Strength & Conditioning: A Triathlete’s Secret Weapon

Dave Scott (left) and Mark Allen in the 1989 Iron War.
Dave Scott (left) and Mark Allen in the 1989 Iron War.

I’ve been working on a story on running technique for Inside Triathlon magazine, discussing the various controversies that surround the idea of improving or repairing how you run.

In researching the story, I spoke with a variety of coaches, athletes and scientists. One of the most controversial areas is in the physics of running. The model that is the Pose Method, authored by Dr. Nicholas Romanov, considers gravitational torque to be the premium source of power in running. While most seem to agree with some of the fundamentals of Pose Running–a compact stride, a quick stride rate, forward lean, good posture, spending as little as time as possible in contact with the ground, not reaching out with the foot and heelstriking out in front of your center of mass/bodyweight, but rather contacting the ground underneath it. But when it comes to the concept of using the force of gravity to your benefit versus the idea of propelling yourself via muscle power and through a push-off, it’s a vigorous debate. In the process of researching the story, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the working ideas surrounding human movement and where we stand with the idea of making running—like swimming and gold–a skill to be practiced and mastered.

One of the things that came to mind when I was working on the story was an interview I did with Dave Scott, the six-time Hawaii Ironman champion and, more recently, the coach of Chrissie Wellington, on the subject of running well in an Ironman.

Scott was a water polo player back at UC Davis in the late 70s before he became a triathlete and started to own the Hawaii Ironman (his nickname: “The Man.”). What Dave could do extremely well was run strong in the marathon to the end.

In the interview, he couldn’t believe that some of the up-and-coming triathletes who were more gifted as runners weren’t breaking the 2:40 marathon split time at the Hawaii Ironman.

“I see these guys out doing 150-mile bike rides in Boulder. They’re doing so much volume. What they need to do is trade in some of that volume and do some ancillary work in the gym.”

Scott went on to explain the importance of strength and conditioning to being resilient coming off the 112-mile bike ride and running a marathon in harsh conditions. He said the key thing was to strengthen the muscles of the posterior chain: hamstrings, calves, glutes, lower back, upper back. He basically made the case that this is how you can shake off the hard bike ride and run a good marathon.

Despite coming from a swimming background and not a running background, Scott’s marathon time in 1989–the Iron War–when he was finally beat by Mark Allen after a decade of Dave winning all of their Kona battles—continues to this day to be the second fastest split in the Hawaii Ironman record books: 2:41:03 (second to Allen’s 2:40). Scott took a 5-year break from the Hawaii Ironman to come back at the age of 42 to run a 2:45 marathon (and finish second).

So the guy knew what he was doing. It’s fair to imagine that one of the reasons Chrissie Wellington could rise from a serious bike crash and win the 2011 Hawaii Ironman was because Scott had her in the gym during her preparation. It should be noted that Mark Allen–who went on to win six Hawaii Ironman championships as well— became a user and advocate of time in the weight room.

I recalled this conversation after I spoke with Brian MacKenzie, author of “Power, Speed, Endurance,” about solving the problem of running well after 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride. This is a quick excerpt from the story:

Trunk strength, aka midline stability, is a principal feature of the approach encouraged by Brian MacKenzie, author “Power, Speed, Endurance: A Skill-Based Approach to Endurance,” and related directly to T2.

“Think about how you feel after sitting on a plane for four hours or longer,” MacKenzie says. “You’re sitting in that position the whole time. Think about how you feel getting off the plane.” MacKenzie says this is not so different from sitting on a bike for 112-miles. “It’s impossible to stabilize your spine for that length of time. There’s a core-to-extremity violation happening no matter how much you try and have good posture, and you have to make up for the lack of integrity in the hip.” The result is that you exhaust the muscles of your extremities because you can’t fully access the more powerful muscles of the hips and the core. “And now you need to run.”

“This is where strength and conditioning work comes in,” MacKenzie says. “The stronger you are the better you’re able to hold up in an Ironman.” 

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.