How to Build a Better Athlete

Strength and conditioning coach Erin Carson shares her insights and expertise on building durable, happy, successful athletes—and it's about more than just lifting weights in the gym.

Video Transcript

Emma-Kate Lidbury (EK)  00:05

Erin Carson, thank you for joining us. Welcome to Fast Talk Labs. Great to have you here.

Erin Carson  00:09
It is a blast to be here, thank you.
EK  00:01
You are a strength and conditioning coach with some 30 plus years’ experience now. You are obviously an athlete in your own right too, an endurance athlete. I know you love to keep up abreast with some of the latest things that are happening in the strength and training world as it relates to endurance athletes and how you get the most from them.
Can you kick us off here by talking about some of that latest thinking and some of the things that you’re working into some of the programs with your athletes?

High Performance and Strength Training

Erin Carson  00:36
I think probably the most exciting thing is that endurance athletes are starting to recognize that there are things beyond swimming, biking, running, and skiing that will actually enhance their performance. So the strength training area and the realm of gym work is probably becoming more of a topic because of the way that some of the elite athletes are performing.
They’re talking about it. I mean, when you really look at it, it’s almost easy for people to work harder and harder and harder and try and elevate that FTP higher and higher and spend more time working zone 1 and zone 2 on the bike or during a run. But then there’s these little magic things that are happening somewhere in the back room, and people want to know what’s going on there.
And I think that I have the opportunity to work with some of these elite athletes that are telling a really exciting story, that the work that we’re doing, even though it necessarily hasn’t been proven by official research, we can’t ignore what’s actually happening with performance
EK  01:43
Right, and oftentimes what’s happening with official research is sometimes lagging 15 plus years behind what’s happening, like you say “in the back room.” I love that phrase. So tell us about what’s happening in the back room. You are one of those people that’s working in the back room with some of these athletes, some of whom are household names in many endurance sports, some of whom are recreational athletes just looking to get the most from their body.
We hear a lot about, certainly one of the trendy topics right now that we hear a lot about it as it relates to strength training, is lifting heavy and putting athletes under load. Give us your position on this because I know that’s something that you have some interesting insights on.

Lifting Heavy and Progression in the Gym

Erin Carson  02:18
Lifting heavy is a really, really important part of building strength, whether it’s lower body strength, upper body strength, core strength. Strength is a pretty good predictor. When strength meets talent, good things are going to happen. I think it’s the journey to lifting heavy and getting under load that is a game changer for an endurance athlete. It’s probably the more interesting part of the conversation because different athletes will progress at different rates. Different athletes have different experience, as we all grew up as young athletes some of us were exposed to the weight room through our progression and some weren’t. And some just became world-class athletes with no exposure to the strength and conditioning realm at all. So that’s super interesting.
EK 03:08
Because historically endurance athletes weren’t typically people that spent time in the weight room, or it would often be low weight, high reps.
Erin Carson  03:20 
It’d be low weight, high reps because they were so fearful of putting on muscle and building the size of muscle. And we’ve really always known how to lift heavy without increasing the size of a muscle, it’s just become more and more mainstream and less fearful for endurance athletes to get into that position. Because as soon as you can build, as soon as you can show an athlete how their body can move with a little bit more easeyou know, we use that hashtag a lot with social media, #easy speed—athletes, whether they’re elite or not elite, they know when something feels good, especially when they’re running. And so if the running just starts getting easier, they’re going to pay attention to what might be helping that.
EK  04:06
Because you’ve said before it takes time to get athletes under load. So obviously, heavy lifting is a very trendy thing, and it’s been proven to be very effective, too. But it takes time to get an athlete under load. Talk to us a little bit about that. Well, what that means, what you mean by the phrase “time to get under load”?
Erin Carson  04:21
We have to look at the athlete’s experience, so they’re either experienced in the strength training area or they’re not. If they’re not and they’re awkward, the risk goes up. We have to not ever hurt an athlete or you’ll lose all your credibility. I mean, bad things will happen and hopefully we can get around them and whatnot, but hopefully they’re small. So getting hurt in the weight room is a bad story—hurt their back because they were back squatting, hurt their back because they were deadlifting. Those things just make me cringe and they should make most people cringe. So we want to make sure that we teach technique. We do lighter weights. And some athletes are going to pick up the technique really fast, and some people aren’t.
There’s lots of things you can do without lifting heavy to improve performance on the way to lifting heavy. But I think that Dr. Peter Attia, who is a longevity doctor and very passionate about helping people live their best life, he talks a lot about if you do one thing, fall in love with strength training.
So that’s where the process has to be understood. A great performance does not come from one workout or a max lift on a Thursday. It comes from consistent attention in the weight room, how it fits in with the training program, and that the athlete has to find some level of joy in that process, so that’s important. The process and the coach’s ability to put together a journey that the athlete wants to participate in… that’s important.

Every Athlete’s Body Tells a Story

EK  05:55
Yeah, because a lot of the work that you do is about reading, reading the room, reading the athlete, how they’re moving their body. What is it you say? Everybody’s body tells a story.
Erin Carson  06:08
100%, if have an idea of what we’re going to do and the athlete walks in pretty slouched, eyes down, posture looks like crap, hips look horrible, my plan goes out the window and we spend the entire session trying to get them realigned, rebalanced, and maybe a little more pep in their step.
Lifting heavy can help with mood and so if I can get them under load for two or three sets at the end of the session that we took to get them realigned, it’ll usually put them in a better mood.
EK 06:41
Yeah, so then that links nicely to a lot of athletes will then really get that “Oh wow, strength training works for me” because they’ll leave the gym feeling better. Maybe they came into the gym, they came into you, feeling rundown, feeling upset, feeling tired, like they’re not hitting numbers they wanted to hit. Then they come in to you, you help open them up, you help them breathe that little bit better, they start to feel more aligned. They get under a little bit of weight perhaps. They leave the gym with, like you say, spring in their step. That also helps your cause because then you’ve got buy-in from them, right? They’re like, suddenly, oh, I see the benefit of strength training.
So talk to us a little bit about the benefits, aside from some of the things you’ve already mentioned, some of the benefits to athletes in terms of a strength training program overall goal.

How to Build a Strength Program

Erin Carson  07:31
We’re going to look at it just like any sport coach would on an annual basis. The first thing we’re really going to look at are the most important races of the year. We’re going to build the program so that they’re in their best possible condition for those races because we know the sport coach is doing that.
There comes a point where we have to kind of get out of the way, and it’s usually within that racing window. But leading up into that window in the first year, we’re [doing] a little bit of trial and error. We want to see that the athlete is coming out of a strength training session on Tuesday and can perform what they need to do on Wednesday and Thursday. We’re kind of making sure that we’re not taking away from that training that that needs to be done. So the Tuesday session typically will be done after the sport training. Lots of my athletes here in Boulder will do intervals on Tuesdays. So I will see them hopefully within an hour or two of that session. They’ll go home, they’ll eat, they’ll shower, they’ll hit the gym.
I like to keep those sessions as close together as possible so that when they’re done with their training day, they can fully start the recovery process. Laying out early season training, we really want to emphasize the sport and make sure that they’re getting in routine, they’re getting in rhythm, and we don’t want to interrupt that process.
Once the athlete is starting to really get into the training—now we’re in the heart of, you know, maybe we’re 10 or 15 weeks out from a major competition—now it’s OK if they’re a little bit tired. We still want to keep it as close to the training session as possible. But when they walk in I don’t just walk the other way when they’re tired. Now I can get them turned around a little bit quicker, their bodies recovering a little bit quicker.They’re getting fitter, and we can ask a little bit more of them.
That might be where we start putting in some heavy load with some athletes because that’s the phase where they’re starting to get stronger in their sport. That’s another good reason to start overloading gently in the weight room as well.
So during the back week, we back off. We don’t ramp up. You know, I’m really careful of that. I think sport coaches who have aligned with a strength coach, it’d be really good to hear, “Hey, the week of the 13th or the week of the 20th or something like that, could we just keep them moving really well and then start the build again?” That would be great feedback, and we want to be able to have those kinds of conversations as coaches.

Strength Training in the Off-Season

EK  10:00
Yeah, and then in the wintertime, in the off-season… obviously like in season or building into the season, (prep phase), is very different to the winter, the off-season.
Erin Carson  10:09
I love the off season…
EK  10:10
It’s kind of like when the strength coach comes out to play…
Erin Carson  10:11
Yeah, it’s the best!
EK  10:12
And you get to come to the fore and the sport-specific coach can maybe hand the reins over to you a little bit more.
Erin Carson  10:19
It’s interesting, because if there’s an inherent place with an athlete, especially an elite athlete or a top age grouper, where we know that little 1 or 2% could make a difference. So, I’ll give you an example… well, let’s take me, for example.
I need to become a better cyclist if I want to get on the top of the podium or even in the top three, like I’m a top five kind of person. But I know that if I can become a better cyclist, I can potentially compete for one or two. So December and January in the northern hemisphere are really good months for me to take on some really good workload on the bike. I’m going to make my strength work, because I’m very highly skilled and in the weight room, I’ve probably gotten to most of my max lifts that I’m going to get in my life, so I don’t really care how much more I’m deadlifting. My biggest thing is Can I hit 220 watts for 3 minutes or 2 minutes (or something like that) to make me a better cyclist? If I’m lifting weights before that session, I’m going to take away from my ability to do that. If we’re going after running or we’re going after cycling, we don’t want to destroy the lower body before we actually do the sport.
We want to get after it and still continue to build strength, but we want to do those key sessions at least once or twice a week before we do strength. If the athlete is just globally getting better, then this is the time of year to maybe back off some of that sport-specific stuff, really highly skilled speed work, and allow us to build a better athlete for the coach to take over in that February and March when they start going back to rebuild the world-class athlete.
EK  12:03
And you’re viewing that as like building this foundation so that the body is strong enough to put all these miles onto it?
Erin Carson  12:08
Yeah, and we’re not afraid to put on a little bit of muscle in the winter. That’s going to come off. It’s easy… we do lose it—it’s a size principle. It’s not a number of muscle fibers. It’s a size thing.

What Makes a Successful Strength Program

EK  12:19
So what do you consider makes a successful strength program?
Erin Carson  12:25
No injuries. I mean, and I’ve just come through a season where there have been some injuries and we can point pretty clearly to why we got those injuries. But I can say that the strength program… they didn’t get hurt in the weight room. We can [see] that some young athletes that need more time. You know, when you start rushing to speed and you start rushing to high performance, those systems will fight back from time to time.
So I think the best strength program anyone can have is one that they really enjoy, that they’re committed to. They believe in it and that it can be somewhat fun. It doesn’t destroy them when they go home. They shouldn’t be sore—they might be sore every now and then, but it can’t be that debilitating sore where they don’t feel like going for a run or they don’t feel like sitting on the bicycle, you know?
So, and I think it has to be patient, it has to be a patient program, and I’m not afraid to say it sometimes takes two or three years to really start elevating an athlete.
EK  13:34
Yeah, and so you’re obviously underpinning so many things with success and endurance sports—obviously consistency, consistency in sport, specific training, consistency in the gym. How often do you advise your athletes to do their strength workouts?
Erin Carson  13:51
I’m pretty consistent year-round. I think two to three times a week is really, really good. I think there are days when I just I know there are days when I just send an athlete home and say, “You’re done. You’re not doing anything.” You know, we’ll do a little bit of foam rolling or a little bit of tissue care. Sometimes even the foam roller is too much when they’re just at that at that edge of, you know, just fatigue. It’s just fatigue. I don’t want to use the words overtraining because it’s so hard to measure that. Yeah. But when they’re just tired.
EK  14:20
There’s a lot of training, there’s a lot of miles that go through an endurance athlete’s body, whether it’s on the bike, in the pool, out running on the trails. What are some of the common themes and issues that you see?
Erin Carson  14:30
Well, I’ll probably take a weird around the back answer to this, but it’s time. Most athletes don’t think they have time. And so it’s a matter of finding the understanding that perhaps the extra 30 or 45 minutes on the bicycle or out on the trail might be better served in the weight room.
So there’s a little shift and the strength coach has to earn that. They have to earn that, big time. So that’s something I try to do, and my older athletes who do have the ability to make their own decisions, sometimes even some my elites… they are going to tell their coach, “I’m going to end this ride early and I’m going to go [to the0 gym.”
So that is something you earn as a strength coach. And then hopefully you don’t piss off the sport coach too much. But I think in the ultimate performance realm, we’re probably going to see a good payoff from that decision.
EK 15:27
I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of that—does a coach sit you down with the plan and you’re working with the coach? Do you set down the plan and you’re sort of trying to match that up?

Best Practice for Integrated Training and Strength

Erin Carson  15:36
I ultimately work for the athlete. It would be awesome if more sport coaches would take the time to sit down with a strength coach to really discuss the overall objectives. But I think the sport coach, for the most part, they know if their programing is working for the athlete because they can see the progression.
So there’s two kinds of periodization: there’s linear periodization, which is very traditional. It means for this many weeks we’re going to do this, for that many weeks, we’re going to do that, and then we’re going to do a little hypertrophy for this set of time. And then there’s undulating periodization where you go, OK, Tuesday is interval day. So that should be a heavy day. That should be a climb day. That should be a strength day. Well, by Thursday, that athlete is starting to show fatigue. Well, that maybe we’re going to undulate, we’re not going to stay heavy. We’re going to lighten up on Thursday. So I think adaptability with periodization and with letting the sport coach take the lead, they’re the one who really has to answer the questions, Why didn’t I win or why didn’t I move up in my age group category? Or why am I worse this year than last year? The sport coach takes the heat on all of that. And so the strength coach, and the way I work is, I’m going to work with the athlete, what the athlete has available energy-wise. And I’m going to try to optimize their physical health and their physical state so that they can do the work that the coach is asking.
I actually work for a lot of coaches that won’t even give me access to the TrainingPeaks work that the athlete’s doing because they think what they have going is so magic and special. They don’t even want me to see it. So I have to actually respond and talk to the athletes. And I get a lot of information from the athlete. I’ll ask, “What did you do today?” Because the coach won’t even share that with me. I mean, I think I’m doing a pretty good job and probably half of sport coaches will share their programs.
EK  17:36
OK, because I was going to say, is it a case of working your periodizing around the sport coach’s periodization, so their periodization is set down, and then your hopping into TrainingPeaks and looking at what their roadmap is and then put your roadmap on top of that roadmap?
Erin Carson
Yes, that’s the way I’m trying to work, on their roadmap.
So you’re obviously very lucky to have worked with Mirinda Carfrae, three-time Ironman world champion, you’ve worked with Tim O’Donnell, you’ve worked with Taylor Knibb, you’ve worked with a host of Olympians, world champions, Ironman athletes. You also work with a lot of recreational athletes, age groupers who obviously are not blessed with the same time, time and recovery, and all those good things that pro athletes have. So how does that change your programming? You know, you said that you can line up with a pro, you can line up their workout so that you have them in the gym not long after they’ve got off the bike. But for your average age grouper, they’re at work, they’re at the office…

How to Optimize Training for Age Groupers

Erin Carson  18:32
I love it. Yes. I’m one of them. So it’s so much easier. I always like to say that my programs do really well with young, elite, smart athletes and older, smart athletes. They don’t have to be elite, but they’re really wanting to get the most out of their time. And when we make that shift from performance and I want to just keep getting faster and faster and faster and we start to prioritize our health… I can make an argument that whether the athlete is 18 years old or 68 years old, the healthiest athlete is going to win. So in my programs for age group athletes, we always look at the decade of life and we start to think about what is important and what do you love doing. Those are the two things.
EK 19:21
But for an age group athlete, then, you’re building their strength and mobility around that, around their available time, around their schedule. They’ll say to you, I have a window of time here, I have a window time there.
Erin Carson  19:33
Yeah. And I think coaches need to do the same thing. Sport coaches need to realize that age group athletes might be able to get the workload that a pro might be able to do. But there’s no way in heck they’re going to be successful with it because they cannot recover at the same rate as a pro can.
So yeah, you can get up and do a two-hour bike ride, get all the big intervals done, and then a pro is going to go to breakfast with their friends, maybe do a swim, maybe sit in the boots and then come back and do a bike ride or run later in the day. Most of us are going to finish that ride and go directly to work, grab a shower, hopefully grab a good breakfast, and go to work. They can’t recover. So I think we’re finding there’s a whole group of coaches that are really specializing in high-performance age-group athletes with time.

Minding Recovery and the Nervous System

EK 20:17
Give us a little bit more about your thinking behind not working out in the evening.
Erin Carson  20:21
It ramps up your sympathetic drive. I mean, if you could probably go for a nice walk in zone 1, you could probably even elevate a little bit into zone 2 from an endurance standpoint. You could do some nice yoga. From a mobility standpoint, you really want your nervous system to start coming down so that you can fall asleep with ease and that you have that relaxation and rest response that we really want.
EK  20:46
Yes, because that’s another thing I know you’re keen on, you’re interested in, you talk about… is the nervous system of the athlete. Yep. And you know, an athlete presents in the gym, they walk into the gym, you’re looking at them, you’re looking at their tightness, you’re looking at their weaknesses. But you’re also thinking about, “Oh, what’s what’s going on there behind the scenes?”
Erin Carson  21:04
Well, let’s talk about Taylor Knibb, she is probably one of the most interesting people of 2022, of the last few years. You know, she’s just an up-and-comer. She is an under-23 world champion. So it’s not like she just burst on the scene and surprised people. But when she comes into the gym she is talking really, really fast and she is super tense and really driven. And her sympathetic drive, her fight or flight, is on fire.
She’s also a very much a thinker. So I know through just some gentle movement, if I can slow her nervous system down, work on some breath work, I work on her head a little bit, work through the tension, through the base of the skull, some hands-on work. And we can take her sympathetic drive and start to bring it down a little bit. And we don’t want to get rid of it. It’s what makes her great.
You know, and in any athlete, it’s the understanding that the fight or flight is really cool. But so is rest and digest. So is that parasympathetic nervous system. So at the end of a session I always ask every athlete, “Are you done when you’re done with me?” Yes. OK, well, that’ll trigger me immediately to spend the last 10 minutes of the session coming down. We can do some static stretching like it’s not a no-no, but it will bring your nervous system down. It will down-regulate it.
EK  22:28
I know how much you enjoy the breath work, building that in, understanding of the athlete as a complete holistic athlete. They’re not just an athlete that goes out and rides a bike or is trying to race or is trying to hit a PR. An athlete is a human. What’s the future of strength training? What’s the future of your work?

Focus on Health and Human Performance

Erin Carson  22:47
I think that just recently I changed my title from “strength coach” to Health and Human Performance Specialist. I think we’re really starting to realize that the most successful athletes, whether they’re age groupers or newbies or elite athletes, they’re happy and they have a well-rounded life. I mean, I think there are going to be times in every [athlete’s life]—age grouper who wants to hit a PR, elite athlete who wants to medal—there are going to be times of sacrifice, sacrifices they make in their social life, in their personal life to achieve their goals. But they shouldn’t live there.
You know, I think that being in nature, understanding breath work, understanding rest and recovery, understanding that hard work does pay off, but it isn’t the only part of the equation… is going to be really, really important.
So it’s somewhat scary to me that people can just take take a bunch of deadlifts, a bunch of squats, a bunch of things that traditionally fall into my bucket of work and say, “Well, I want you to do all of this strength work in addition to all of this other stuff that I’m scheduling for you.” And I would say, you know, it’s like any great chef, sometimes it’s just about a piece of broccoli that was beautifully seasoned and just a little bit of salt, because if you just throw all of it in there, it just is a bunch of mush.
So it’s mostly about health. It’s hugely about joy and happiness and accomplishment. And I think as human beings, we really just like to see ourselves get better.
EK  24:16
Erin Carson, thank you so much for your time and expertise.