Monday 27 October 2014

Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

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In the sporting world, each sport has its own you unique culture and traditions. While strength training is a staple in many sports (e.g. football), it is still missing in many others. One classic example of this is endurance sports.  Many endurance athletes do not understand the value of strength training and what it can offer endurance athletes – IF it is done right. If you want to take your endurance performance to the next level, keep reading.

Why strength?
Whether you are running a 100 meter sprint or an ultra-marathon, the goal is to get to the finish line faster than your opponents. The stronger you are in relation to your body weight and size, the easier it is to move your body to the finish line. If you can get stronger, than each stride, stroke or pedal revolution becomes a lower percentage of your max strength and thus makes it easier to do.

Why not train for endurance?
You will build endurance from your sport-specific endurance training. Doing a bunch of high rep sets in the weight room will make you tired and take away from your event-specific endurance training.

Challenges for the endurance athlete
You need time to prioritize your sport-specific training
As with any sport, nothing is more important for athletes than the playing and practicing for their sport. This is the real sport-specific training. Endurance sports are known for very high volumes of training and this requires a lot of time from the athlete. Any strength training must be extremely short and ultra-time-efficient so it is realistic and does not interfere with your main training.

You will have limited energy
Endurance training is very draining on the body. As a result, there is little energy or recovery ability left for strength training. As with the time challenge, this requires very efficient programming.

You cannot afford to gain muscle size
Many endurance athletes fear strength training because they think it will make them bigger and heavier. This is a legitimate fear. If you train inappropriately (e.g. do bodybuilding), you will become a worse athlete. However, what many endurance athletes with this fear fail to realize is that increasing muscle size is not a desirable goal for most sports. The large majority of sports require athletes to get stronger without getting bigger and this is can be done with the right programming. See my post on Non-Bulk Strength Training and the sample program below for more information.

You cannot afford to get sore
Getting sore will take away from your other training. However, this can be avoided. See my posts on The Truth About Muscle Soreness Part 1 and Part 2 for more information.

Strength Training Guidelines
Start very small and easy
Start with a very small amount of strength training and begin with a weight that feels too light. Learn proper technique, let your body get used to strength training and build up slowly and conservatively from there. Gradually let your body get used to strength training.

Strength train 2x per week
With the intense demands of endurance sports, 2 strength training sessions per week is ideal for most people. 

Keep the training sessions short 
As mentioned above, you do not have a lot of extra time or energy. Keep your strength training sessions (not including warm-up time) to about 15-30 minutes. 

Do not seek fatigue
Training is not about getting tired – it is about getting better. Strength training for most athletes should not leave them exhausted and collapsed on the ground in a pool of sweat and vomit. In this context, low-volume, non-exhaustive strength training should have you feeling stronger when you leave the weight room. 

Keep the volume low
High volume resistance training is great for build muscle size and making your tired. Heavy, low-rep resistance training makes allows you to gain strength without size and fatigue.

Strength train before endurance work or at a different time
Even though endurance is your top priority, do not do strength training after endurance work. After your endurance training, you will be spent. Your glycogen levels (sugar stores) which you need for strength training will be depleted. Also, strength training in this fatigued state can increase your risk for injury. While strength training before endurance work sounds like a bad idea, properly done non-exhaustive strength training can activate the nervous system and improve performance. Because this is not practical for some and can make a long session even longer, strength training at another time is also a great option.

Forget the high reps
While high reps and light weight resistance training seems like an ideal fit for the endurance athlete, muscular endurance is already more than taken care of with the sport-specific training itself. Light weights and high reps do not make you strong. For the endurance athlete, they will just make you tired. See Selecting Rep Ranges for more information.

Sample program for endurance athletes
Base strength program
1) Rack Deadlift: then 2x5 or 3x2-3, rest 2-3 min between sets
2a) 1-Arm DB Press from Half Kneel: 2x5, rest 30sec between arms and the next exercise
2b) Prone DB Row: 2x5-10: rest 30 sec
3) Suspension Strap Mountain Climbers: 1-2x3-5 steps per leg

  • After a short general warm-up, do 1-3 low, rep warm-up sets with progressively heavier weights before moving onto the work sets. See my YouTube playlist on Warm-Up, Mobility and Corrective Exercises for ideas.
  • Many people will do well deadlifting from the rack. Do not go any higher than needed. Use the lowest height you can while maintaining a natural arch in your low back. If it means you can deadlift from the floor, safely - go for it. You can also use a trap bar if available. 
  • Pressing from the half kneel is great for protecting your back, working balance and getting a nice hip flexor stretch in the process.
  • Rows are important for helping pull your shoulders back since a lot of athletes have poor posture. If you do not have a bench, you can do 1-Arm DB Rows, but they are harder to get the shoulder squeeze.
  • Mountain climbers should be done slow and while maintaining a perfect plank position. I tell my athletes, “slow is fun” with this one. Note: this exercise is harder than it looks so be sure you can do proper planks first.
Adding correctives
You can also integrate some corrective work into the main movements. For example, someone with tight hip flexors and weak glutes could try the following circuit: 

1a) Hip Flexor Stretch: 2-3x20-30sec each side, no rest
1b) Glute bridge: 2-3x5-10 reps
1c) Rack Deadlift: then 2x5 or 3x2-3, rest 30 sec, then back to hip flexor stretch

Possible Additions to the Base Program
Once you are used to this base program, you could add a few more accessory exercises for structural balance and to reduce your risk of injuries. These would typically be done for 1-2 sets of 5-10 reps. Examples include:

One more cool benefit of strength training for endurance athletes
In many sports, you have to strength train – just to keep up. Because strength training is not the norm for endurance athletes, adding a small amount of proper strength training to your routine can give you the competitive edge!

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