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Can strength training help shape our athletic future? I believe that it can.

When is it too late to try? I feel that it is never too late to start strength training.

Are beginning masters athletes "stuck" with what they now have in their 40's, 50's, 60's or 70's? I hope that these masters athletes approach physical change as enthusiastically as the under 20 crowd. Both have unique challenges and limiters. Both will improve only as fast as their bodies allow. But both can change. The respective changes will come at different speeds and with different final results, as it does change varies from individual to individual, but change will come if effort is properly and fully applied.

Endurance and strength in the masters crowd naturally dissipates, endurance less so than strength. Because of this, it is extremely important that strength training continue for the masters athlete.

It is also important for all ages to note that size and strength do not necessarily come together. Most of the strongest and fastest endurance athletes are not "big" people. For example, years ago I was much larger, but my sport-specific strength was less than what it is today. I made a decision to refocus my strength training away from the size and mass that I wanted years ago and move towards sport-specific strength. In short, my sport-specific goal was to get faster for longer. Athletes should ask themselves if their strength program is making them a better (and faster) athlete. Many athletes, particularly those with a history of weightlifting, focus on becoming stronger in the weight room, rather than stronger on the race course.

This might be a good time to remember that when we talk about improvement in sport, whether it be cycling, running or triathlon, we are talking about making changes to the body and mind. In some aspects, the changes we make mentally may be more important than the ones we make physically, but that's for another article.

Back to the body -- if you want to improve, you need a clear plan. Athletes that are new to endurance training and have a desire to go long need to build endurance and strength. Together these skills give us muscular endurance and allow for long periods of a subthreshold output.

Each of us needs to be realistic in our goals as we seek to improve ourselves. Size and shape are not totally under our control. However, we can make large changes within our unique genetic frameworks. Change comes through a process of patience and focused effort.

Our expectations of change should be tempered by our individual starting points. Like racing itself, if you have done little work in the past, great improvement may be there for the taking. I will use my own experiences as an example only because I know them best and have successfully pursued some changes. I am familiar with the frustrations of not being able to gain weight as a young man. As a high school and college basketball player I was 6' 3" and weighed 165 pounds. I saw myself as too thin and wanted to have more mass and be stronger. Twenty years later, with a less than perfect diet, lots of beer and countless hours in the gym, I weighed 230 pounds. This was not all lean muscle mass, I assure you. Then I rediscovered the urge to move fast and I entered triathlon with an eye on Ironman. Suddenly I wanted to be 165lbs and strong again.

I made the common mistake of significantly decreasing calories to lose weight and size. This is not desirable for endurance or recovery. It left me a bit dizzy and weak at times, but I lost some body fat. About this time I was lucky enough to begin working with a good coach. We decided that less lean body mass (LBM) on top would be a good idea and that improving LBM in the lower body would best serve my goals. I went from 212 pounds to 190 pounds under his direction. I lost inches from my arms, my chest, and from my waist. I added six to eight pounds of LBM in my legs. My caloric intake did not change that much, but the kinds of foods I ate and the time of day that I ate them changed greatly. Without going into detail on diet, I would suggest further reading of Joe Friel's ideas regarding a paleo diet (www.trainingbible.com and www.ultrafit.com) and Gordo Byrn's writings (www.coachgordo.com) on the same issues. Both are very valuable.

Along with a new nutritional strategy I altered my strength training program, which had emphasized upper body strength. I changed it to be more sport-specific to triathlon. It now centers on the lower body, cycling, running and swimming. The number of pounds lifted each session in the weight room have become unimportant. Technique and improvement in triathlon are all that matter today. Couple these changes with reduced volume of training to enable full recovery and my body slowly continues to change.

Helping to shape your athletic future by changing your body composition is no different than running, biking and swimming. The same principles apply. We need to be smart and have a plan. Joe has said that he wants his athletes to keep a three-year plan in their mind. It is important to have intelligent, long-range, attainable goals. Most elite athletes are able to hold onto long range goals and plans without getting discouraged or impatient.

Whether you want to be bigger or smaller, shift your mass up or down, or just get stronger to go faster-draw a road map, set a course and stick to it. Don't assume it's too late or too early to make change.

Kevin Purcell, D.C., is a USAT Level 1 certified coach for Elite and Age Group triathletes who compete at both Ironman and short course distances. Coach KP has completed 10 Ironmans and qualified for the 2003 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championships. Dr. Purcell practices Chiropractic with an emphasis on sports medicine in San Diego, California and can be reached at kevprcll@aol.com.