Strength Training for Endurance Performance: Part 2
In part 1 of Strength Training for Endurance Performance I presented some of the research evidence about gym based strength training for endurance athletes. Today I want to outline some practical steps that will allow you to get into the gym and train ‘smarter’ so you too can start improving your performance.
As we discovered in the last article here is a large amount of evidence supporting the use of low repetition, high weight training along with plyometrics to improve endurance performance. However, this type of training can be harmful and even counterproductive if an athlete does not have a background in strength training or does not have good technique. Just as you need to perform a base training phase before you can effectively do your speed training. If you are new to strength training you need to get into the gym and perform a base strength training programme to prepare your body to handle the demands of the higher intensity training that will ultimately improve your performance. In this article I want to outline what your gym training should consist of over this base training phase.
During a general base strength training phase your focus needs to be on developing the correct movement patterns, posture and technique. Referring back to the above photo you should target strengthening the weak/ stretched out GREEN and stretching the strong/ tight RED muscle groups. While there are hundreds of different exercises and variations that can be performed to target these areas, I just want to keep things simple and provide you with some examples. Then armed with the knowledge of where you should be putting your focus in the gym you can then search out other exercise once you have mastered these basics.
To strengthen the upper back and help bring your shoulders back into a neutral posture the use of ‘rowing/ pulling’ exercises are key (such as bent over row, bench row/ pull, cable row or seated row). The focus with these exercises should be on retracting the shoulder blades by activating the muscles surrounding these to gain postural control. Between sets instead of ‘doing nothing’ performing stretches of the opposing muscle groups is a great way to maximise your time in the gym and balance out your body. So following your upper back pulling exercise, stretch through your pectoral muscles to further help correct the rounded shoulders imbalance that so many endurance athletes have.
While most endurance athletes feel that they have tight hamstrings, only a very small fraction of them actually do. More often than not, endurance athletes have over developed/ tight quadriceps and hip flexors, resulting in a forward tilting of the pelvis as described in the last article. This tightness/ strength in the hip flexors cause the hamstrings to be under constant tension, as they attempt to balance the pelvis. This gives the feeling of tightness and eventually leads to weakening of the hamstrings over time. To strengthen and activate the hamstrings, isolation exercises such as the hamstring curl machine and Swiss ball hamstring curls (double and single legged depending on ability) are ideal. These isolation exercises coupled with lightweight compound exercises such as walking lunges, ‘deep’ free weight squats and dead lifts are important for developing and integrating the activation of the hamstrings during these functional movement tasks. During this phase of your training the focus is on developing good technique and movement patterns. Pairing these exercises with stretches that target the hip flexors, quadriceps and ITB between sets will help balance out any pelvic tilt you may have, in a time effective manner.
The rotation or twisting movement is one that is often restricted or weak in endurance athletes (surprisingly even in those multisporters who kayak) due to a weak core. This movement is important because if you are strong in rotation, you are also strong at resisting rotation and holding a straight posture. When your aim is to move in a straight line as fast as possible, such as in running or cycling any lateral (side to side) or twisting movement is counterproductive (you will no doubt have seen this; cyclists shoulders rolling side to side and runners twisting as they run). Using exercises such as medicine ball twists, cable twists, Swiss ball Russian rolls as well as weighting one side during lunges and squats will help develop this rotational resistance and stabilisation. I find it really beneficial for athletes to pair their twisting exercises with medial glute activation exercises during the recovery between sets as these have complementary development aims.
While many of the above exercises utilise and strengthen the core, I like to include some specific core exercises targeting isometric bracing exercises such as prone holds aka bridging (both front and sides) and ‘deep’ transverse abdominal control exercises as these are extremely important for postural control during endurance events.
Repetitions and Sets
Repetitions are how many times you perform an exercise, while a set is a group of repetitions. During your general base strength phase you should select a weight that you can comfortably lift for 8-10 repetitions while holding good form at a slow controlled speed for 3-4 sets per exercise. This repetition range and weight is going to allow the rapid development of your strength, technique and stimulate some muscle growth in those weak GREEN areas.
How many times per week
If you are new to strength training then in the beginning one session per week is going to be enough in your early base phase to see improvements. As your training progresses and your body adapts, increasing to two-three session per week will be required for you to continue getting optimal improvements. When planning your sessions work on keeping the number of exercises you perform in each session to a minimum and maximising your time in the gym by adding specific stretching into your recovery between your sets. This will mean you are only spending 30 – 45 min in the gym and you are getting the biggest ‘bang for your buck’.
How to integrate strength training into your week
Endurance athletes often struggle to incorporate strength training into their already busy lives. It is important that your strength training sessions are planned so they do not impact on your other training. For example, it is no good if you wake up following a gym session with sore fatigued legs and then have to perform a VO2max run interval session. Your sore legs will mean you are unable to perform your running intervals at the correct intensity resulting in a poor quality session.
The key thing is to keep your strength training sessions as far away from your other key training sessions so there is not a negative impact on them. During your base training phase when your training intensity outside of the gym is not that high (i.e. the majority of your training is aerobically based) it does not matter when you train in the gym. This is due to the fact that if you have tired or sore legs going into a long ride or run it will not affect the outcomes of those types of training sessions. However, during your speed training phase, tired and sore legs can have a large negative effect on training performance and the timing of your gym training becomes critical. In the next article we will explore ways we can best structure our strength work around our speed training.
Now that you have the knowledge, get into the gym and start your base strength development. This needs to be performed for ~ 6-8 weeks so your body develops the correct technique, structure and movement patterns to make the training that you will perform in your next training phase as effective as possible. Once you have performed a good block of base training in the gym it will perfect timing for you to pick up the next Strength Training for Endurance Performance article in which I will outline the details of the gym training that should be performed in the specific speed phase of your training.
If you have any questions about strength training for endurance athletes please contact me below.
Sport Scientist and Performance Coach
Exponential Performance Coaching