Building Winter Strength - Mark Mills

This week we have a guest blog by Mark Mills

‘Ooh they’re a strong athlete!’

We’ve all heard it – some of us will have said it ourselves. But what do we mean when we say someone is a strong swimmer / cyclist / runner / triathlete? Do we all mean the same thing? And what exactly is strength anyway, and why should I care?

By definition, strength is a use of force; or we can think of it as the greatest force that can be applied in a singular muscular contraction. It is one of the three main components of fitness; speed and endurance being the others. Whilst endurance and speed are easy to see in races, strength is a little different, but without it the other two would not be enough to perform at our best.

Earlier this summer I picked up a little injury and couldn’t run for a while. After dragging myself out of the hole of misery that came with it, I started to go to the gym. I wanted to strengthen not only the injured part of my body, but also to generally get a bit stronger. I’ve always done a bit of gym work in my training and can manage pull-ups, dips, press-ups and squats, etc without embarrassing myself. However, I found myself getting quite a bit stronger and was quickly finding myself squatting and deadlifting way more than my own bodyweight.

Then I got back to running. I wasn’t near my peak, but I was way closer than I had feared. In the few races I did towards season end, my endurance wasn’t really there and my speed wasn’t what it was. But crucially my strength was carrying me through, and my form wasn’t slipping at all. I put this down to the strength that I had developed in the gym.


You can think of your legs as your main offensive weapons: the ones you’re going to do the damage with. You want these weapons to be top notch. You don’t want to be outdone by an enemy with better, more advanced weaponry. Along with this, the rest of your body is your weapons platform from which to launch from. You don’t put the best weapons on a small dinghy or a hang glider. You want an Apache gunship or an aircraft carrier to deploy them from.

Analogies aside, what I’m saying is: make your legs stronger by all means, but don’t neglect that full body (core) strength that allows you to make the best and most efficient use of all that power.

Let me summarise with five points to bear in mind:

1.       Main exercises to incorporate: squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, press ups, shoulder press. All of these can be adapted and modified to suit your own ability.

2.       Do exercises single legged as well as double legged. We very rarely make our arms and legs do the same thing at the same time, so train them individually as well as together.

3.       Get it done over winter. Without getting into the detail, winter should involve large weights and low reps. Then when race season comes around, lower the weight and increase the reps. Maintain the training so you don’t lose all the strength you have.

4.       Form over weight. Learn to do the exercises properly before you start using heavier weights. You will get injured if you don’t. Most gyms will have someone who can show you how.

5.       Don’t be self-conscious in the gym. More than likely others are there for their own self-improvement and really aren’t too concerned with how much you’re squatting.

Give it a go. Be brave. Drop a swim / bike / run session per week over winter and get to the gym instead. Come race season you’ll feel like an Apache gunship going into battle with some top notch hellfire missiles! Those things are cool!

Mark Mills is an international age group triathlete and duathlete and coaches several other successful age groupers.