There was a period of about ten years where I despised strength training. The main culprit that left a bad taste left in my mouth stemmed from my weight lifting in college for field hockey that led me to put anything to do with weights and lifting in the rear view mirror. When I started endurance racing right after college, I did not even think about going to the weight room. There were ten years as a struggling age grouper and then professional triathlete before I ventured in the weight room again by the urging of my good friend and strength coach/personal trainer, Kate Ligler. The results have been outstanding as my core and body has become stronger to help me navigate through the endurance sport of triathlon, and trying to conquer three disciplines, swimming, biking and running!
I was fortunate enough to go so Syracuse University on a field hockey scholarship. The differences between an elite high school program and an elite college program are many, including spending time in the weight room.
Strength Training for Endurance Athletes
The game is faster, the players are bigger, and the skill set of the athletes are more pronounced throughout the entire roster. To keep up with these realities of the college game, our coaches employed sports performance training programs, plenty of speed and agility exercises, and weightlifting. Strength and speed training was imperative to keep up with the other elite squads in the Big East and across the country. Weightlifting was necessary to get bigger and stronger which was the glue that tied everything together.
As a female college athlete who was confident in my current weight at the time, I didn’t necessarily like the added bulk that was the result of the type of weightlifting we were doing. I distinctly remember being in the weight room alongside the Syracuse football team and doing some of the same workouts as Donovan McNabb. The program was designed to increase size and strength, so the result was a bigger, stronger version of me. This was not ideal for my after college pursuits as I began endurance sports. It was imprinted in my mind that being in the weight room was a direct correlation to increasing my mass, so it became taboo except for the occasional crunch or sit up workout.
As the journey of triathlon took me from mediocre age grouper to elite age grouper, to professional, the separation between female athlete times became less and less. The search for improvement in the three endurance disciplines of swimming, cycling and running became a hunt for the smaller details to help your training and then racing. This could be the latest lubed bicycle chain that reduces drag by a minuscule amount, a new streamlined Roka wetsuit, or a change in diet before the race. All of these tiny changes can result in improved times but little did I know there was such low-hanging fruit right in front of me; core and strength training.
The misconception that strength training can make you bulky is a common one, especially for high school and college female athletes. In marketing’s endless pursuit to project the perfect female body onto society, ideas on dieting and consuming fewer calories overtake the smart techniques of exercise and strength training to shape, rather than build volume. I was very skeptical at first, but I knew that something needed to be done to keep growing through my triathlon journey which allowed my brain to be rewired to accept weight training.
I started working with Kate, and over time, my core became stronger which translated into better results in all aspects of my training. We worked on balancing the muscles in my body so that one side wasn’t more dominant than the other. She concentrated on building lean muscle mass rather than just mass which transformed how I felt, mentally and physically, in a positive way. I felt stronger in training sessions which enabled me to push past a lot of plateaus that had plagued me before working out my core strength. Once again, it was such a low-hanging fruit where the benefits catapulted me into a different level of training and racing. This wasn’t just a new gimmick to reduce a few watts on the bike; this was an actual performance spike.
Core and strength training is now a part of my weekly routine just like brushing my teeth. I work out with Kate at least two times per week and maybe more, depending on my race schedule and time of year. If you are an endurance athlete stuck in a rut and wanting to improve your training and racing, I suggest finding a certified personal trainer and relaying what you want to accomplish. You should train with this individual for six months and then reevaluate the relationship to see if you are on a reliable path to reach your goals. If there was an improvement, continue on the program. If the goals were not met, determine if it was the fault of the trainer’s philosophies or your error for not following the plan and make the appropriate changes. The benefits of strength training extend beyond the athletic field so hop on board and enjoy the ride!
Written by professional triathlete Meredith Kessler – MeredithKessler.com