Strength Training for Endurance Athletes
This post is meant to be written as a broad guide. A set of basic tenants to help the endurance athlete navigate the tricky proposition of strength training. I say tricky, because every where you look there seems to be conflicting views of strength training for endurance athletes. There are a couple of camps: those that advocate no time in the gym, those that advocate high intensity gym training plus intense shorter “endurance” training, and everyone else. I fall in the everyone else category. Without spending too much time telling you why other programs suck here are a few opinions. First, people often point to high level endurance athletes as the model. Many of the best of the best do not spend a ton of time in the gym. They do in fact spend an extraordinary amount of time and mileage on their sport and are likely genetically gifted in their respected sport. I could go on for days about the fact that we are in fact not all created equal but suffice it to say that most of us “mortals” should not look to the best of the best for a training regime. On the other side, high intensity gym training + high intensity sport specific work = an obcence number of repetitions that lead to neither strength, speed or injury prevention. Enter the “Strong Enough” model. Strong Enough (paired with Fast Enough and Enduring Enough) is all about efficiency and optimization. Efficiency of your time and the application of training with the intent to meet your training goals. Its all about the right dose of strength, speed and endurance. Too much or too little and you could end up fast but broken, or strong but slow. Our goal should be to be Strong Enough to meet the goal of our given sport plus improvements to our quality of life. No more, no less. Strength for strengths sake is stupid in this context. But weak and fragile are also stupid. Here are some basic tenants to help guide the Strong Enough portion of the equation.
- Time in the gym should compliment and enhance your sport. This is not a license to be stupid. Doing step ups in ski boots because you are a ski mountaineer is stupid. We are not trying to mimic the sport but compliment it. This could come from a fairly direct way (squats = strong legs) or it could enhance injury prevention, vertical speed, agility, general athleticism and or positioning.
- Endurance training is high volume and high repetition; your strength training should not be. Lower reps, higher weight or intensity. This has two parts. First, proven and undeniable is that maximum weight at lower reps lead to strength gains without drastic increases in muscle mass. This is exactly what the endurance athlete wants…be strong but not big. Second, most endurance sports are a matter of thousands of repetitions each and every workout. The average running steps per mile is around 1900 steps. If that is the case and you are desperately trying to fight off patellar tendonitis then why in the hell would you do high rep, low weight, so called strength exercises? Go heavy, go low reps and gain strength without adding to the pounding.
- The “clam shell” and “hip bridge” are not your corner stone of strength training. While I am a big fan of the hip bridge, it is in fact an accessory movement. Accessory movements are great but are just what they sound like. Squat, deadlift, pull-up, lunge…those are cornerstone movements. They are also hard and require some practice. I think some people shy away from the cornerstone movements because they are afraid of programming a movement that may lead to injury. A shitty deadlift or squat may in fact hurt you. The answer? Don’t be a cheap skate. If you don’t know how to do a movement then go find a coach or trainer that can instruct you how to do the movement properly. Becoming proficient (as opposed to a master) of the squat is not incredicbly difficult and can be done in few weeks or months. Do the cornerstone movements, get a coach, and ditch your ego.
- Strength training should continue year round but volume is reduced during racing season and increased in the “off season”. Simply put, every athlete I have who regularly moves a load (meaning lifts weights) is not only better at their sport but they “feel” better. Do not stop. Do more in the off season, like 3 times a week. And do less in race season, like 2 times a week. And for the peak move to 1 times a week. Simple. And it works.
- Endurance training tends to be “cyclical” and unidirectional. The time in the gym should have components that are different movement patterns than those found in sport. This is related to the repeition issue but has a another component. As stated before, don’t compound the pounding you take in endurance sports with a very similar movement done at additional high doses of volume. In addition, we need to look at the unidirectional nature of the sport. Almost all endurance sports entail straight line movement: running, cycling, and swimming to name a few. If all you ever do is move forward then the muscles and nerve connections that allow for “athletic movement” can atrophy. Can you cut, juke, get up, get down, or jump? If it feels like you are going to rupture something then you might put some effort in balancing your body.
- Strength training should include skill development, development of general athletic ability, and change of direction and acceleration work. See #5. Don’t be that guy who can’t do a pull-up or play a game of pick up soccer. Be athletic. Be up for more than moving in a straight line.
- Use time in the gym to identify and then correct poor movement patterns, imbalances, weaknesses and mobility/range of motion. This one is tricky in that you may need help. There are masters of movement out there. Find one. Ask for help.
To sum it up. Lift heavy weights a few times. Correct imbalances. Be athletic. Seek help. Be Strong Enough.