Strength Train Like Pro Erin Car­son

Strength train­ing is of­ten the for­got­ten dis­ci­pline when it comes to most triath­letes’ train­ing pro­grams, but spend an hour in the gym with Erin Car­son, and you’ll over­look it no more. Car­son is the strength and con­di­tion­ing coach for many su­per­star triat

Triathlon Magazine Canada - - Features - BY EMMA-KATE LIDBURY

The Cana­dian, who was born in North Van­cou­ver and raised in Ab­bots­ford, has been work­ing in the fit­ness in­dus­try for more than three decades and knows all about what it takes to be the very best. She was part of the Cana­dian na­tional bas­ket­ball pro­gram from high school and part-way through college, only leav­ing her na­tive land to ac­cept a full bas­ket­ball schol­ar­ship at the Uni­ver­sity of Colorado.

Af­ter a year play­ing pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball in Europe, she re­turned to the States to ac­cept a coach­ing po­si­tion and at­tend grad­u­ate school at Tu­lane Uni­ver­sity and the Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braska. It was dur­ing her time at Ne­braska that Car­son be­gan to de­velop an in­ter­est in be­com­ing a per­for­mance spe­cial­ist and strength coach, in­spired in part by Boyd Ep­ley, dubbed the god­fa­ther of col­le­giate strength and con­di­tion­ing.

“It was there [at Ne­braska] that I re­al­ized how a well-or­ga­nized and sys­tem­atic ap­proach to strength and con­di­tion­ing could be a game changer in sport – any sport,” says Car­son

It is per­haps no co­in­ci­dence, then, that with her bas­ket­ball days be­hind her, and find­ing her­self in Boul­der, Colo., a global hotspot for triath­letes, Car­son then fell in love with triathlon. She be­gan ap­ply­ing her knowl­edge to a sport that re­quires its ath­letes to be strong, ro­bust and anti-frag­ile if they are to suc­ceed and en­joy longevity in their ca­reers.

The well-or­ga­nized and sys­tem­atic ap­proach she wit­nessed Ep­ley us­ing on the foot­ball train­ing grounds at Ne­braska is now wo­ven into the core of all of her pro­grams with her ath­letes young and old, recre­ational and pro­fes­sional.

For the past 27 years, she has worked at Ral­lyS­port, one of Boul­der’s most pop­u­lar health and fit­ness cen­tres, and she has been manag­ing part­ner of the own­er­ship group since 2013. Her clien­tele ranges from Olympians and world cham­pion triath­letes through to re­tirees look­ing to stay fit and well.

“You don’t have to be in here very long to rec­og­nize that the folks who live here [Boul­der] de­mand a lot from them­selves on many lev­els, and they love to phys­i­cally per­form,” she says. Their goals can be wide-rang­ing – from be­ing fit enough to ski with the fam­ily or to make money from en­durance sports.”

Re­gard­less of the goal or the ath­lete, Car­son’s ap­proach, be­liefs and method­ol­ogy re­main the same.

She says, “The body is a beau­ti­ful thing that ul­ti­mately wants to be healthy and bal­anced, but when the de­sire to be­come faster be­comes part of the equa­tion, these mus­cle im­bal­ances can lead to com­pen­sa­tion and then tis­sue over­load.”

For this rea­son, Car­son says when it comes to strength train­ing, her core values be­gin with tis­sue care and mus­cle bal­ance.

“There are some­what pre­dictable pat­terns that arise in en­durance sports due to repet­i­tive

mo­tion,” she says. “In short, it doesn’t sur­prise me when I find mo­bil­ity in ar­eas that should be sta­ble and sta­bil­ity in ar­eas that should be mo­bile. The foun­da­tion for any ef­fec­tive pro­gram will in­clude strate­gies to keep the ath­lete train­ing as well as pos­si­ble and stay injury free. This con­cept is some­times hard for en­durance ath­letes, as we lean to­ward ‘if some is good, then more must be bet­ter.’”

She be­lieves that it is im­por­tant for triath­letes who want to get bet­ter at their sport to in­clude strength train­ing in the pro­gram year round.

“There are so many things to con­sider when choos­ing the best method to ap­proach an an­nual train­ing plan,” she says. “In some cir­cum­stances, I ac­tu­ally rec­om­mend less gym work for ath­letes. Some ath­letes just don’t need as much as oth­ers. But find­ing those bench­marks to self-as­sess can be dif­fi­cult, which is why hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with some­one like me, or some­one on my team, is a good idea.”

While the temp­ta­tion to skip gym work in favour of more time swim­ming, cy­cling and run­ning can be high for some triath­letes, there are risks with this ap­proach, as Car­son ex­plains:

“Pro­gres­sive over­load in swim, bike and run typ­i­cally causes tis­sue de­hy­dra­tion, tis­sue tight­ness and per­haps even some mus­cle im­bal­ances that can lead to an in­crease in re­cov­ery time and, in the case of ath­letes who do not re­cover well, an injury or pain usu­ally fol­lows.

“There will al­ways be out­liers who progress just fine with­out a struc­tured mo­bil­ity and strength pro­gram – it doesn’t hap­pen of­ten, but it does hap­pen.”

She adds, “It’s not just about do­ing strength work, it re­ally is about en­hanc­ing re­cov­ery through move­ment and then ac­tively work­ing to­wards op­ti­mal and ef­fi­cient move­ment.”

Car­son says that if an ath­lete is com­pet­ing well in the sport, get­ting faster and achiev­ing the results they hope for, there will be very lit­tle ad­di­tional work­load in the gym. The peo­ple she sees do­ing well and mak­ing the great­est gains from her pro­gram are those who are hun­gry to be faster and want con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment.

“I re­cently had the op­por­tu­nity to work with Xterra world cham­pion Brad Weiss and, in the time we spent to­gether, we barely lifted a weight,” she says. “We fo­cused on giv­ing Brad more ac­cess to the strength and speed that he al­ready has. Fol­low­ing our ses­sions, he re­ported that his train­ing felt eas­ier and the power came with less ef­fort. That is what I’m truly af­ter in the early stages of a re­la­tion­ship. If an ath­lete feels an im­me­di­ate change, then the chance to ‘find the time’ to do the gym work goes way up.”

How­ever, if Car­son is work­ing with an ath­lete who is not pro­gress­ing to their ex­pec­ta­tions or they are in­jured (or have a his­tory

of in­juries), then her ap­proach changes sig­nif­i­cantly. Her work with Cana­dian Olympian Paula Find­lay is a great ex­am­ple of this.

“When I started work­ing with Paula four years ago she was deal­ing with a few dif­fer­ent in­juries and we started out with build­ing her a tis­sue care reg­i­men that she con­tin­ues with to­day. Her injury cy­cle proved to be very mo­bile; we would get one part of her healthy and then an­other source of dis­com­fort would show up. This is not un­com­mon as we un­ravel an ath­lete.”

Car­son was just one of many peo­ple de­lighted to see Find­lay’s strong re­turn to com­pe­ti­tion this year, par­tic­u­larly her vic­tory at the Iron­man 70.3 North Amer­i­can Cham­pi­onships in St. Ge­orge, Utah, in May.

“Paula has proven to be one of the fastest women in the sport. She is re­lent­less in her com­mit­ment to be the best in the world and I know her best races are ahead of her. She is con­sis­tent with her gym work and we no longer chase move­ment dys­func­tion. Her strength pro­gram has evolved to iden­tify her dys­func­tional pat­terns,” says Car­son.

If an ath­lete is look­ing to evolve or be­gin a strength and con­di­tion­ing pro­gram, Car­son says the off-sea­son is the prime time to make the big­gest changes.

“The con­cept of pro­gres­sive over­load is one that I rely on the ath­lete’s coach to over­see dur­ing the race sea­son and com­pet­i­tive phase,” she says. “It is only in the off-sea­son that I feel that I can use this prin­ci­ple in the gym. That is the time to make big changes to the ath­lete.

“Through­out the com­pet­i­tive sea­son we are sim­ply hop­ing to main­tain strength and en­hance re­cov­ery through op­ti­miz­ing and main­tain­ing healthy move­ment.”

Car­son has been work­ing with three-time Iron­man world cham­pion Mirinda Car­frae and her hus­band, Tim O’Don­nell, for six years now. She works closely with their re­spec­tive coaches in de­liv­er­ing a strength and con­di­tion­ing plan that com­ple­ments the over­all train­ing and rac­ing goals.

It was through her work with Car­frae and O’Don­nell that Car­son’s idea of shar­ing her strength train­ing con­cepts first de­vel­oped.

She says, “When I first started work­ing with Tim and Rinny, I knew that if we were suc­cess­ful we could take the train­ing strate­gies and share them with a lot of peo­ple. They are both in­flu­encers in the sport of triathlon and I knew their story would be pow­er­ful.”

Car­son and her team cre­ated the ECFIT Boul­der App as a de­liv­ery sys­tem to share her work­outs with ath­letes around the world. It went live in Novem­ber last year and is now used by more than 5,000 peo­ple world­wide, in­clud­ing pros such as Annabel Lux­ford, Paula Find­lay, Matt Han­son and Lauren Bran­don.

“Teach­ing peo­ple to do gym ses­sions like the pro­fes­sion­als has given me so much sat­is­fac­tion,” she says. “These train­ing con­cepts work just as well for am­a­teurs as they do for the pros, and the re­sponse to our pro­gram­ming through the app has been amaz­ing.

“We have peo­ple all over the world do­ing the in-sea­son and off-sea­son pro­grams, and they get to fol­low along with video demon­stra­tions from the likes of Rinny, Tim, Flora Duffy and many more. You never know who will be demon­strat­ing your next ex­er­cise!”

Emma-Kate Lidbury is a pro triath­lete and free­lance jour­nal­ist who lives in Boul­der, Colo.

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