LISTEN TO THE EPISODE HERE:
Erin Carson is a strength coach working with a number of the world's best short- and long-course triathletes. In the Ironman 70.3 World Championships recently, athletes working with Erin swept the women's podium (Taylor Knibb, Paula Findlay and Emma Pallant-Browne). In this interview, we discuss what the strength training of these athletes looks like, and we also discuss strength training from the perspective of age-group triathletes.
In this episode you'll learn about:
- How Erin works and operates as a strength coach
- The objective of strength training for world-class athletes
- The specific strength training programs of Taylor Knibb, Paula Findlay, and Emma Pallant-Browne
- There's more to strength training than lifting weights
- The most important movements and exercises for age-group athletes to master
- Home-based strength training
Exceptional quality triathlon wetsuits, trisuits, swimskins, goggles, performance sunglasses as well as prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses. Online vision test for prescription updates and home try-on options available for eyeglasses. Ships from the US, UK and EU. Trusted by world-leading athletes such as Lucy Charles-Barclay, Javier Gómez Noya, Flora Duffy, Morgan Pearson, Summer Rappaport and others in triathlon, cycling, speed skating, and many more. Visit roka.com/tts for 20% off your order.
The ZEN8 Indoor Swim Trainer is a unique Dryland Swim Trainer that allows you to improve technique, power, and swim training consistency. With the trainer you can do specific power and technique work, including working on your catch and core activation, and it helps you stay consistent even if you don’t have much time to train. Get the special Zen8 x TTS bundle including the Swim Trainer and a number of ZEN8 training plans and on-demand workouts on zen8swimtrainer.com/tts.
- I am a certified strength & conditioning specialist (health and human performance specialist) - "strength coach" does not cover all parameters related to sports performance.
- I live in Boulder, Colorado and am one of the owners of Rally Sport.
- I have worked with top triathletes, runners and cyclists for ten years.
- I am also a triathlete and went to two 70.3 World Championships.
- I am an international basketball player. I played in Division I Basketball League, but now I am all-in for helping my athletes to achieve their results.
Top athletes Erin works with
- It all started with Mirinda Caffrey and Tim O'Donnel.
- We learnt a lot by working together and have been together for a decade. I am proud of their careers.
- Despite other issues, these athletes have been orthopedically healthy all their careers, validating my approach to endurance athletes.
- I also work with Rudy Van Berg (2 years). We work on keeping him healthy and improving his condition.
- Morgan Person is a top short-course athlete that wants to qualify for Paris 2024.
Erin's strength & conditioning philosophy
- It all begins with the athlete and understanding their bodies. (time to recover and rest)
- My approach was always to work from the inside out. We do much breath work, mobility and movement, and foundation training to add tension to a mobile system. Then, we add strength on top of that.
- There are some misconceptions about strength training, meaning the more you lift, the faster you will go.
- In some cases, we might need to add some strength, but for most athletes, my work is to keep them healthy and rely on their coaches to build speed and get them stronger, so there are no niggles.
- Sometimes, athletes come to the gym and might not want to do specific exercises, and I will listen to them.
When did Erin start working with Emma, Taylor and Paula?
- Each of them had Boulder roots, so they came to Boulder and knew that Tim and Rudy were working with me and were curious about that.
- Paula was my first connection when she was working with Siri's squad that had links to Rally Sports. Paula came to us in an unhealthy state.
- We started working consistently and got in the process of finding an equilibrium for her. (concerning health and strength)
- We could get her racing again.
- She left Siri and now works with Paulo, but the irony is that I do not talk with Paulo often. Paula is a mature athlete, and she knows her body. I can communicate with Paulo, and my goal is to be behind the scenes ensuring that Paulo can show his coaching skills.
- She will shine if I can keep Paula Finley healthy and stronger.
- There was a time when we fell apart a bit when she was in San Diego, but we are back together for our third consecutive year.
- Taylor had been coming to Boulder to work with Neal Henderson.
- Neal sent Taylor to me to do some foundation training and strength work when she was starting as a late teenager. (Junior)
- She is now in good hands, as shown by her performances in the last couple of years. I started working with her remotely, but I took a full-time role when she graduated.
- I talked with Taylor two days before the Abu Dhabi finals to ensure she travelled well and that her body was responding well. I see her 2-3 times per week here in Boulder.
- I met Emma's husband, Jarred, before I met her.
- He was pursuing pro triathlete status, and he introduced me to her.
- She lives in South Africa and is a runner who turned into a world-class triathlete.
- Emma knows her body exceptionally well. I am consulting with her regarding full-load strategies, and she embraces my mobility work and the activation on a lower level.
- I do everything possible to get her underload when she is in Boulder.
- Her performances are outstanding, but I would like her to lift more weight.
- Tim is her coach, and his coaching with Emma has been perfect.
- They are doing great work, and I complement it with as much as Emma needs.
- We do in-person zoom once a week with those athletes, except for Emma.
- This method is a lesson from the pandemic, and we do that weekly.
- I schedule her other sessions via two apps I have developed.
- I have a lengthy video format application where we present my coaching session.
- Athletes can go through that session using a long-video format, but I also have a short video format with only clips and demonstrations of each exercise.
- Both of them are unique to ECFIT and have allowed me to work with athletes all over the world.
- The long-video format and zoom give a lot of information, and the short-video format would be my customised program for people.
- However, there is no more superb communication than seeing the athlete in person.
- I started with a triathlete (Imogen Simmons) and trained with her in Geneva on Zoom, so I have seen her in three global locations in the last three weeks.
- It will be interesting because I want to see her for the first few weeks as I do not feel comfortable giving her movements without me seeing how she responds to them.
- Even facial expression matters because triathletes are good athletes for the most part. So they can do almost anything I ask them to do, but it might not be comfortable.
- Quality of movement matters; they can show me they are uncomfortable with their faces. However, they will do it because they are coachable.
- If I stay to stand on the left foot and reach with the left arm, they will do it. But if I can see their faces, I can notice how easily they do the exercise.
- However, nothing beats being in person because I can observe how the athletes accept the challenge.
Athletes' training periodisation
- Each athlete is unique, so when you are not with someone, you can take the "shotgun approach", where we have a general phase of training that will help 90 % of triathletes.
- I have those protocols. All of my professional athletes use a general protocol of movement and movement quality.
- They understand hip internal rotation, ankle mobility, and hankering, global concepts we try to meet.
- If one of those concepts is not optimal, we must get it right before adding complexity to the program.
- The hankers for us are ankle, hip and thoracic mobility.
- Each athlete had physical challenges throughout the year, except for Emma.
- Emma does the Peak Team strength program, and she does a Wednesday morning live session on YouTube.
- She does the mobility routine on Youtube for ECFIT. She did a lot of low-load work and was relatively healthy all year.
- Paula had a niggle, so we had to work around and with different strategies to unload and bring balance to her body. The same thing happened with Taylor.
- Short-course racing presents a different challenge to athletes' bodies.
- Athletes now have to do a whole range of different triathlon distances, which impacts the body significantly.
- Taylor was out for some time during the season to bring that speed up to the short-course racing. And it took a toll on her body.
- So, we had to work on strength and go through that niggle.
- The lack of racing and time to focus on her body allowed us to improve her performance in the fall.
- The same thing happened with Paula and Lucy Charles.
- Lucy shared a lot of work she did. (stopping deadlifting until she could walk on her toes and work through the ankles)
- The whole podium in St. George dealt with different issues throughout the year, so the primary goal was to keep them healthy and balanced.
The rehabilitation process
- When there is a tissue breakdown, the problem is not that issue but an issue further up in the kinetic chain.
- If there is a knee problem, I will not blame the knee but the ankle or the hip. I might even blame the thoracic spine and lack of movement and rotation through the spine.
- When I start working with an athlete, I want to see how their hips, thoracic spine and ankles move.
- Few people have an appropriate hip function and pelvic rotation to take on most of the speed they can produce. That is when low back pain starts happening or hip pain. (e.g. Samlong in Arizona) Those are predictable patterns that the sport produces.
- Tight hip flexors, thoracic and ankle tightness
- However you can improve their mobility a lot, but if you do not strengthen them, they will not hold themselves properly.
- The issues happened because the tissue was probably overloaded due to compensation from a high-performance athlete.
Causes of triathlon-related injuries
- Yoga is passive mobility with ranges of motion that might not be useful.
- I use foundation training for mobility because it is active mobility.
- The brain is active in movement, and we challenge the joints to make the different muscles work together.
- For example, the adductors and abductors should work together.
- That balance is where I can make a significant change quickly.
- Adductors are typically tight. They will start to act like hip flexors if tight on the bike.
- The adductor magnus muscle has anterior and posterior fibres that work differently. When you sit in an aero position, the anterior fibres start acting like a hip flexor despite not being a hip flexor.
- The muscle should stabilise the hip so we can extend when running.
- Another practitioner analysed running after cycling and looked at which athletes had hip extensions.
- If you watch Tim O'Donnel running after the cycling split, we know Tim will have a good day if he has a hip extension on the first mile.
- It means we set him well on the bike.
- I was working as a volunteer in St. George and saw the same with Taylor.
- When Paula passed me alongside two other athletes, I could see Paula had hip extension and was moving through her thoracic spine. The other two were not.
- I knew Paula would drop the others because she was moving much better than anyone else.
A typical week for athletes
- Athletes come to the gym three times per week, but the sessions are 2.5.
- There will be two sessions of 30-45 minutes. (not an hour)
- The third session is negotiable. There is mobility and tissue release every day. There are times when the athlete is tired because they have great coaches that push those athletes.
- It means they walk a line between fatigue and performance and the ability of athletes to get work done.
- I advocate for rest and recovery because the athlete's natural mindset is to work and outwork everyone.
- Now, we know that meditation and rest could help athletes improve.
- Training load is crucial so that athletes understand when they need rest. The two sessions are not negotiable, but the intensity is.
- We have to put in the work because these athletes have dreams.
- Some days, we have to push them, and some days we have to listen to them.
Erin's 45-minute session template
- A typical 45-min session will start with movement mobility to undo some tightness that comes from cycling, biking or running.
- We want softness and flow in their movement. If I do not see that, we will take more time for tissue care.
- Some athletes like foam rolling, while others like massage guns.
- We use both for athletes and let them choose which one they like the most.
- I do not control the first 5-6min of the session, but I see what the athlete chooses. Some athletes do the same thing every time and do not have the intuition to understand they might not need to do something.
- If an athlete is rigid about his protocol, I will guide that athlete more to try for them to do different things.
- The athlete will show me where they need more motion because if they enter and start foam rolling their arm, it might mean their thoracic spine is feeling tight.
- The same thing might happen with the hips.
- I will watch those 5 - 6 mins to understand where the session needs to go in addition to the plan.
- Then, we will do some light loading to enhance mobility and bring motor unit recruitments. (10-pound weight which will give more inertial to open up a bit more)
- I do not look at muscle but at the fascial and connective tissue, and I see the muscle in between.
- Instead of training the quads, I am training the whole lower body. (the same with the hamstrings and the back line)
- Much of that came from a book called Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers.
- When we get stuck in movement, the fascial and nervous systems shut that movement.
- We got lucky to learn how to strengthen the movement and build trust with the movement for the body to perform better.
- Then, we will put the muscles under load because of the muscle inhibition of tightness.
- I want upper back function, scapular stabilisation and glute function and ankle mobility.
- The glute will not fire appropriately if the foot and ankle are not moving well.
- We use MOBO boards to enhance the loading of the big toe, ensuring we are loading it well.
- The next phase is the strength component.
- You are a strength coach, but that is the last thing you will do.
- The heavier load strategies enhance the athlete's hormonal profile, so for older athletes, this strategy becomes part of their hormonal profile.
- Typically, older endurance athletes have hormonal profiles that lead to lower testosterone levels, leading to poor recovery and mood swings.
- We emphasise higher loads and building techniques to ensure athletes challenge themselves to use all systems of the body.
- Most athletes will focus on 2-3 heavy lifts that we want them to be better at in strength training.
- I am risk averse; every time you put an athlete under load, you will put them at risk. So, they need to have a good preparation for those lifts.
- Most of my athletes are good at the hexbar deadlift, while others are better with the goblet front squat.
- I only back squat one athlete; the only reason is that she grew up back squatting and does it well.
- Spinal flexion we experience on the bike (rounded spine) and tightness on the front of the body could make it difficult for an endurance athlete to get under a back squat.
- I find that risk profile to be too high for me.
- We do primarily front squats and deadlifts, lat pull exercises, a single arm shoulder press (which allows you to elevate and rotate one shoulder) and bent-over rows (single and double leg).
- Each athlete has 3-4 loaded lifts, which are low-neural demanding because they become good at them.
- It will depend on the athlete's season.
- In the off-season, it is the best opportunity to make those changes.
- In triathlon, the opportunity to improve athletes will be on the bike, which means building lower-body strength, core stability and function and upper-body strength.
- Athletes need to get off the bike and run.
- For cyclists, the upper-body strength will only help them stay in an aero position, but they do not have to get off the bike and run.
- If the coach aims to turn that athlete into a better cyclist, we can work together to build that.
- However, I might have to take a step back because some more scientific coaches might take the lead and give athletes progressive overload, which is different from what I do.
- In the off-season, I do some progressive overload, but for ten months of the year, coaches are doing progressive overload, and I am maintaining the athlete healthy and strong.
- Some athletes I work with need to work on their lower body strength to produce the power to make them world-class.
Loaded lift intensity during the season
- For my athletes, it will depend on their career pathway.
- Taylor is a strong athlete but not one of the strongest.
- So, we will take a long-term approach as she is shining with the body she has. I am keeping her healthy.
- Paula is in her 30s, so that heavier weights will become important throughout the year.
- Most coaches will have "down weeks", but that does not mean I will load athletes in the gym.
- For pros, work is more targeted to what they need.
- We want to take a long-term approach with age groupers because most of us are in the sport to be healthy and strong.
- Athletes like to see progression in their rankings, so we would cycle three periodised phases of strength.
- Based on the calendar, we will outline the program for the year.
- An age group should go heavy maybe three times per year, and we would build that from their "A" races.
- Most athletes would be well by doing these heavy blocks 6-8 weeks out of their performance goal.
- We will move to a moderate phase as we get closer to the event.
- I use five phases which follow under the traditional strength & conditioning nomenclature.
- We have the "pre-flight" workout (movement prep. workouts focused on glute activation and opening the body).
- These sessions are less than 20min long.
- In the first phase, we use lighter loads, mobility, and balance the body. That phase we call the "launch phase".
- The following phase, where we do " traditional strength training" and mobility, is the "climb phase".
- I do not do much "cruising", which is more high-intensity interval training primarily focused on cross-fitters.
- The last phase is the "launch phase", where we have to rest and recover. (active recovery strategies)
- In this way, I might tell an athlete to do a "launch workout" on Tuesday, a "climb workout" on Wednesday and a recovery session on Saturday.
- I have a couple of workouts that athletes can do worldwide.
Daily mobility sessions
- I call them "measuring sticks".
- If I go on a run and my shoes are not tight, I check in to understand how hard it is to go down and tie my shoe.
- I can feel a bit tight, which tells me I need to work on this.
- I might do a full-body squat with the athlete and understand how easy/hard it was for the athlete.
- If it was hard, let's foam roll and do more squats and overreaches.
- If that feels tight and I cannot keep my elbows straight, my thoracic spine might be tight.
- We do a lot of front-foot elevated hip openers where you put the foot elevated to see how tight the hips are.
- (many check-ups to understand what you need on that day)
- You might not need the same thing every day.
- Learning about your body and preventing tightness and niggles will serve you well in the long term.
- I do Monday mobility because everyone shows up on YouTube and can go through the series of movements we provide each week.
- If that feels tight, do not lose "control" of that.
Nutrition consideration for strength sessions
- Most times, I train with athletes that already done endurance work.
- I ensure they are eating something (banana, bar, energy drink)
- Many people think they have lower leg issues (tight calves or tight soleus)
- However, that is usually dehydration; you cannot solve that with only water. So, adding electrolytes is something I recommend.
- The lower leg is the furthest point in the circulatory system, so it is the first point of dehydration tissue.
- When you start mobilising this tissue, it will start to "accept" nutrition.
- A massage therapist can notice "sticky tissue" as dehydrated tissue.
- If there is an unexpected lack of mobility, we should drink some fluid and move.
Technologies that Erin uses in training
- There is so much technology for triathlon. However, that is not the case in my area.
- In the future, I might see sprint timing and force play concerning jumping and the ability to produce force.
- However, I want to "feel" the athlete because endurance athletes work hard. The strength program should complement that and should not beat the athlete up.
- Morgan Pearson came to me with a hamstring issue and said he disliked coming to the gym.
- After the first three weeks, he kept coming because he started enjoying it.
- You have to fall in love with strength training to be one of the best in the world and to stay healthy.
- The Norwegian athletes claim they do not do strength training, and one can ask if they should do the same.
- However, those two Norwegians were the only athletes that "survived" the program.
- The same could be for Daniela Ryf. I know how hard Brett Sutton trains people.
- She could handle the training physically, mentally and emotionally.
- Her body did not break down, but most bodies will.
- Strength training cannot impair endurance training.
- If you put an athlete doing a threshold session with sore quads, the athlete will not be happy with that session.
- So, I stay behind the scenes ensuring athletes remain safe and can push themselves and remain healthy.
Improving form and technique
- The most important movement is the hip hinge.
- Your spine is at risk if you cannot hinge from your hips.
- The ability to push your hips backwards, activate the glutes and have the backside of the body working is crucial.
- I have had athletes that will not work with me because I will not put them under load until they control their spine angle.
- Some athletes learn that in two sessions. However, for others, that movement pattern is challenging for them.
- These athletes will still deadlift and squat but will not do it with heavy weights.
- I sell well the long-term training approach I prescribe.
- Tim did not go under load for ten months. Renee went under load in two.
- Their bodies are different because Tim has long arms from his swimming background.
- Your overall experience in the weight room is essential.
- I am an accredited strength & conditioning practitioner and a well-informed weight lifter.
- Putting world-class athletes under more load will not accelerate their way to the PTO rankings.
- There is good information online, and in my channel, I constantly work on hip hinging with hip mobility, meditation, breathing and counter-balance movements that activate and load the hips.
- We want to have done as much work possible with as little work as possible.
- If we can have outstanding performance outcomes with little work, shouldn't we choose that?
- If athletes are getting better, stick with what you are doing.
- You do not need to start lifting heavy to get stronger faster.
- Tissue and the cardiovascular system take time to adapt.
- Impatient people will get the consequences, usually with time away from the sport.
Exercises to avoid
- The hexbar is more accessible than a straight bar because of the position of the hands.
- Mechanical loading is less risky. However, I love that exercise if you are comfortable and can perform a deadlift with a straight bar.
- Moving load for speed is for cross-fitters.
- Doing snatches and cleans under time constraints is risky, and I would not do that. (they do not serve endurance sports well)
- If it works for you, everything else is probably not a wrong choice.
- I don't particularly appreciate moving things fast.
Strength training for time-crunch athletes
- Athletes should do some strength work 20-30min 2-3 times per week.
- Some athletes are doing good work without any strength training.
- However, there is a time limit for them.
- The commitment needs to become routine and accessible.
- We do not need as much volume as we thought. Therefore, maybe athletes could do 3h10 rides (instead of 3h30) and use 20min to do a mobility/strength session.
- People overtrain when leading to races.
- Moreover, we need a dialogue between people that do what I do and triathlon coaches to trust each other more.
- Strength & conditioning coaches need to continue improving and learning their craft.
- Strength coaches will realise that strength work complements the athlete's overall performance.
Age and sex impacts on strength training
- Athletes in their 20s do not need as much strength training.
- For athletes in their 30s, we have to ensure that we have an amazing skillset to lift heavy loads.
- Going into their 40s, athletes should be comfortable deadlifting, squatting, pulling and a single arm shoulder press.
- At 50, you should accept that if you want to be a healthy 80 years-old person, you better have strength training in your program.
- If you are not having fun, find another program.
- We want to avoid putting you every day in a challenging situation.
- Dr Peter Attia talks about the marginal decade. People in their 50s, we should prepare for their final decade of life. (we want these years to be great)
- For example, I am already thinking about how Taylor will look when she is 30.
- If I blow a disc or separate a shoulder, that will affect my marginal decade.
Three loaded exercises people should add to their training
- First, a goblet front squat because it has a core activation component.
- The second would be the deadlift.
- The third would be a bent-over row.
- Those are my three go-to exercises for heavier loads.
Homebase strength training
The efficacy of homebase strength training
- There are many dumbells where you can have varied weights.
- People should have a relationship with the gym.
- At home, the compact power block would be a good tool.
- I have an hexbar at home, which was a good investment.
- My pro athletes have kettlebells, dumbells, mini bands and long bands. (I will ask them to have an hexbar to incorporate deadlifts after sessions)
- I also use the VIPR Pro (Vitality Performance And Rejuvenation), but it is only a fun tool.
- I also have a mobile board.
Adapting the training to home-base strength sessions
- We use single-leg work because we do not need a lot of weight.
- For example, I have an athlete starting with me that will primarily work with single-leg work and then advance to heavy lift probably only next year.
- For people to stay motivated and consistent, you need to show an athlete change. They need to feel the change in their sport because they will trust the process once they feel that.
- If athletes are progressing, they are probably strong enough. For those athletes, we do not need to add any more strength.
- We only need to stay out and allow their bodies to get better.
Tracking athlete's load
- I track load, but it is not a driving influence in training. (want to see how they behave under load)
- If I have a question, it will be to the coach and ask if the athlete is strong on the bike or fast on the run.
- If the athlete lacks strength, I will need to step up and work on that.
- Progression on the bike might come at a different pace than coaches would like. So coaches ask me to build a stronger athlete.
- However, coaches need to believe that the training volume reduction will not negatively impact performance.
- Moreover, if athletes have niggles and pains all the time, they need to back off their triathlon training to build a body that can handle it.
- There is a balance to having a good time enjoying the sport.
What is your favourite place to train?
The big island of Hawaii. Boulder might be the best place to ride a bike, but I can mentally check out and enjoy riding in Hawaii.
What is a bucket-list race that you would want to do?
I want to do Mooloolaba and Nice again because those races were terrific experiences.
If you could acquire any skill in the world in an instant, what would it be?
I could be like a chiropractor that understands joints and ligaments in the skeleton and fascial tissue. I wanted to be an expert in fascial work.