Strength & Conditioning for Endurance Athletes with Dan Sims, Sports Performance Coach
As we enter the deep dark winter months and the base training period for endurance athletes, the authors here at ToeTheLineProject thought it would an appropriate time to look the often discussed but just as often overlooked subject of Strength and Conditioning for endurance athletes. To help us address this subject we sought the help of sports performance coach and experienced Ironman distance triathlete, Dan Sims.
After growing up competing in a variety of team sports, Dan completed a degree in Sports Coaching followed by a Masters in Sports and Conditioning. Combining physiology with psychology, nutrition and all other aspects of performance Dan found his passion and began his career with a first experience in coaching at the British Rally Academy. Pursuing his own performance goals alongside this, Dan competed for British Triathlon at Age Group World Championships and tried his hand at full time triathlon for 6 months in Australia before turning his attention the Ironman distance. This culminated in a Kona-Q at Ironman Wales and a more than respectable race in Hawaii where he crossed the line well under the 10-hour barrier. Along the way he used himself as a guinea pig for his coaching theories and practices, honing his skills as coach in both S&C and endurance sports.
TTL: Thanks for agreeing to a chat Dan, can you tell us a bit about the type of coaching you do and the athletes that you coach?
DS: Nice to meet you guys, and yes of course. My background in S&C has allowed me to develop a holistic approach to coaching as it taught me about the way the body moves and its energy systems. These concepts apply to the training methods that I implement with my various athletes. I have coached Tennis, Olympic Hockey players, F1 and F3 drivers, elite endurance athletes and a variety of other individuals at the amateur level in different team sports. There is a lot of variety in what I do, and I try to apply and adapt my knowledge to each individual, their sport, their objectives and their strengths and weaknesses. Performance isn’t just a function of training, it also depends on sleep, recovery, nutrition, well being and much more.
TTL: You mention F1 and F3 drivers, out of interest can you tell us endurance athletes a bit about what these guys do in terms of preparation? I imagine the sport is quite taxing on the body.
DS: This depends on the classification of racing. Whilst F3 is slower than F1 for example, it doesn’t have power steering, so it is extremely demanding on the upper body. These guys have to do a lot of upper body work to keep control of the car. The main element that is common to the various classifications is the work we do for the head and the neck due to the G-Force experienced in the corners. With the weight of the helmet included the neck experiences about 20KG+ of work going into each corner, repeated over a 1.5hr race this has a heavy impact and is something that has to be conditioned. They do very similar work to boxers and front row rugby players for this purpose. On top of this we do a lot of reaction work and peripheral vision training. Obviously there is core work and endurance work as well, because the fitter they are the less tired they will be coming into the end of the race and the more they will be able to focus on the task at hand under fatigue.
TTL: Where would you say the biggest value of S&C is for endurance athletes?
DS: The answer is that it depends on the individual, on their background, their history, their objectives, and their races. There is a huge value in injury prevention, since endurance sport is a domain that depends on volume and consistency to progress, if people can avoid injury then they will be able to train more and have steady progression. Secondly, there are various benefits to performance in doing S&C training to improve max strength, efficiency, range of motion and durability. If you have poor range of motion then you will lose a lot of efficiency and energy, which over an endurance race is a hinderance to performance. The typical example we see in triathletes for example is tight hamstrings, which means the glutes and quads overwork and create tiredness and a loss of efficiency in cycling and running.
TTL: What type of S&C work would you favour then for endurance athletes? Does it depend on the time of season?
DS: Absolutely the type of work you do depends on where you are in the training cycle and what your objectives are. It depends on the athlete, but if they are performing the functional movements safely then there is a lot of value in max strength work early in the training cycle since it will help improve your power. This needs to be done without gaining weight however, since power to weight ratio is key for endurance sports. The aim needs to be develop the neuromuscular gains and creating efficient motion, rigidity in certain tendons but without creating hypertrophy and mass gain. The perfect example is the Sub-70kg weightlifting category where they can squat or clean nearly 2x their body weight and generate huge amounts of power by recruiting motor units but without building huge muscle mass. This type of work also helps develop core strength naturally and improve your posture which will both have benefits for efficiency of motion in endurance sports.
TTL: Building on this, how and when would you recommend endurance athletes integrate S&C work into their training programme?
DS: Athletes should speak with their coaches and work backwards from their goal race to prioritise different types of work at different times in the training schedule. When you are close to your event for example you probably want to be a in maintenance phase for strength work since you will be under heavy training load across your other disciplines. During pre-season however strength work should be one of the building blocks to help build consistency in your training. The work you do should be specific to your race demands but also to you as an athlete in terms of your weaknesses and injury history. Including core work as well as stretching and range of motion work early on is also a good idea. Building resilient muscles and tendons in this period will also help prevent injuries when you get into the heavy training loads.
TTL: Speaking from experience then, what area of S&C do you often see endurance athletes neglecting?
DS: People often overlook the value of flexibility. Whether this is pure flexibility of the muscles, or simply the inability to activate the right muscles for efficient motion. An example of this is the hip flexors which are often tight from spending a lot of time sat down at the office – this can lead to struggling with range of motion in running or in the TT position on the bike. Improving range of motion in these areas will improve efficiency for endurance athletes – ultimately a long-distance race isn’t about going crazy fast, it’s about being efficient at a strong endurance pace. If your range of motion and flexibility is limited, then your muscles and technique will break down before you get to the finish. My recommendation would be to combine yoga or stretching with some specific range of motion work on your weaker areas to improve both your overall and specific flexibility.
TTL: When it comes to the coach/athlete relationship, what’s your take on what makes an athlete highly coachable and likely to improve?
DS: Coaches are taught to be flexible in the way they approach each athlete and different personality types. I think the number one thing is to have a growth mindset and a willingness to learn from failures. A coach should look to present challenges and failures as learning opportunities for their athletes. Moreover, the coach needs to care about the athlete and understand them outside of their sport. There are always other stressors in their life that athletes need to be honest with their coach about so that the training programmes can be adapted. Communication is key in both directions to develop a mutual respect. This will help build a training programme that is suitable but also leave the athlete the freedom to adapt sessions if they truly feel the need to.
TTL: Thanks for your time Dan, it’s been very insightful and we think our readers will take a few learnings away that will help them in their winter training and next year’s racing. Are there any other thoughts on training and coaching that you want to share before we conclude?
DS: A hot topic these days, I would add that monitoring tools such as Garmin watches, Whoop bands and the Oura ring have value to help quantify sleep and recovery but that athletes also need to know when to listen to their bodies and their minds as no one knows you better than you.