Leah Dunthorne: Strength and Conditioning

Interviewed by Women Who Fight
March 2019
Leah Dunthorne

Leah is a strength and conditioning coach based in London. In her 20 years of experience she has worked with some of the top athletes of the world as well as the more ordinary kind, and emphasises the individuality of each client and the importance of tailoring a workout specifically for them. She works predominantly with rehabilitation and Strength and Conditioning.

Leah played sports as a child, indeed playing football for Wales in her youth. Her BSc and MSc studies at Loughborough in Sports Science were accompanied by work experience with Tigers Rugby, assisting with Strength and Conditioning. She then moved to Saracens Rugby where she took a job on the men’s professional team, and became the only female Strength and Conditioning coach in Rugby at the time.

After this she began working with ‘Pure Sports Medicine’, a team of Physiotherapists, Doctors and Performance Coaches, which worked with general public as well as Athletes. She moved on to a job with the English Institute for Sport, again as part of a team but this time looking after the elite funded athletes around London. The funding element meant that most of the time they were Olympic sports.

We met her after work in shoreditch and sat in a quiet cafe, picking her brain for insights into how we can train more effectively and the importance of Strength and Conditioning. We learnt that it is not just for Combat Sport fanatics, but is essential for general health as we grow old.


The full interview is below the bullet pointed summary:

  • Doing weight bearing exercises increases your bone density which naturally decreases as you get older. Additionally, birth control such as the pill decreases your bone density so S&C is all the more important if you are taking it.

  • If you work a normal job alongside your training (i.e. not fully funded athlete) then you aren’t going to be able to train at the same intensity, as your recovery isn’t as good.

  • There are some fundamental components that all athletes need: the ability to be able to move in different ways, squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull and press, as well as control their body weight on one leg, two legs, jump and throw.

  • Technique is very important, if you can’t afford a PT there are classes you can go to to learn how do lift properly.

  • When it comes to competition, everyone is unique, you have to find out what works best for you in terms of training prior to it. Your warm up should replicate the sport you are competing in.

  • On competition day, don’t try anything new.

  • If you have an injury that doesn’t settle in a few days, and is sharp / is painful at night, seek a health professional.

  • Strength & Conditioning training is really protective. The better conditioned you are the more robust you are. Leah recommends training a couple of times a week.

  • If you have an injury, train around it, train smart. Know your body and its limits.

What is the difference between a 20 and 40 year old when it comes to Strength and Conditioning?

There are some things you tend to lose as you get older such as flexibility, strength, muscles mass, and bone density, so I would bear that in mind as we progressed however I would always start with looking at everyone as an individual. I would evaluate their flexibility, movement and how they control their body.

As you get older and your hormones change, it gets increasingly important that you are doing some sort of weight bearing activity to help minimise the risk of osteoporosis. Each time you hit the floor or you pick up something that pulls on the muscle that loads the bone, you increase the density and the strength of your bones.

Although more work is being done, there is very little academic research about female athletes, particularly in relation to older female athletes and the impact of menstruation. The equipment we use is mostly designed for men. It was only recently that football boots began to be designed specifically for women; before they were expected to wear small men’s boots. The same applies to weight lifting, now there are thinner bars, but most of what we have to grip is not designed for smaller hands. It’s an evolution and a working process; companies need to see that there is a market for that.

I have to alter equipment for female clients. The main things are when you have to grip; cables and dumbbells you can modify yourself. I’ve worked a lot with disabilities as well, and gyms aren’t set up for that either. I had a client who was a sprinter with cerebral palsy and an endurance cyclist who was a single leg amputee. We had to figure it out in the gym and be creative.

What is the difference in training between Olympic level and club level?

When you are at that level hopefully you have time to just train. In an ideal world you can train, sleep, eat, repeat and get the medical and nutritional support you need. If you are a normal person, or in a sport where you don’t get funded, you are having to work in the day and train in the evening. Most likely you are not getting enough sleep and recovery goes a bit out the window. If you are under-recovered you can’t train at the same intensity.

How do different sports require different exercises?

With each new client, I do a needs analysis of their sport, key movements, strength, aerobic and anaerobic requirements. What’s limiting them? We would go through technical, tactical and physical aspects of their sports needs. How can we physically prepare them to do the sport?

There are some fundamental components that all athletes need: the ability to be able to move in different ways, squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull and press, as well as control their body weight on one leg, two legs, jump and throw. These transfer to almost all sports and are fundamental movements that we lose as we get older. Before anyone specialises in their conditioning, I want them to be an athlete in that first as it helps us to be more robust.

What is your opinion of heavy lifting?

The more maximal strength you’ve got the better your strength to weight ratio is and the easier it is to throw and grapple. Heavy strength training is helpful; it’s not like bodybuilding, it’s training your nervous system, or rather your neuromuscular system, which is how your brain connects to your muscles, how it recruits them. This makes you stronger without making you bigger, working with power and explosively.

What is your opinion of training after weight lifting? Is there a risk of injury?

Aches and pains felt after weights is called ‘delayed onset muscle soreness’, and is a response to overloading the muscles and the muscles repairing. You want a progressive overload, a gradual build up. Strength training is a long-term way of training; it takes years to get strong. Women tend to have better flexibility but not the strength to control the range; guys tend to be the other way round.

What if you can’t afford a Personal Trainer one-to-one?

There are a lot of reasonable S&C group sessions that will teach you how to squat properly, how to lunge, how to do a pull up. It’s like any sport, technique is very important and you need a bit of coaching to get it right. Try to find small group session where you can get coaching and feedback. Essentially what you want to be able to do is squat on each leg, lunge, hinge, pull and push own body weight and press. You want balanced athletic strength where you are training movements not muscles.

How do you tailor your training if someone has a big competition coming up?

It depends on the athlete, the sport and on the level they are working at. Generally we would have a plan or overview for the year, maybe for two years. We would start with general preparation phase, then a specific preparation phase which is more focused on the sport, specific movements and energy systems. Then a taper of a week or two weeks, where we would keep the intensity but reduce the volume in the build up to competition. It also depends on the person. Some people really need recovery whilst others can train right up to the competition – you find this out working with them. A general rule however is that that a week or two weeks before the competition, you want to cut down. Better to go in fully rested rather than under recovered. I recommend testing out how you work in a smaller less important competition. Did you feel sharp and well rested? Or knackered?

How you would work with an athlete on the day of the competition?

You have to figure out what’s right for you, how much mental preparation do you need to do?

Your warm up needs to reflect the intensity of the sport you are competing in, and trying to replicate competition in training as much as you can.

Tip: Don’t try new things out on the day.

What about energy drinks and caffeine?

There is some evidence that it can help with endurance in terms of your perceived exertion, but again it’s personal to you, some people react well to caffeine, others don’t.

Athletes get injured all the time. With small niggles, is it ok to train around it?

I think probably in BJJ or Rugby, if you didn’t train with niggles then you would probably never train! You have to keep as close to normal training as possible, keeping moving, keeping active, learn your body. What can you cope with and what doesn’t feel quite right?

If you have access to an osteopath or physiotherapist that you can check in with that’s a good idea.

When do you know you need to go and see a health professional?

If there is swelling, pain at night, sharp pain, nerve pain, and pain that doesn’t settle after a few days. If you are not sure, get it checked out; it’s your body. Listen to yourself. Ice, compression and taping can help manage it in the short term, but if it’s persistent pain or severe pain that’s not going away, then that’s normally a sign that you need to seek a health professional.

Can you give us some useful rehab advice?

Strength & Conditioning training is really protective. The better conditioned you are the more robust you are. I would encourage a couple of times in the week to be strengthening your body needed for the sport. This gives better strength endurance and better tissue endurance. You will withstand the demands of your sport better.

You try with most injuries to maintain as much as you can, try to optimise everything else. Strength and aerobic fitness can drop off. If you can’t use your arm, can you be doing lower body strength work? What can you do now that you don’t normally get an opportunity to do? Mentally that is very helpful.

Can you talk about the depression in rehab?

In an ideal world if it’s a long-term injury i.e. ACL reconstructive with a 12 month rehabilitation, I would encourage them to speak to somebody, maybe have psychotherapy. The nature of it is that it will sometimes be mentally challenging. I would try to get you to train hard in other areas, as it gives you a sense of purpose and control which you may feel like you have lost, and you know you are improving in some aspect.

What do you mean?

If you can’t do X, instead you do sprints in the pool, or aim to do 10 chin ups by the end of rehab. Maybe there is some skill based work you can do on the mat that doesn’t require you to use your injured body part.

It’s being smart. Most of the best athletes I know are very good at looking after their bodies, knowing when to push and knowing when to back off. You are going to get smacked down a few times until you figure that bit out, but that’s how people have long careers. Some people will have the mental toughness to come back from a big injury, some people don’t.

Have you worked with any athletes who train through/post pregnancy?

No I don’t think I have, which goes to show that in the time I have been working in sport, generally women will compete and then decide to have a child and retire. I know that there are some rowers who have come back after having kids. I’ve worked with normal people who have had children, and it does have quite a big impact. We’ve talked about how women have more mobility, and this increases around childbirth. After childbirth women have lost strength in their pelvic floor, deep abdominals, pelvis and hips. It takes a lot to retrain those muscles. For this I would recommend seeing a specialist in post-natal and strength training.

If you are fit and you get pregnant, how far into your pregnancy can you train?

The current recommendation is that you can train your normal, but not increase. There might be certain positions for a blood pressure point of view that you may have to be careful of, particular in that last trimester.

How old are some of the athletes that you work with?

At Club level? Some are in their 50’s.

When you are younger you might want to do more HIIT, but as you get older you might need more low load aerobic exercise and mobility.

There is very little research about the influence of menstrual cycle on performance, but it is known that when you are premenstrual you are less coordinated. You will find at certain times of the month you train better.

What is useful is to track your cycle and look at the length; Is it regular? Can you see a pattern with your training? Are there times in the month when you feel great, and others when you feel like your coordination is bad? The reality of it is that you are going to train whenever, but it’s good to understand what is going on. Some athletes use the contraceptive pill to control the levels of their hormones for stability.

You can get a DEXA scan that looks at your bone density so you can see signs of weakening bones.

What do you know about hormonal changes in training?

You get a hormonal response to exercise and strength training but your resting testosterone will be genetically based. Whether you are more disposed to certain types of exercise because of you hormones is another issue, you look at some of the female sprinters and you can clearly see that they have a higher level of testosterone.

When it comes to diet for my clients, I do the basics: energy in and energy out. Getting all the macronutrients you need, vitamins, minerals and fluids. If there is something more complex around supplementation or periodisation or dropping weight, then I would recommend a specialist.

Leah Dunthorne at work
Credit: Karen Yeomans www.karenyeomans.com
Leah Dunthorne at work
Credit: Karen Yeomans www.karenyeomans.com