Podcast, Strength training

Mobility, Stability, and Strength with Erin Carson | EP#137

 July 9, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

Mobility, Stability, and Strength with Erin Carson | EP#137 

Mobility, Stability, and Strength with Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a strength and conditioning coach (and a top age-group triathlete herself) in Boulder, where she works with some of the best triathletes in the world, including Flora Duffy, Mirinda Carfrae, and Tim O'Donnell. She discusses how to work on mobility, stability, and strength, in order to be faster, stronger, and healthier, all leading to improved triathlon performance. 

Discuss this episode!

  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • What a typical session in the gym (of at most 45 minutes) might look like
  • Exercises and methods to improve mobility of the ankles, hips, and shoulders
  • Exercises and methods to improve core stability
  • Exercises and methods to improve and maintain strength
  • What aspects of mobility, stability and strength can be generalised to all triathletes, and where might you need individual assessments

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About Erin Carson

3:03 -

  • Strength and conditioning coach in Boulder, Colorado, where she runs the ECFit Boulder training program, and also the Rally Sport health and fitness club and training facility.
  • She is the S&C coach of world class triathletes like Mirinda Carfrae, Flora Duffy, and Tim O'Donnell, as well as plenty of everyday age groupers seeking excellence in their triathlon performance.
  • Erin is also very handy triathlete herself, placing sixth in her age group at the 70.3 World Championships in Maloolooba, Australia.

Mobility, stability and strength for triathlon performance

4:54 -

  • I think Mirinda Carfrae and Tim O'Donnell when they first came to me were pleasantly surprised when the conversation didn't start with adding a bunch of external load to them. But rather, the conversation with me started, how could I as a strength coach make their speed feel easier to them? And so we started that hashtag of #EasySpeed.
  • The first step for me is to just recognize and understand the inherent tightness that comes from swim, bike and run training, and how we can undo some of that tightness so that the athletes get more access to what they already have.
  • And then we build layers once we have this really good mobility.
    • So much of the conversation is about getting the glutes firing. Well, if the hips aren't moving, it's very difficult to get the glutes to fire, let alone to fire world class.
    • In addition to hip mobility, we also focus on shoulders and ankles.
  • So when it comes to mobility we want comfort, we want speed, we want no injuries. And then once we have that, we move into stability where we want to create appropriate stiffness in the skeleton and throughout the fascial system so that the athlete can safely produce and absorb impact.
    • If there's too much lateral movement in the body, we call that energy expensive because energy is leaking out sideways. We want to be moving forward as quickly as we possibly can and as efficiently as we possibly can. Stability just takes some of those energy leaks out of the system so that the athlete can just be free in their movement and stable in their movement and be reactionary and hopefully become very elastic in the way that they accept and produce force.
    • To work on stability, we use a lot of single-leg exercises and we also use a lot of single-arm exercises. To me it's about producing different challenges for the nervous system that are consistent with the demands of the sport.
  • When we're talking about building strength, we're talking about four to six repetitions of very heavy load. And let's be truthful, it takes time for us as strength coaches to teach our athletes how to lift weights. So there's a little bit of a journey into pure strength training for all of my endurance athletes and sometimes it can take up to a year. That doesn't mean they're not going to get stronger along the way. They're going to gain more access to more watts and speed in the work that their sports specific coaches have given them. 
    • The true strength we typically build in the off season. In the racing season, my goal is not to make my athletes stronger, but it's to keep them from losing strength. There have been studies done in cyclists that say that whoever stays the strongest for the longest has the best chance to win those championships at the end of the season.

Working mobility, stability and strength into a triathlon training program

13:52 -

  • I think that we have to be really gentle with somebody who's racing a lot not to over overtrain them. These athletes just need to keep everything as healthy as possible and do 20 to 30 minutes of the right things in the gym.
  • But for some of my pros or my elite age groupers we might do things loke add in a three-week strength period in June to work on those four to six reps of heavy load and really give that strength stimulus in mid-season that will pay off big time in September. 
  • I also think that people should not be in the gym longer than 45 minutes if they're training anywhere from 9 to 20 hours a week. I think that would be too much of an ask for most of us.
  • Structure of a 45-minute gym session:
    • Mobility is always first and the hip openers are always first. I might add a little bit of foam rolling and tissue care that comes even before mobility.
    • Then we work into stability as the second part of the session.
    • And then we start to add external load at the end of the session
  • The first two workouts in a program will have much more mobility than e.g. workout seven and eight. They'll have less mobility and more strength.
  • For many age-groupers, training 10-12 hours per week or so I would have them do what I call two and a half sessions a week. Each session is 30 to 45 minutes and I like to have the athletes if possible do their gym work directly after their hard run session of the week, and after a hard bike session, assuming there's a day between the gym sessions. The "half" session would come perhaps at the end of a long ride on Saturday or at the end of a long run on Sunday.
    • This means your easy days can actually be easy. If you do gym work on your otherwise easy days, they're not that easy anymore. 
    • If you are time-crunched and this feels out of reach, I would still say that the gym workouts are absolutely necessary, but just do 20 minutes if that's what you have time for. Cut a swim, ride or run short if need be. Doing the gym work will give you a bigger return of investment than 10 minutes of jogging or easy spinning.

How to work on mobility

24:05 - 

  • There's three key areas that I believe need to be mobile.
  • One - your ankles need to move well.
    • I will use wobble boards to move the ankle into dorsiflexion and plantar flexion.
    • I will take the rest of the body and stand on one foot and rotate so that the ankle can rotate down at the bottom. So we're moving one knee across, lift one knee up high, and then just drive it around side to side as you hold onto the wall. And that drives rotation down into that ankle.
    • I will actually use a lot of hands on tissue manipulation with my hands and working through the ankle just to add a little bit of heat on the inside and the outside of the ankle.
    • I'll use manual resistance and people can do that with themselves. Just holding onto your toes, push your toes down and then pull them up and just use light resistance to work mobility in the ankles.
  • Next is the hips
    • This typically starts with foam rolling the hips on the front side to be proactive. We're going to foam roll the hips, the hip bones and the pubic bone on the front side of the body.
    • I'll usually use a multiplanar stepping pattern. So some lateral lunges, some transverse lunges where the hip opens up and you step to the back.
    • We'll definitely use a move that I call hip to wall. You're about a foot away from the wall. All you're going to do is just bend your knees about 30 degrees like you're skiing and just turn your body and take your hip over to the wall and back. Do that 10 times each side.
  • Then we're going to work through the thoracic spine.
    • I do some open books, where you'll be laying on your side. Just put your hands together in front of your chest and open up the chest so that your other hand is on the floor behind you and you're just going to not let your hips move. Separating the lower and upper body. Move through the upper back.
    • We also will use the foam roller on the upper back to mobilise as well.
    • Sometimes we'll throw a football overhead back and forth to mobilize the upper back.

How to work on stability

29:02 - 

  • I think it begins with standing on one foot. Running is a single leg event. I typically train my athletes barefoot if they are healthy and they're not too fatigued.
  • Standing on one foot and just alternating arm reaches across the midline of the body to just move the upper body but have to stabilize the lower body.
  • I use a lot of horizontal loading patterns. One of my favorite exercises is to just use a long band or a cable at maybe waist height or chest height. Stand on your left foot and hold that band with your right arm. As soon as you do that, we call that an offset load. And you need to be controlling rotation through your entire system. So we will do a single leg, single arm standing row. And be quiet on the bottom and just do a rowing pattern with the opposite side. And just do a nice pull which will strengthen the upper back and help with posture.

How to work on strength

32:27 - 

  • My favorite strength exercise is any exercise that the athlete likes, and most like things that they're good at.
  • If I had to only pick one exercise, it would be that hex bar (also known as trap bar) deadlift. Because there's that inherent tightness in a cyclist, I find the straight bar deadlift to be a little dangerous. But even somebody who doesn't have very good postural control can do a hex bar dead lift beautifully. 
  • We also do a lot of back lunges because it mimics a single leg squat and you can load that a little bit heavier.
  • We also do a lot of single leg squatting. But in the context of pure strength training, a single leg squat to me would be more about neurological control and muscle balance than it would be about pure strength.
  • The Bulgarian split squat is probably one of my favorite ones as well. And all the external load that we would use for that would be dumbbells.


44:34 - 

  • What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon or swimming?
  • What's your favourite piece of gear or equipment?
    • Hex bar (trap bar) and the ViPR by Institute of Motion. It's a tube that we use it as a mobility tool, a stability tool and a strength tool
  • What's a personal habit that's helped you achieve success
    • Pursuit to help people. I think the biggest thing for me is I truly live to serve. I'm a lifelong student.

Key takeaways

  • #EasySpeed. Incorporating this into your training really can make speed easier for you. Especially if you're not doing anything in terms of mobility, stability and strength at the moment.
  • Return on investment. If you're time-crunched, you might be better off skipping a run or a ride or just shortening them a bit to make room for mobility, stability and strength work.
  • Improved exercise economy is one of the main reasons that you can better access more speed or power, and make it feel easier, as a result of working on mobility, stability, and strength, For more information on that, listen to e.g. this interview with Jordan Santos.
  • Most triathletes have poor mobility. Age is a factor, but so is our sedentary lifestyles. The three main areas to focus on in terms of mobility are the ankles, hips and shoulders. And for practically all triathletes, the hips is something that needs serious work, as they tighten up so much from all the biking and running. 

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

    Connect with Erin Carson 

    Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


    Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

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  • I really like the idea of adding strength training to my program but I am a typical age group tri-athlete with limited time. I enjoy lifting and I have a history of about 6 years of heavy lifting (upper body focus though), but haven’t lifted now for 5 years. I would think a minimum of 3-4 heavy lift exercises with two sessions per week would be needed to see enough gains to justify taking time from triathlon specific training. It seems to me that doing sets of three with warm-up, racking time, 3 minute breaks, clean up, dressing time, would make even 3-4 lifts take 45-60 minutes per session not including travel time, of 30 minutes if I am unable to put these sessions on the back of a swim set. To do 2 meaningful session per week, taking 2 of my 8 hours for triathlon specific training, just seems like to big of a hit.
    My typical week consists of: 2x brick sessions that take 1.5 hours each, 1x 2 hour long ride, 1x 1 hour VO2 run workout, 2x 1 hour swim sessions. 30-45 min/week of swim bands, plyometrics. 3-4x per week of 15 min Foundation Training’s Powerful Posture and Pain Relief back workout. Quite honestly I’d like to get more swim sessions, but they are time expensive as I have to drive to a pool or the lake where as I run/bike from my front door. I’d really also like to add more biking as I think time in the saddle would see great improvements. I can’t trade plyometrics or Foundation Training for strength training as I am able to do these at work or home in spare time. I have the desire to train more, but not the time.
    A little specific background: male age 39, 5’7″ 135lbs, wrestled/pole-vaulted/soccer in High School, worked very physical construction until 2014, now I am a nurse educator. Never ran until 2015. Running mileage/yr: 2018 1731mi, 2017 2287mi, 2016 1995mi, 2015 580mi. 5k time 21.5min. Just started biking the past 4 months (1204mi), hour time trial on roadie about 22mph on flat course. Swimming just started two months ago with absolutely no background: around 2:20 per 100 for a 1k.
    I am wondering where the break point is most likely to be for this kind of typical time restricted age grouper. If we have an 8 hour time restriction is there enough value to be gained from cutting time from triathlon specific training to put into heavy lifting. I know we could say cut 15 min off each training session, but that does not work for me and I would think not for most age groupers either. I have a set number of sessions and blocks of time available to train in. I can’t just simply take 15 min off every session to add 2 more sessions to my week. I suppose the next suggestion is to do the strength training in the winter and then maintenance during the rest of the season. I still hate to take the time from my 3 tri disciplines, but this might get me better value, not sure that it will though.

    • HI Brad,

      First, I would say that depending on the athlete, it might not be absolutely necessary to lift 2 times per week. And also, recoveries between sets in a session can go down to 2 minutes, so it is possible, in my opinion to get a meaningful session done in 35-40 minutes. Agreed that 3-4 different lifts are ideal though. At least personally I’ve learnt to get that done in this amount of time easily.

      I would say that in your scenario, you’re right, it might not be worth substituting tri training with strength training.

      But I would do it in winter for a period, in which case you can ditch the long ride, and get in one slot there. Then ideally, make room for another slot somewhere else in the week.

      As for time management, what you say about doing strength right after swimming in the same facilities is a great one, that’s what I do. Some tracks (for your VO2 intervals) also have gyms, so you might have the opportunity to do gym work right after a run as well. Or in winter, do your VO2-runs on the gym treadmill and then lift right after that.

      Hope this helps. In a nutshell, try to make room for it for 2-3 months in winter, and focus on triathlon on your limited time budget the rest of the year.

  • In this interview Erin says that her athletes would do a strength workout straight after a hard bike or run session. Isn’t this kind of concurrent training not recommended? I’m currently doing it but have read a lot about how I shouldn’t.

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