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Strength Training for Endurance Performance: Part 3

In the last two articles we have covered the theory behind strength training for endurance performance and outlined what endurance athletes should focus on during their base strength phase to gain ‘indirect performance gains’. Now that you have completed a general base strength programme (Part 2) your body is ready to take on some higher intensity strength training. The research indicates that it is this phase of your strength training that will give you the biggest direct gains in your performance. These performance gains are going to occur via increases in force production through an increase in neural activation. This means you will be activating more muscle fibres, more forcefully with each muscle contraction leading to a more powerful run stride, pedal, swim and kayak stroke.

During this phase of your training aim to keep your gym sessions simple and limited to a few key exercises that are going to give you the biggest ‘bang for your buck’. Compound movements that use your prime movers such as the squat and the dead lift are key during this phase of your training. These exercises require good technique for them to be safe and effective. So if you are new to gym based strength training, you need to start with some base strength training to develop your technique in these movement patterns (see ‘Part 2’). Also some instruction from a strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer can be very valuable to get you on the right track with your technique from the start. In addition to these heavy strength focused lifts, the inclusion of explosive polymeric exercises such as box jumps, box hops and jump lunges is recommended as this type of training has been found to be effective for improving endurance performance as well. All of the above exercises focus primarily on the lower body and will help with your cycling and running which is where most of the research is focused. However, for multisporter’s and Triathlete’s including some upper body polymeric exercises such as clap push ups, medicine ball throws and explosive pull cord movements can help improve your swimming and kayaking performance.

Session outline

So what would one of these gym sessions look like?

  • Warm up: 10 min ride or run to get the blood pumping

  • ‘Light’ priming squats working through your range of movement

  • Squats: 4 sets of 4 reps with a ‘heavy’ weight – 2 min rest between sets

  • Clap push ups: 3 sets of 6 reps with focus on explosiveness and height – 2 min rest between sets

  • Dead lifts: 4 sets of 4 reps with a ‘heavy’ weight – 2 min rest between sets

  • Medicine ball throws: 3 sets of 6 reps with focus on explosiveness– 2 min rest between sets

  • Box hops: 3 sets of 6 reps with focus on explosiveness and height – 2 min rest between sets

  • Maintenance work on core and upper back as time allows. Refer back to ‘Part 2’ and choose some of the exercises from that article.

  • It can be quite good to follow these sessions up with a steady ride, run, swim or paddle of 45 min or so as there is line of thought that suggests this may improve the ‘real world’ translation of the strength adaptations gained in the gym. It is thought that this is due to the sequencing of the neuromuscular activation stimulated in the gym.

What most endurance athletes will find with this type of gym session, is that they will feel like they are not working hard. During this type of session you will not be dripping with sweat or puffing due to the low number of reps and long rest periods. However, it is the low number of reps and long rest periods that are the things that are going to improve your performance. Without this structure you will not be fully recruiting your nervous system and the associated muscle fibres which will result in the typical moderate intensity training and mid range reps which will stimulate muscle mass development and no gain in endurance performance. So if you are not going to do this type of training correctly, I would suggest not doing it at all as it can have a negative effect if you do not full commit to it.

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How many times per week

The research in this area has found performance gains with a number of different sessions per week. Anywhere between 2-4 sessions in the gym per week is required for you to get good results from your strength training. How many times you get into the gym each week will vary depending on who you are, your training history, goals and your other training load. I have found that 2 sessions per week seems to works really well with most ‘weekend warrior’ athletes who are balancing work, family and training. For those looking to take things up a notch and push the sharp end of the field bumping this load up to 3-4 times per week on some weeks is required to get maximal results.

How to integrate into your week

The timing of your strength sessions over this phase becomes increasingly important so you minimise any negative side effects of your strength training on your other training. During this phase of your training you should be performing your high quality ‘speed’ training which can be negatively affected if your legs are sore or ‘dead’ from your gym work. To overcome this you can structure your key high intensity sessions in the morning and then your gym sessions in the afternoon. This way you complete your key high intensity training sessions when you are fresh and your gym work will not have an impact on it.

Also, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) typically kicks in ~24 hour following a strength training session. So if you perform your gym session in the afternoon of one day and then perform your key training first thing in the morning of the next day, you will often find that your legs feel good as you are still within this 24 hour window and you will only start to feel the effects of the gym session that afternoon when your DOMS set in. To start with you may find your gym training leaves you sore for a few days. However, as you train in the gym more you will find your body recovers quicker from the sessions and it will be easier to manage within your training.

So there it is. Now it is time for you to get into the gym and start throwing some ‘tin’ around. Just like any type of training, this will not work unless you do! In the past I have found that many endurance athletes who were apprehensive about getting into the gym and doing this type of training. However, when they do it, it is often just the stimulus they need to break out of a plateau and take their performance to a new level. So get into the gym and start training HARDER and SMARTER.

If you have any questions about strength training for endurance athletes please contact me.

Matty Graham

MPhEd, BPhEd

Sport Scientist and Performance Coach

Exponential Performance
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