Can you give us a little bit of background information about yourself- what sports you play(ed), education/qualifications, what athletes you work with now, your specialty and why you work in sport?
I have always had a passion for sports, in school I would play pretty much anything (except racquet sports- I cannot hit a ball!), but always loved swimming and running in particular. I was lucky enough to compete for Queensland in both swimming and cross country; this drove my want work in elite sport. I then studied exercise and sports science at the UQ and a Graduate Diploma of Learning and Teaching at USQ whilst working as an S&C to give myself the best chance to get a job. I’ve been involved with strength and conditioning for seven years, working in schools, developmentally, junior and senior representative teams all the way up to elite athletes. Last year (2016) I moved down to Sydney to start working with Sydney Uni Sport and Fitness in their Physical Preparation Department, working with rugby, swimming and the elite athlete program (mostly athletics and modern pentathlon).
What is S&C and how is it different from physiotherapy and personal training?
The main differences in Strength and Conditioning (S&C) compared to Personal Training (PT) is S&C’s coach and PT’s train people (general population). This encompasses a variety of different people all with different goals, this can be private or in a group. Often the PT’s are aiming to improve the fitness and aesthetic of the client (look good, lose weight, fit into skinny jeans etc.). Unfortunately, many PT’s these days have been minimally qualified or taken only weeks to become an “expert”, they are generally more versed in sales than actual coaching. In saying this there are many PT’s who are exceptional; you just need to read between the lines of the sales pitch.
An S&C coach specialises in working with athletes, at minimum they need to be qualified by an Exercise Science degree and need to be qualified by the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association with preferably Level 2 status. Usually it takes another couple (most people I know 6+ years) to get a full time position working with athletes. An S&C uses evidence based knowledge to work with individual athletes or teams to optimise performance, this may mean working around or changing programs to ensure the athlete is at their peak, come competition. They also need to have great communication with coaches and their athletes to ensure that training and performing is not being impaired. Everything an S&C centres around performance and injury prevention, all sessions are periodised to ensure adequate recovery and each exercise in the program is in there for a specific reason.
What role does S&C have in long distance running?
The key role is injury prevention and improved mechanical efficiency/running economy.
My belief is the key component to any S&C program is injury prevention. This means assessing and strengthening any weaknesses or immobility the athlete may have. Things like prehab for shin splits or stress fractures, hip tightness, plantar fasciitis and tendinopathies need to be prevented. As the GWS Giant S&C coach Lachlan Wilmot says “The best ability is availability”.
With mechanical efficiency, we know newtons law Force= mass x acceleration, so with high ability to produce force, you will have faster acceleration (assuming mass is constant). Not only will the increased strength (force) allow you to run faster, but the neuromuscular coordination (coordination between the individual fibers in your muscles) will allow you to produce move your muscles more efficiently and produce more power without needed your muscles to get bigger.
Should I only do strength work when I’m injured?
No, strength work will help in a multitude of ways to make you a more well-rounded athlete and runner. It will also help to assist injury in the first place so you can continue to do what you love to do.
How can lifting heavy things/lifting things fast improve my marathon time?
An increase in force production will increase your mechanical efficiency and running economy so you can run faster with the same amount of effort (or run the same speed with less effort). It will also help your neuromuscular coordination and general feelings of wellbeing and confidence. It will also help to ensure you can actually make the start line without injury which is even more important!
What’s the biggest mistake endurance athletes make when it comes to strength training?
Thinking you need to train super high repetitions. Remember the key reasons why you are there- increase strength (force production) and injury prevention. With high repetitions, you are fatiguing yourself more (which could then impair your training), you are also going to put on more muscle mass (increased mass will slow you down running) as explained previously.
If you had to choose just one strength exercise, what would be the best one for a distance runner to do regularly?
It’s a challenge to just choose one, as it depends on what part of the season they are in and previous background (training history and injury history), however, I believe that an essential exercise all distance runners should be doing is single leg squats to get the best out of their performance. This exercise is unilateral and requires hip and knee control and stability to build lower body strength, it can be done in a multitude of ways to progress or regress the exercise (to a box, from a box, using a TRX, pistol, Bulgarians etc.).
Instagram: @nicolai.swimming and @susfstrengthandconditioning