Reframing the Discussion on Strength & Conditioning for Triathletes

The Disconnect:

Just two weeks ago, I traveled to San Diego for the USA Triathlon Art & Science Symposium. I looked forward to the continuing education and the opportunity to converse with some of the country’s best minds in triathlon.

And I learned a lot. Robbie Ventura–former professional cyclist and now endurance coach–gave an excellent talk on bike performance and variable pacing strategies. Max Testa—world-renowned exercise physiologist and sports doc–provided medical insight on athletes who fail to perform. And four time Olympian Hunter Kemper walked us through the ups and downs of his incredible 16 year Olympic run in triathlon, providing great takeaways for all of us who listened.

While these presenters and the conference overall did not disappoint, I did leave feeling dissatisfied with the discussions on strength & conditioning and biomechanics. The information was not bad. Something was just missing. And it hit me. The two conversations did not relate to each other. The two presenters didn’t even speak the same language. There is a disconnect between these two worlds.

First the running expert provided the latest research and thinking on the intricacies and the anatomy of running. It was totally geeked out and great, but it did feel like listening to someone give driving directions with GPS coordinates rather than with Google Maps. It was informative, but uber technical and not intuitive.

The strength expert discussed the benefits of strength training and how to incorporate the gym into an athlete’s schedule. Strength can increase muscle force, increase our power output, and “balance” us. He even highlighted certain exercises and what muscles to focus on. It’s clear he knew his stuff and he presented it well.

And it occurred to me that this muscle-focused approach to strength is how many in the endurance community still see it. We need stronger hamstrings, so we prescribe hamstring curls. Our calves are weak, so we do calf raises. We have poor posture so we should do some sort of upright cable row exercise to improve the musculature in our upper backs. Even functional exercises like the dead lift are taught as either a hamstring or low back exercise.

Technique is emphasized and taught for each exercise. And it’s clear that great care and thought have been put into these programs. But it’s clear that this program doesn’t connect with the run expert’s discussion. And no one asks, how do hamstring curls improve my 10km time?

In the muscle focused approach we do not talk about movement as a skill. Rather, if all strength is muscle-specific then it’s created equal. Whether we do leg presses or knee extensions, hamstring curls or lunges, the goal is to improve specific muscles. And while this approach isn’t a bad one per se, it could be better.

Why Movement is a SKILL:

Instead, we should be talking about how we move day to day, how we move in our strength program, and how this relates to our movement in triathlon. How we stand, squat, and run are all skills that we want to identify, address, and improve. As a coach, I want to talk about squatting and running in the same sentence and how one improves the other. I want to not only talk about how overhead pressing relates to swimming, but also how it shaves a few seconds off my 100-yard free time.

In fact, what does our dead lift (or squat or pushup) say about us as athletes and how we move? Can we stabilize our spine and move under load? Can we load our hips and generate torque for greater power and stability? If not, do we lack the coordination to do it or do we lack mobility in a certain joint? Asking these questions around movement ties our strength training to our sport. The dead lift becomes a running drill, not just a hamstring exercise.

As a strength and conditioning and endurance coach, I want to help bridge the gap that exists between the run coach and the strength expert. We need to re-frame the debate on strength and conditioning around functional movement. At the conference, the run and strength experts live in different worlds and speak different languages, when in reality they should be best friends, attached at the hip!

So can strength training improve our power on the bike? Or improve our finishing kick? Or address that IT-band injury that keeps popping up? Absolutely, but only if we reframe the discussion towards functional movement, skill development, and how this relates to the positions we need to swim, bike, and run.

My School of Thinking:

As a coach, I’m fortunate enough to work around some incredibly thoughtful and innovate coaches. At San Francisco CrossFit, we all obsess about movement, our athletes, and professional coaching. My home for three years now, it’s easy to take for granted this thought process and education. In fact it took me leaving—guest coaching on weekends and travelling to conferences—to really appreciate how obsessed we all have become with movement, skill, and performance. One final story to illustrate my own obsession:

This past Monday an athlete brought me the above-pictured handout from a Physical Therapists office. The exercise was some sort of drop squat and the athlete wanted to know my opinion on it. While I glanced at the exercise description, I was too distracted by the stick figures themselves. “Look at those stick figures. Their posture sucks. They look so sad!”  I got a laugh, but I was serious and kind of irked. The relative merits of the exercise aside, all I could think about was the stick figures and what they communicate. And to me the stick figures say it all. If we really care about movement, posture, and position then our diagrams should be perfect. If we preach posture, then how can our stick figures have rounded backs?

By reframing the discussion on strength and conditioning around movement, we can get the swim, bike, run, and strength coaches around the same table. If we get them speaking the same language around movement we can continue to share ideas, challenge each other, and refine our approach towards athletic performance synergistically. At the next conference, the strength coach and the run coach should be best friends presenting congruent ideas on skill development and power production in the squat and in the run stride.

Strength training is more than just muscle development. It’s about movement and skill. We can and should do better for our selves and our athletes and continue moving the sport forward.

Train well,



4 Responses to “Reframing the Discussion on Strength & Conditioning for Triathletes”

  1. Mike November 14, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    Nate, you nailed it man! I just gave a clinic last night on Pose running to some runners (non-CrossFitters) and it was hard. That was the first time my audience really ever thoughtfully considered the importance of movement patterns. Anyway, keep up the good work! We’ll get triathletes functioning properly…eventually 🙂

    • Nathan Helming November 15, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

      that’s great. getting people thinking is half the challenge!

  2. Travis January 29, 2013 at 7:34 am #

    Nate, what a good article and take on strengthening. As a physical therapist it is sad to see pictures like the ones above. I try to teach my patient correct form and send them away with a handful of exercises to continue. I have found that if people feel overwhelmed with a long list they are not going to do anything at all. I think doing a proper squat and eventually loading it is a great exercise for a lot of endurance athletes to incorporate into their training. It is functional and can be extremely beneficial.


  1. Thursday 120612 — CrossFit Chuckanut | Bellingham's Premier CrossFit School - December 6, 2012

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