it and to compete so I searched the web and found the throwing club Sons of Scot and the president Jeff Loosle. He welcomed me and started coaching me. That was in 2009.
Let’s talk about the role your family plays in your career as a Highland Games athlete. What was their reaction when you started competing in the Games?
My dad’s side is straight from Scotland and he was very excited when I decided to start throwing! He has come to nearly every Game I have competed in. He is definitely my biggest supporter and making him proud is all I’ve ever wanted.
You placed fourth overall at the Las Vegas Highland Games in April 2018; this also came with some PRs. So congratulations! How did it feel to PR in four events and take first in the Sheaf?
It was so rewarding to see that all of my off season lifting was paying off. In May of 2017 I decided I wanted to really take this sport seriously and be the best athlete I could be. My competition generally is much younger than me so I knew I would need to be in the best shape I could possibly be. I was very proud of myself and am so excited to see what this year brings. I missed 3rdplace by a half point which fueled my fire to train even harder. Taking first in sheaf was huge for me. I have been struggling with sheaf the last 2 years which was so frustrating because it has always been one of my better events. The end of last season things just clicked and I was throwing well again. I hit a PR of 21 feet in Vegas and it cleared by at least a foot so I know I can hit even higher. I am expecting to break that PR again this year.
What’s your Games record so far?
I have only thrown Vegas so far but have the Black & White games in Richmond Utah on May 19th.
As a 5’9, 210lb strength athlete who was interested in the sport, it was disconcerting to learn that although there are competitions for smaller athletes in a few places, Highland Games is a sport that’s primarily for taller, larger strength athletes. On the other hand, it’s not like I’m built to run marathons either so I’m used to sports related disappointment. But you’re entering the sport as more and more women are finding it!
I understand this so much! When I first started there were only 3 other girls who threw in Utah, one of which was over 6’ tall.
How tall are you?
I am 5’5”. We did not have classes like the men had, if you were a woman you threw women’s class and that was the only option you had. These women were bigger and stronger than me hands down. I always came in last place BUT I loved the sport. My first time ever throwing in a Women’s Lightweight class was in Vegas about 4 or 5 years ago. I am so grateful for all the women coming in to the sport. I am happy we have classes now and I can compete with women my size. If you cut 10 pounds you would be a Lightweight men’s class athlete!
There you go with the diet talk! I actually have competing in Highland Games on my bucket list. It was while researching this that I discovered that there aren’t lighter classes everywhere. I don’t mind traveling for the experience though.
So back to you, how did it feel to find a sport that resonates with you?
Finding this sport has given me confidence, friendships and the drive to be the best athlete I can be. I am in better shape now then I was in my 20s & 30s. The people I have met are like no other. This sport is like no other. Even though you are competing against each other you cheer each other on and are genuinely excited when someone hits a PR and does well.
Former Highland Games World Champion, Matt Vincent, and former thrower, Chad Wesley Smith have both said that training in the gym only gets you so far. Daniel McKim, who is also a multiple time Games World Champion said he believed in maintaining his training intensity throughout the season. How do you balance training in the gym and skills training?
This is definitely a hard one. In the off season my lifting is focused solely on strength training, low reps and heavy weight. In Utah I cannot generally throw during the winter so the gym is my best friend. I practice some foot work and lift. Once the season starts, I add throwing days so my general week looks like this: Monday, Wednesday and Friday I lift in the gym and Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday or Sunday I throw.
The caber toss is probably the most recognizable Highland Games event. I used to work on a powerline crew and occasionally had to climb poles like the caber. How does it feel, especially as a woman, to pick up and throw something that people climb up to hang lights and power lines on?
Yes, this is definitely the event most people know and talk about. Most of the athletes hate it. I don’t mind caber and it also is one of my stronger events. It is a very intimidating event and I am not going to lie when a difficult caber is selected it gets my adrenaline going. There is so much gratification from flipping a big caber and the crowd cheers right along with you.
Daniel McKim also said that he found his first Games training equipment at a Landscaping supply that sold river rocks. Where do you get your training equipment, especially the caber?
I took a scale and a wagon down to a river by my house and started picking up stones weighing them and testing them out. My dad made my weight for distance, weight over bar and fork, I bought my hammers from a guy named Gordon De Waal, I made my own sheaf bag using Todd Lyman’s You Tube video and I use cabers from Utah Heavy Athletics (which I am now the VP for). They are the throwing club for Utah.
I was surprised to find out that for the Sheaf Toss, you’re supposed to provide your own pitchfork. Where do you get a Games legal pitchfork and do you get strange looks trying to get a pitchfork onto an airplane?
Oh yes the pitchfork. They take so many hours and are so tedious to make. My father and late uncle made mine and it was the first piece of equipment I got. I love it and cherish it almost like a child. I have not yet flown with it but have heard you get weird looks. If I get the invite to Lightweight nationals I will be flying with it in November so I will let you know ha ha!
The most common advice I’ve seen for how to get started is to find an event, sign up as a novice and just jump right in because of how helpful competitors are to each other. What do you know now that you’ve got some time in that you wish you’d known when you started?
Yes, that can be a way to start but honestly there are so many throwing clubs around the US that most people will be able to find people nearby to train with. I would recommend finding a club first, practice a bit then sign up. Also, many people feel like they need to be “in shape” to throw? NOT AT ALL. If you are interested come throw, do not let your worry of not being in shape detour you.
I really enjoyed watching Highland Games at the Arnold. I heard Janine Kuestner describe the experience of competing there for the first time and she mentioned the differences between competing indoors and outdoors. Have you competed indoors as well as outdoors?
I have not competed indoors. I am sure it is weird and I bet a lot more nerve racking from the worry of a rogue implement.
You’ve competed in Las Vegas and Utah as far as I can tell. Do you use the Games as a way to squeeze in a vacation or do you not have time to do anything other than compete and head home?
For Games more than two hours away I stay the night before and the night after. I hate driving long distances on Game days, it is just too exhausting. I have thrown in Idaho as well but that was about three years ago and earlier in the day; I am going to try to hit some this year. I have thrown in Moab the last three years and try to do some hiking when I am there.
How early do you arrive in town before a competition? I ask because the Games seems to have a fairly light-hearted, fun atmosphere unlike other strength sports where sometimes there’s quite a bit of tension. Do you find that you need to arrive early to acclimate and get accustomed to the environmental situation, get over jet lag etc.?
I am generally there an hour before game. 0730 or 0800.
Unlike many Highland Games athletes you have a training area set up at your home. How long did it take to build?
My dad made my trig (toe board) and I just spray paint my lines as needed. The standards were a puzzle that took some brain power. I do not have a very wide yard so having the long lines of rope was not an option. What I did was put a larger metal pipe about 3 feet in the ground and they stick up about 5 feet from the ground. I then put a smaller diameter pipe inside it. The smaller pipe is about 20 feet long so it is high enough for me.
Are you automatically popular when other Games athletes find out you have one?
Yes! I have several people who hit me up to come practice. Most of the practices are in the SLC area and I am south in Utah county so those athletes show a lot of interest in coming to throw.
I know that you got several of Daniel McKim’s books in 2017. Have you read Matt Vincent’s “Training Lab” or “Behemoth” by Daniel McKim?
I have not. I gave Dan’s book out as a prize to the first place athletes at the Valkyrie all women’s games I hosted.
We mentioned that you hit PRs in the sheaf and three other events in April of 2018, plus your sheaf, Braemar and Open were all improving as you got closer to the Vegas Games. How much would you say the books you’ve read contributed to that improvement?
Dan’s book Throw Heavy was awesome. It broke things down and helped educate me on proper technique. Highly recommended!!
Off season Training
Highland Games season is pretty long. Unlike powerlifting or even strongman, you’re not training to peak for a single event. How does that affect how you program your off season training?
This season I am doing things a little different and am continuing my off season training into the throwing season. It is very difficult once the season starts to balance the two. The weeks where I have games I lift and throw as normal until Wednesday, after that I don’t throw or lift at all. I will also get a deep tissue massage that Wednesday to help keep my muscles loose and relaxed as much as possible.
How do you balance improving what you’re good at and addressing weak points?
This is difficult. I tend to focus on what I am weak at and take for granted that I am strong in something. This season during practices I will be making sure I throw every event so I can keep my strong events strong and fine tune them. I have been struggling with weight for distance and hammers so I will train with Ryan Stewart on those specific events. I try to have him help me with what I am currently struggling with. He is Utah’s former Pro athlete, he retired from Pro last season.
What does your training week look like in the off season? What’s your favorite workout split, what exercises do you prefer at the end of a season and how does that change as you get closer to the start of the next Games season?
My training in the off season is Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I do chin ups x3, deads– warm up 2×5 then heavy 1×5, squat 3×5 and either overhead press or bench 3×5. I add at least 2.5 pounds every time I lift. I have been able to add a lot of weight in this off season to my lifts. I am no power lifter but I am getting stronger and adding weight all the time. I am doing things a little different this year and will keep doing this lifting schedule throughout the throwing season. I feel the overhead press is a great lift that will help a great deal with Caber and weight over bar. It is a lift I have struggled with but it has come a long way.
Matt Vincent mentioned on the Mark Bell Powercast that he was actually light for Highland Games. He found that at 280lbs, most of his competitors outweighed him. I get that it’s helpful to have a little more bodyweight to help counterbalance the caber for example. You look so petite, how much do you weigh and do you put on weight as part of getting ready for the season?
Yes, extra weight is a great benefit! I am currently 132lbs. I tried my hardest to “bulk up” a bit for the Vegas games and for the season. In the off season I was 127 lbs. Since I started lifting and adding muscle it is a constant battle for me to maintain weight. I know, I know most people will hate me for that and believe me this is not how things have always been for me. In previous seasons I weighed right at 150 so this weight loss, though I have gained a lot of muscle, has been tough. I was grateful to see my throws so strong in Vegas! It was awesome to know that even though I weigh less I am stronger than I have ever been.
How does your weight room training intensity change when you’re in season?
Like I have mentioned before, this season I am doing things a bit different. The biggest thing that changes is adding throwing practices on my off lifting days. I will practice throwing 3 days a week generally, in addition to me 3 lifting days.
What’s your favorite workout split in season?
I have not done splits this off season much. I switched my lifting routine in about January. Before January I think back and biceps were my favorite. I love the way my biceps look and love working on getting them stronger and more defined.
I mentioned Chad Wesley Smith and how in the gym training only gets you so far; there are some in the gym exercises that seem to be detrimental to throwing if you do too much. Pull up and bench press especially, tighten your lats and internal rotators if you don’t balance your upper back work with horizontal pushing and vertical pulling. What’s your ratio of upper back work to horizontal pushing and vertical pulling?
So I do chin ups which focus on the bicep versus an over hand pull up which focus more on your lats. I alternate bench with overhead press so I am not doing bench too often.
How much stretching for the low back and lats do you do in your training?
I try to stretch after each lifting day and get massages often. I always get one the Wednesday before a game.
Sports Specific Training
You’ve had people over to your home to train throwing events. How often do you do that?
I have only had people over to throw a few times. If there are too many people it is hard to get enough throws in.
How large a group can your home training area accommodate?
My gym is not huge, I could probably accommodate 3 other people besides myself.
What was your neighbors’ reaction the first time they saw stones and sheafs flying up above the privacy fence?
The sheaf standard was definitely something they took notice of! Some of the kids will stop and look and wonder what I am doing and I have had a few neighbors ask what I am training for. I was worried they would ask the city to have me take it down, but nope! I have had it up for three years now.
Let’s say someone has already been to their first Games and the bug bit them but they got excited and didn’t write down any of the resources that people told them at the competition. Now they’re home and they can’t remember what people told them. What resources would you recommend to get them started?
For sure Dan McKim’s throwing book and then finding a local throwing club. If a local club is not available you tube is the next best thing. Ryan Stewart and Scott Farr have several throwing videos and they are great resources.