Wrangling Ronald McDonald

Think you got what it takes to handle the balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? Read and see.
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Credit: Photo credit: Macy's, Inc.

Credit: Photo credit: Macy's, Inc.

By Allison Klibanoff, edited by Lara McGlashan, MFA, CPT, Fitness Editor

The Macy’s thanksgiving Day Parade is an American institution, and more than 53 million pairs of eyes watch as Big Bird and Pikachu float (seemingly) effortlessly between the sky-scratching buildings of Manhattan.

But wrangling these enormous balloons is something of a workout, especially when Snoopy decides to catch an updraft, tugging several dozen people skyward with a force of up to 500 pounds. Clearly balloon, handlers — who are either Macy’s employees or sponsored individuals — have to be in pretty good shape to keep these behemoths earth-bound.

“I have a black belt in karate and I study Krav Maga so I work out a lot,” said Suzanne Lippe, a first-time handler in 2014. Lippe was one of dozens in charge of Ronald McDonald, and had to attend several boot camps in advance of the event to actually prepare for it. “There were some people who weren’t able to keep up during the training, and those who didn’t have the endurance during practice were not able to help on the big day,” she says.

Do you have what it takes to handle the helium? Here are some tips from our Oxygen team and fitness expert Tammy Stokes, owner of West Coast Workouts in Atlanta, Georgia, that could help you prepare for the task.

1. Control Center

Navigating an enormous balloon for an hour means you need an iron-clad core and arms of steel. Bolster your usual planks and push-ups by adding a rotational element, and add an anti-rotational move such as Paloff Presses to help train your obliques to resist the ever-shifting wind forces on your balloon.

Rotational Push-up

Setup: Get into plank with your head, hips and heels in line, head neutral, abs tight.

Action: Slowly bend your elbows and hover above the floor, then extend arms to the start and reach your left arm skyward and opening your chest to the left side. Hold in side plank for one count – hips and shoulders stacked, fingertips reaching for the sky - then return to the start. Continue, alternating sides for 3 sets of 10 reps each side.

Paloff Press

Setup: Set a cable pulley at waist level and attach a single D-handle. Stand sideways to the pulley and hold the handle in front of your belly button with both hands, hips and shoulders square, elbows bent and tucked into your sides. Take a step forward to create some tension.

Move: Slowly press the handle straight out, moving directly forward and resisting the sideways pull of the cable. Once you reach full extension, reverse the move and slowly return to the start. Do all reps on one side then switch. Do 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps per side.

2. Stay the Course

The parade route is 2.5 miles, and while that’s exactly marathon length, the slow procession and cold weather can make it seem like an eternity. Train your endurance gym-side with progressively building treadmill walks. Start with a half mile 2 times per week, and add a quarter mile every 7 to 10 days until you reach 2.5 miles. Go-getters can add small hills or backwards walking intervals to mimic the directional and light terrain changes you’d experience while on the parade route.

Wind Sprints

The handlers on the outside of the parade route have it toughest: they have to sprint as the balloon rounds a corner and needs to pivot cleanly around the buildings. And since the course is in a square, anyone on the outside is doing more than her fair share of 50-yard dashes. Incorporate sprints into your workout twice a week on alternate days from your endurance training. Warm up with 3 to 5 minutes of jogging then sprint for 30 to 60 seconds. Return to jogging for 2 minutes and repeat. With each interval, try to go a little faster. Do 10 total intervals, then walk for 5 minutes to cool down.

3. Be the Anchor, Baby

As a handler you are the balloon’s link to the earth, and as it wants to rise up so should you continually pull it down. Strengthen your upper back, grip strength and shoulder stability with scapular pull-ups, and improve your back/arm power with straight-arm pressdowns.

Scapular Pull-ups

Setup: hang from a pull-up bar with your legs straight, and allow your shoulders to completely stretch out.

Action: Draw your shoulder blades together as close as you can, imagining pinching a pencil in between them, and hold for one count. Release slowly then repeat for 3 sets of 10.

Straight Arm Pressdown

Setup: Attach a pulldown bar to the upper pulley on a cable machine. Stand a few feet away from the machine facing the weight stack and take a shoulder-width overhand grip on the bar. Pack your shoulders and square your hips.

Action: Keeping your arms straight, press the bar down in a smooth arc until it comes to your thighs. Pause and squeeze before slowly returning to the start, resisting the pull of the weight stack (balloon) on the return. Do 3 sets of 15 reps.

4. Chill Factor

New York in November is not exactly bikini weather, so training outdoors can help physically prepare you for the bite of the cold, as winds whip through the narrow corridors that make up downtown Manhattan. At least one day a week, do your cardio workout al fresco, making sure to dress in appropriate layers and shooting for your 2.5-mile target.

5. Flexible Flyer

Handling a balloon is hard work, so pre-parade do some dynamic stretches such as leg swings, arm circles and toe-touch-to-extension heat up your core and get your body working in all planar directions to prevent injury. Afterwards, cool down with light walking or jogging, and do some foam rolling and static stretching, focusing on the large muscles of the legs and back, as well as your calves and shoulders.

Allison Klibanoff is the senior editor at WellWellWell. She writes about the intersection of travel and wellness.

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