What’s sexy within the endurance sport world? Athletes brag, “I just put out 415 watts for an hour Time Trial!” or “I ran 10 x 1 mile on the track at 5:00/mile pace” or “I swam 100 x 100 meters on a 1:10 base interval in the pool!” These are sexy workouts. But are these workouts the best for you as an athlete who wants to get the most out of your body in training and racing?
The sexier workouts to me and to the athletes I coach are, “I just rode big gear low cadence for 3 x 60 minutes!” or “I just ran 15 x 30 second hill repeats descending each!” or “I swam really slow for an hour but I felt the water with every stroke!” Not sexy right? But these workouts build the body into a highly functioning machine that is able to consistently train, get better/stronger day in and day out, and make significant gains because of this consistency and body adaptations it produces.
I do not brag how many Kona Qualifiers I have produced or how many podium finishes my athletes have accomplished over the years. I brag the fact that not one of my athletes have ever been injured to the point of non-activity. Why is this? It is because of the huge emphasis I put on building foundation and strength before building the speed and power.
So many athletes have come to me saying, “I cannot run more than 20 miles a week without getting injured.” I listen to this and I immediately ask what kind of training plan they have been following? What paces do they hold for their runs? Inevitably, the answer is that the paces were too hard without any emphasis on strength work within the discipline. The athlete was too concerned with going fast and not concerned with staying healthy and being consistent.
Going fast in training is very beneficial for short term gains. Let’s look at the high school track athlete. Many of these young runners go hard day in and day out. This leads to very fast results, but at what cost? I have been around plenty of high school track environments to see that the rate of injury is very high amongst these athletes. Usually due to the inexperience of a coach or the coach’s need to get results, fast. If many of these athletes were given a periodized program in which strength and base was the focus, they may not achieve their fastest result while in high school but they will be a stronger runner long term and will probably be faster in the long term than they ever would have while running in high school.
I look at this way of training similar to the way a skyscraper is built. In order to build a strong, sturdy skyscraper, the architect must designs a deep, solid foundation to support the building. The deeper and stronger the foundation the higher and safer the building can be built. For example, the foundation of one of the tallest buildings on the planet, The Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) in Chicago, is 10 stories deep. The foundation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa is only 3 meters deep. Obviously, you can see the importance of the strong foundation in terms of buildings. You must have a strong foundation to build as high as you can possibly go. Without that foundation you will tilt and break a.k.a. get injured. But they did put up the Leaning Tower of Pisa quickly and it was beautiful for a while, before it tilted. Am I making myself clear? You can build a strong foundation and have the ability to build higher and higher for years on end, or you can train fast and hard, get quick results, but get injured and top out.
I learned the importance of a strong foundation soon after making the transition from professional ice hockey to triathlon. I had built a gigantic foundation of strength from year after year of ice hockey training. Ice hockey training is very strength based. It is very explosive while playing but in order to maintain that effort shift after shift your strength and base must be extremely strong. When I came to triathlon, I had this foundation to build off of. I was able to go hard day in and day out without injury because of the 20+ years in ice hockey. I made very quick gains and I stayed healthy because my structure was so strong. I saw other athletes within the sport going hard and very often faltering and falling off because of the lack of strength. No matter how many times I told them to back off and focus on strength work, they insisted on training fast. They would rather be sexy short term than healthy and strong long term. Many of those athletes are now out of the sport.
I am not saying you need 20+ years of strength work before you can go fast, but you must put an emphasis on it for a prolonged period of time before ramping up the intensity. An experienced coach will know when that time is.
On a side note: Strength training not only provides the foundation for an athlete to build off of it also enhances the athlete’s proprioception which is the coordination between the mind and the body. If an athlete’s proprioception is optimized, the athlete is working as efficiently as possible which saves the athlete energy and allows the athlete to move faster with less effort.
Don’t be afraid to back off of the intensity in your training and work on your foundation. Be the athlete who is consistent and durable. You may not be at the top of the podium immediately but you will get there. Be sexy in your strength and build your foundation. A good coach will provide a plan that addresses the base without a rush to get to the speed. There is a time for speed work, but you must be ready for it. GET STRONG so you can RACE HARD!