Tom Morris- IU Strength Coach and Elite Athlete
The best coaches don’t try to prove their physical talent, rather they focus on improving yours. Tom Morris is one of the best. The journey to this point almost killed him.
As a triathlete and adventure racer, Tom was an exceptional athlete and a physical specimen. Professionally, he was also a success as the Head Strength Coach and Assistant Athletic Director for Athletic Performance at Indiana University. A freak cycling accident left Tom a quadriplegic that could no longer rely on his body for his identity. Or his coaching. Or his job. You can read his story here.
If you are feeling pity for Tom, stop. He doesn’t and nor should we. Tom and his wife Christa focused on relentless forward motion. Instead of being in charge of his body, Tom has learned that his body determines his daily routine. It is humbling and frustrating. And as athletes there is a lesson in there for all of us. And Tom teaches us daily.
If you met Tom, you would notice his wheelchair. You would not believe he is a quadriplegic as he has use of his arms with limitations. He is also more buff than most men thanks to his focus on strength training. Not only does he continue his professional role at IU but he also works with Division I athletes, professional athletes and Olympians to reach their performance goals in the strength room and their sport.
Tom has continued his athletic journey as a para-cyclist with wins at all kinds of races including qualifying for national team standards. We are fortunate to have Tom coach us personally, help lead our January camp and be a resource for all of us at MCC.
Where you live:
Number of years racing and coaching:
19 years coaching and 14 years racing
9 years, triathlete, adventure racer, cyclist
5 years as a para-cyclist
Wrestling, baseball and football
4 years at PSU
o 2 years with PSU Olympic Sports
o 2 years with football
1 year at LaSalle University
o Director of Athletic Performance
14 years at Indiana University
o 5 years as Assistant Strength Coach
o 4 years as Head women’s basketball/men’s soccer strength coach
o 5 years as Director of Athletic Performance
Director of Athletic Performance for Indiana University
Typical training week:
4-5 days on Handcycle, 2-3 days lifting
What has been successful and worked well for you:
Low volume/high intensity. If I increase my overall volume for an extended period of time, performance suffers and injuries occur. Managing the volume of the program and keeping the intensity high allows me to address the needs of each phase of the program. Doing this program all year has proven to keep me pushing good watts and also it keeps my body healthy.
What is the biggest thing you’ve learned that has surprised you:
I feel stupid saying this, but the extreme negative effects of not strength training. This year, I increased my volume on the handcycle and cut back on lifting. Things went well for about 4-5 months and then the injuries starting popping up. Shoulders, elbows, etc. all started to really hurt. It got to a point where I couldn’t train. After seeing many doctors and physical therapists, it came down to my mechanics. They were severely breaking down as I got weaker. By not strength training, my body broke down and the increased volume on the handcycle caused "over use" injuries to happen rather quickly. As a strength professional, I knew this, but sometimes we don’t always make the best judgements for ourselves.
What is the biggest mistake endurance athletes make in the weight room?
The biggest mistake endurance athletes make is that they neglect strength training due to the time they put into their swim, bike, and run. They run out of time or they think strength training is going to make them tired and won’t allow them to perform in the disciplines of the triathlon. The correct strength program will allow you to only have positive impact on the sport. Strengthening your body is incredibly important for many reasons, but the main reason is to get you out of the same repetitive range of motions that a triathlete goes through due to the hours and hours of training. Triathletes are notorious for overuse injuries. They are the most common injuries that a triathlete endures. The main reason is based on the repetitive linear motion that triathlons create. The swim bike and run are “linear’ motions that create huge imbalances throughout the body. When the body becomes out of balance, the result is INJURY. Strength training takes you out of the same range of motion that creates imbalances. The stronger you can keep the body from head to toe, front to back, the safer you’ll be and fewer injuries you will be prone to.
Why do you focus on the hip hinge?
The “hip hinge” is the foundation of athletic movement. It’s where the body fundamentally sets itself up for the muscles to synchronize around the “triple extension” (ankle, knee, hip) to project the body in multi-directional planes. If you increase an athlete’s ability to efficiently hip hinge and not use their lower back, it allows them to increase efficacy and power output, thus increasing performance.
What would you like athletes to know about para-athletes?
Para-athletes are incredible! Before I was injured, I didn’t know much about the para athletics, but the more involved I get, the more I realize how competitive the overall practice and time commitment that goes into being a para athlete is. In many cases, more than able body athletes. Focus, determination, grit and overall competitiveness have to be extremely high to compete at a high level.
Your change in athletic status was dramatic. For many athletes, it is gradual. Arthritis starts and the athlete is told they can no longer run. What is your advice for people in those situations?
As Winston Churchill said: “Never ever, ever, ever, ever give up!” The ability to express yourself through sport should never be taken for granted. It is one of the purest and truest ways an individual can express their character, drive, and overall passion for life. The body will change slowly or gradually. All you have to do is adapt. If it’s arthritis, back pain, paralysis or something that mentally impairs you, don’t give up. There is always a way to allow you to keep living the life you want. My situation was drastic and very abrupt. It took a year of my life for me to build up the courage to try a handcycle after my accident. I look back on that year and get angry that it took me a year to build up the courage. The way you go about competing and training for your sport may change, but the mindset, dedication and overall love will still be deep in your bones. Be patient as the body changes. You will know that with each adaption made, the body will take time to adjust, but stay with it and I promise you it will be worth it.
Off season is typical strength focus. If you know you had Nov-Feb to focus on improving strength, how would you structure it?
#1 Develop a plan and stick to it. Sometimes the hardest part of following a strength program is to stay consistent for the long haul. We get a month or 2 in, and then we get bored and want to try something else. Have a program and have the discipline to adhere to the program until it is complete.
#2. Develop a program that matches to your lifestyle and one that you will enjoy. What I mean is don’t join a CrossFit gym if the thought of a CrossFit gym doesn’t appeal to you. If CrossFit is intriguing to you, make sure the program teaches you the movements and then get after it. As far as days/weeks go, develop a program that you’re going to be able to adhere to. If you can’t strength train 5 days/week, 2 hours a day, you shouldn’t commit to doing that program.
#3. My recommendations are coming from the minimum I believe you need to make great strength gains. 2/3 days per week. 30mins -1 Hr. I suggest 3 total body days that address the body in perfect balance. By balance, I mean making sure the program addresses the body equally. If you’re bench pressing, you should be doing an equal amount of posterior (back) work. For every anterior lift, make sure you address your posterior. For every lower body lift, perform an upper body lift. The body has the best chance of being heathy when the body is strong EVERYWHERE. It will also perform at the highest level.
Any closing thoughts:
For a large part of my life, I took for granted how a healthy strong body and mind plays into your everyday life. After suffering a spinal cord injury 6 years ago, I realized that I went from being on top of the world both mentally and physically to being what I refer to as “Zeroed Out.” I went from racing some of the toughest races on earth to not being able to push a wheel chair more than 5 ft. This life changing event made me realize how fortunate we are to wake up each and every day. To have the ability to live life without barriers. To have the option to achieve any goal that we want. I encourage you all to take advantage of every second. Don’t set goals that will start in a week. Start right now! It’s your time to make today better then yesterday. And hopefully if, you’re fortunate enough to have tomorrow, you make that day better than the last. If you live by this rule and just get a little better each and every day, the possibilities are endless of what you could achieve. One of my biggest passions in life is to tell my story with the hope that it can help others. My goal is to show people how anything in life is attainable, if you just start and never give up.
You can hire Tom for motivational speaking for your corporation and join him to train at our January camp at IU. See his contact details here and camp info on the camps page.