Strength Training then and now

I recently had a discussion with a current junior triathlon coach (a former elite athlete himself in the 90’s and early 2000’s) regarding the changing face of strength and conditioning in runners and triathletes. We also discussed the early findings we have seen from longitudinal testing in our 3D laboratory Precision Biomechanics regarding which type of exercises were shown to make quantifiable changes in biomechanical data under the scrutiny of repeat testing.

The conversation was sparked by a series of exercises which had been prescribed to a junior elite athlete he was coaching based on a musculoskeletal screening conducted by a physiotherapist. It quickly shifted to a comparison between those prescribed strength exercises and the strength exercises that the coach had himself been given when an emerging junior elite triathlete training with Coaching legend, Col Stewart on the Gold Coast in the late 90’s and then further still to the torturous routine Herb Elliot described completing during his training with Percy Cerruty in Portsea during Australia’s golden years of middle distance running.

The dichotomy could not have been more significant.

The current prescription, which appears to be increasingly common in runners and triathletes, involved small, precise, repetitive movements with low load in the interest of activation, isolation and endurance, whereas the former involved significantly more load with power and plyometric based exercises. In essence, one series of exercises sat on the extreme “Minimum Load= Endurance” end of the spectrum and the other on the other extreme sought “Max Load= Power”. Both were prescribed to emerging junior elite triathletes 20 years apart. The difference was night and day.

Which is better?

That depends entirely on your goals. Certainly in an injured athlete, rehabilitation demands a focus on remedial movement, quality and activation as the athlete overcomes inhibition associated with pain and inflammation before progressing into higher loading. Similarly, for someone seeking a healthy lifestyle there may be an interest in exercises at low or moderate load such as Pilates to ensure vitality and sustainability.

The ones let down however by the low/moderate load end of the spectrum are those who think such exercises will help them improve performance. On the performance side, a large body of research (1,2,3,4) backs the power and plyometric based ideology for improving running economy and performance. Similarly, we are seeing consistently that under the scrutiny of repeat testing, the more specific drills and plyometric loads are generating improvements in movement quality and changing data, whereas low to moderate load activities do not, at least in early testing, appear to cause any significant changes.

While there is different solutions for all individuals, it is important that runners and triathletes look to progress their strength and conditioning in a direction that is most likely to help them achieve their goals. For those seeking better performance, that may mean you need to step things up a level to reap rewards.

Running Regards

Raf Baugh

B.Sc Physio, Level 2 AA


1. Hoff J, Helgerud J, and Wisløff U. Maximal strength training improves work economy in trained female cross-country skiers. Med Sci Sports Exerc 31: 870-877, 1999.

2. Hoff J, Helgerud J, and Wisløff, U. Endurance training into the next millennium: Muscular strengthtraining on aerobic endurance performance. Am J Med Sports 4: 58-67, 2002.

3. Jung AP. The impact of resistance training on distance running performance.Sports Med 33: 539-552, 2003.

4. Paavolainen L, Hakkinen K, Hamalainen I, Nummela A, and Rusko H. Explosive-strengthtraining improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. J ApplPhysiol 86: 1527-1533, 1999.