Guest Post: An Endurance Athlete's Experience with Strength Training

Today's guest post comes from Calah Schlabach, professional triathlete training with us at SAPT. You can read her delightful blog HERE. Calah shares her experience with weight training (as the title suggests) as an endurance athlete and how important it is to be strong. 

As an endurance athlete (more specifically, distance-runner-turned-triathlete), strength training is not exactly my area of expertise. However, throughout my fifteen years as an endurance athlete, I have experienced the whole gamut of advice about strength training and have swung all over the spectrum in my views regarding whether I think it’s worthwhile. My latest swing has landed me at SAPT, and has led me to the (now more learned) conclusion that, for me to continue my progress as an endurance athlete, strength training is not only worthwhile, it may very well be essential.

I started running when I was in sixth grade, having never previously played any other sports (aside from a brief but passionate period when I would shoot hoops every afternoon after school in hopes of becoming a basketball star). I started by running with my dad every morning around and around the hospital compound we lived on, and that was about the extent of my training regime.

My first experience with strength training came my junior year in high school when I signed up for a powerlifting class. The teacher in charge--one of my favorites--convinced most of the school’s athletes to take the class by telling us that powerlifting was great for all athletes. Great! Also, I got to spend school time working out? Sign me up! I loved the class, but after a semester, I didn’t like what powerlifting did to my body. My thighs got huge in comparison to the skinny girls I was lining up with and I started to struggle on the track.


Looking back, there were certainly more factors at play in my stagnant running season than my weight-lifting class. I had a growth spurt and was on a migrane medicine that dramatically increased my heart rate. All this being said, that high school experience still led to about a decade of turn-off regarding powerlifting, and led me to some pretty extreme and uneducated notions about what kind of strength training was beneficial to me as an endurance athlete.  

These notions followed me through most of my college running career. My program was high-volume and we did not do any organized strength training, but the dedicated runners got into the gym a couple times a week. So of course, I did, too. Remembering the dreaded leg growth, I stayed away from anything too heavy, did high reps on weight machines and did a lot of crunches.

When I started working with my current triathlon coach, Zane, four years ago and he suggested I go to a physical therapist to see about the chronic knee pain I had had all through college, I blew it off and said, “I’ve done that and they never help. I can’t afford to pay to go to a PT if they aren’t going to help.”

Eventually, he convinced me to go to a PT (who was actually so many other things too--Athletic Trainer, Strength Coach, dry needler, All-Around Awesome) he had used before. After a lengthy analysis, she proceeded to tell me, “I don’t know what’s making your knee hurt.” Imagine the letdown.

But she continued to say that I was so functionally weak (I think I was a 7 on the Functional Movement Screen) and had so many things wrong with me that she couldn’t tell exactly what was causing my knee pain--other than everything. I did the same boring routine (with a few tweaks) for over two years before I was functionally strong enough to safely pick up a weight.

When I did start lifting, my coach put me on a plan that was shocking to me--heavy weights and low reps. Just what I had shied away from in college. I told him the story about my high school thunder thighs countless times, but he was unperturbed. I asked him why I wasn’t doing high-rep lifting, which is what I thought endurance athletes were supposed to do.

His answer surprised me. Zane said, “You train your endurance every day when you swim, bike, and run. We are working on building strength and power, because those are big holes for you.”

This blew my mind.

Power wasn’t my only “hole.” Part of the reason I had had such an abysmal score on my Functional Movement Screen was that I had spent so much of my life performing the same motions over and over without compensating for them. Having never played another sport in my life, I had never had to move laterally or backwards. So my muscles were unbalanced and uncoordinated, and this set me up for plenty of knee pain and other injuries. But my gains from the last few years of strength training go far beyond eliminating chronic knee pain and have made me a better, stronger athlete all around.


So what have I learned (a.k.a. why did I just tell you my life story)?


  1. The cause and effect of injuries and recurring aches and pains is often not simple. It’s important to not just try to alleviate the symptoms of the injury, but to actually fix the problem (or problems).

  2. “Actually fixing the problem” is usually a lot of hard work that sometimes feels silly at first. In addition, “actually fixing the problem” may never end--in other words, to keep the injuries at bay, you will likely have to keep some element of strength training/injury prevention in your workout plan ALL THE TIME.

  3. BUT (finally some good news) “actually fixing the problem” will probably do a lot more than fix your injury; When done properly, it will make you better in so many other ways.

  4. Though I’m sure there are some definite “wrongs” and “rights” in strength training, it’s more about different methods to achieving different ends--so it is important to know what you need for your goals and to pick the right type of training for them. In other words, it is important to have an individualized plan, tailored to fix your problems and help you meet your goals.

  5. I still need lots of help understanding what I need to do and why, given my sport, my “holes,” and my goals--which is why I rely on the guidance of my sport-specific coach and the strength coaches at SAPT.