Strength Training For Endurance Athletes
Long training sessions, tempo workouts and various interval workouts make up the base of any long distance training program. They will help you get better at the sport you are doing.
But have you ever notice sometimes, even when you do everything right, things start to hurt? Or no matter how many hill sprints you do just can’t seem to go quicker up the hills during races? You can become good a long distance events just by doing your regular training. But there are some aspects of training that you simply cannot do outside, or with traditional endurance training. Enters strength training.
Strength training refers to targeted muscle training in order to increase their power output. It can help all endurance athletes perform better. To be clear, I am specifically talking about increasing your pound for pound power output, not increasing the amount of muscles you have.
Intro to strength training
3 ways to gain strength
There are only 2 ways people can get stronger:
1. They can build more muscle mass. The more muscle you have, the more strength you have. This is done by using moderate loads, usually between 6-12 repetitions of a given exercise.
2. They can train their muscles to produce more strength via neurological mechanism. The neurological adaptations are mainly due the muscle's increased ability to activate muscle cells.
There are two main ways to work this. Either by using heavy loads, that will be moved slowly or very light loads that will be moved very fast. Both methods would have you perform 2-6 repetitions of an exercise.
You can now see why endurance athletes should be working with heavy loads in the gym.
I want to make it clear that your goal will not to be to squat 400 pds any time soon. What's important is that you lift loads heavy to your relative strength. Any good strength coach can help you find your 1 rep max after which he can help you determine loads intensity. We will talk about loads a bit latter in the post.
I will say this though! Please do not start lifting heavy weights in your first workout, or even your first month. If you are a beginner to weightlifting, you need to follow a progressive training plan that will make your body ready for the heavier loads. Whenever I start training from a long time off, I usually allow myself AT LEAST 2 months of moderate intensity training before I start the heavy ass stuff.
How much should you do it?
As a long distance athlete, you want to focus on long distance training. So don’t over think the strength part.
You will also be glad to know that by doing heavy resistance training, you will also be working out your core, which plays a key role in endurance sports. Squats and deadlifts are amazing core exercises. Do yourself a solid, and avoid planking too much. If you train heavy just once a week, plus all of your long distance training, you will have a strong core.
You have been told over and over already to stretch. I’ll spare you another stretching lecture but just want to point out that you will be working out new muscles and want to incorporate stretches that target them.
A typical strength workout will not be very demanding from a caloric stand point, so there not huge need to increase your calories that day. You will however, need to to have an appropriate pre and post workout nutrition to recover as fast as possible. Make sure to eat protein 1-2 hours before your workout and protein plus carbs immediately after it.
You can use the hand portion method to figure out how much to eat. For the ladies, a protein portion is the size of your palm, and a carb portion is half a handful (usually a cup) of cooked carbs. Gentlemen, you can just double those measurements.
Benefits of strength training
There are three reasons a long distance athlete should consider strength training: improved economy, improved power output and injury prevention.
Endurance economy is a tricky thing to measure as explained in this study “Running economy is a complex, multifactorial concept that represents the sum of metabolic, cardiorespiratory, biomechanical and neuromuscular efficiency during running. It is possible to obtain reliable measures of RE in the laboratory, and a range of values from varying standards of runners is retrievable from current literature” (embed link)
Essentially, by becoming stronger you can do the same task (like a running stride) with greater ease. If you are stronger you can also increase your running gait. Imagine it takes you 20,000 strides to go from point A to point B. By increasing your stride a little bit due to more power, you could now take only 19,000 strides in the same amount of time.
Remember that heavy strength training improves the ability of your muscles to get activated. So now you also have more muscle cells being activated. You basically will be producing more energy without even noticing it! This brings us to the next point.
Increased power output
Your muscles will produce more power, making the same task seem easier. Say your legs can generate 1000 Joules now. You hit the gym and increase your power by building strength and now your legs produce 1500 Joules. Now the same task (running or cycling) will seem easier because the demands on your body is the same but your body can produce more energy.
Power output will also come in handy during elevation stages of your races. By increasing your pound for pound strength, you will naturally be able to go quicker uphill than someone that doesn’t strength train.
Strength training will help prevent injuries because it will train all muscle groups. Runner typically have weaker glutes and lower backs; cyclists have weaker hamstrings and hip stabilizers. Swimmers are less at risk of injuries from strength imbalances but more from poor technique, especially with shoulder mechanics. Strength training can come in handy for them to improve technique and posture by strengthening the rhomboids.
Take the squat and deadlift again. They both target the glutes, work the core and strengthen the lower back. Boom, fixes everything. Obviously I am not saying that these movements will cure you nagging injuries, but they will help a lot to prevent them.
Typical training protocols
You don’t need to go over board with your exercise selection. The best exercise for developing strength are
- the squat
- the deadlift
- the clean
What’s important, is that you have a training plan that’s tailored to you. Any plan should have the 3 exercises mentioned above, but according to your needs, you can also add lunges, box jumps, broad jumps or unilateral work. Either consult your trainer or shoot me an email here to chat more about what you can do to get better.
Here are my general recommendations for heavy load training:
Rest: 2 minutes in between sets
For that rep range, you want to be using 70% - 90% of you 1 rep max. You see, what matters is the physiological adaptations that are important here. Using anything lighter will affect more the muscle size whereas these heavy loads will play more on neurological adaptions, keeping your muscle mass the same, and thus increasing your pound for pound output.
Here is a typical heavy strength workout
Here is a typical speed strength workout
A well designed strength training program will help any endurance athlete get better. It’s an efficient way of training since you can only train once a week and see improvements. The benefits are much greater than we originally think, with physiological adaptations leading to mechanical efficiency.
Want to know more about this? Shoot me an email here and I can talk/email your ear off on the subject