Strength training for endurance athletes, really?
The first thing to overcome, is the relevance of strength work for endurance athletes. We’ve all read articles which quote reduced injury and various other benefits, but realistically, the ‘runner within us’ tells us that run training is far more relevant to performance and strength training is less important.
We treat strength as a suppliment to our usual training regime. A runner who completes 60 miles per week will most likely do a couple of 20 minute strength workouts at best (if they do any). Strength training is an ‘add on’ for most and it’s not a ‘key session’ in the week. If we’re short of time, the strength training will be dropped rather than the run session. Strength training is not at the top of the priority list.
If you’re going to commit to strength training, then you need to approach it as you would your other swim/cycle/run disciplines. You should be completing 2-3 sessions per week and setting aside an hour each time to do a structured routine. If you need to drop your swim/cycle/run sets to get the strength done, then so be it. At this time of year, racing is limited and most are developing a base foundation, so now is the perfect time. You could just do the same as last year, but will it work? If you don’t see much change year on year or you are getting slower, it’s definitely time to try something new.
Strength…. what does it mean?
Strength is the maximum amount of force you can produce in a single contraction. It’s the biggest weight you can lift once. The main issue with ‘strength’ is in the definition of the word and it’s true meaning. We frequently use the word strength out of context, for example:
Long runs don’t give you ‘strength’ in the final miles of the marathon, that’s endurance. Hill reps don’t give you strength either, that’s endurance. Cycling in a big gear for 5 minutes doesn’t develop strength, that’s muscular endurance. Doing the plank for 60 seconds isn’t technically core ‘strength’, that’s muscular endurance also. Lifting the biggest thing you can for 1-2 repetitions, that’s strength.
What’s muscular endurance?
Muscular endurance can be best described as the ability of your muscles to keep working over a specific period of time. Doing lots of repetitions in the gym with light/moderate weights is muscular endurance’ and to some extent, muscular endurance is needed for swim/cycle/run to repeatedly turn the pedals and pull on the water. Core ‘strength’ is also muscular endurance, as you will hold positions or repeat multiple actions for a period of time, e.g. hold plank for 1 minute.
So what exactly should I be doing??
That really depends upon your sport and your personal abilities. Some people are already naturally strong and others are weaker, that would influence your decision to start a strength programme. We will often meet rugby players who have retired and taken up cycling. They are always strong enough, but their aerobic endurance is their weak link. By contrast, runners who take up cycling very rarely have the leg strength required for cycling. This demonstrates that whilst swim/bike/run are all endurance sports, some ‘endurance sports’ require strength more than others. You can see why strength training is a confusing subject!
Let’s categorise strength into useful areas and list the benefits:
Core training generally involves holding positions for a period of time, such as the plank exercise and is generally designed to strengthen your middle region (abs/lower back/sides). We consider CORE training to mean ‘CENTRE’ and therfore aimed at abdominals.
Here’s where the CORE confusion starts. Core exercises are often designed to stabilise hip joints, knee and ankle. Doing a single leg squat to strengthen glutes and stabilise hips will get thrown into the CORE routine. Exercises which help shoulder stability might also get thrown into the CORE category.
In simple terms, we do certain exercises to control stability in our joints and certain parts of our body. The stability exercises which target our middle, we refer to as core exercises.
Why do them?
Muscles can be split into 2 categories, those which generate the movement and those which stabilise whilst the others generate the movement. As an example, consider cross country running. You plant your foot on the ground and then use the larger leg muscles to drive your foot back and propel yourself forwards. Unfortunately whilst you are trying to do this, your foot is sliding around in the mud so you don’t have a solid platform to drive from.
Specific muscles will stabilise the leg and foot, giving a solid base from which to generate movement in a forwards direction. Joint stability is extremely important, you need a solid base to ‘drive off’ if you want to run quickly through the mud. There are 2 things going on here, the first is to keep your foot still and planted on the ground, the second is to then drive forwards off that foot.
The same can be said for ‘core stability’. If your chassis is collapsing every time you try and run, then you have no chance of performing well. Your pelvis is propped up by both legs, acting as pillars underneath. As soon as you lift a leg, a pillar is removed the pelvis collapses on that side. Holding the pelvis and torso in position is critical for performance. It’s the same for sitting still and driving the pedals on your bike, it’s the same for stabilising your shoulder so you can catch and pull on the water when swimming. You need stability first, then you apply the power.
What about injury?
Who cares?? Seriously… who cares?? Who has ever read an article which outlines how to reduce your injury risk and immediately started to do it? We all know that exercises to prevent injuries are only done when you’re injured. When the injury goes away, you stop doing them. Strength training will make you a faster runner, swimmer and cyclist. If it reduces injury risk at the same time, that’s a bonus! Don’t think that injury prevention is the main attraction, it’s not…. strength training will make you faster.
So how exactly does ‘stability’ make me faster?
Core / Joint stability holds things in place. Your torso and pelvis will stay firm, your joints will be more stable and as a result your actions will be much more economical. Economy is the term given to how much energy you use to swim/bike/run at any speed. If you are not very econimical, you use more calories, require more oxygen to break down those calories and therfore you will have a higher heart rate and breathing rate. If you’re training with a friend and you work harder than they do to keep us, it’s because you’re less economical.
We said earlier than some muscles are stabilising and others producing the movement. When you run, both groups of muscles will require energy. If the stabilising muscles are rubbish and working extra hard, they’ll need more energy. You’ll be wasting your energy trying to hold things together rather than driving yoruself forwards.
Every time your chassis collapses, the muscles which propel you forwards will have to work harder due to the unstable platform. Every time your muscles try to push on the pedals or propel you forwards, something ‘gives’ or ‘slips’ and the energy is wasted.
So far most of the stuff we’ve talked about has been centred around core and joint stability to make us more economical. So if we complete a thorough exercise routine which makes us ‘rock solid’ in our core and joints. If we have a stable/solid platform, the next step is to develop the ‘prime movers’, the muscles which produce movement. If you can hold yourself rock solid, then lets start applying some power through the thighs and hamstrings to turn the pedals or propel you forwards. It’s important that chassis comes before propulsion, you need to make yourself solid first, before training the major muscles to generate your power.
So what happens next then?
Well, we then move to major exercises to help develop that strength / muscular endurance which will propel us forwards at a faster pace. The issue is that swim/bike/run all require different elements of strength and different exercises to improve performance, so the plot thickens further.
Next Week Part 2: The best strength exercises and routines for swim, bike and run
Final Week Part 3: We’ll show you a video of the routine and how to progress over winter
The main question to ask, is are you willing to give it a go? Are you willing to make it your focus for the winter period and commit to those 2-3 sessions each week without fail?
If so, we’ll see you next week. Who knows, it might even make you faster!
*this post was originally posted theendurancestore.com here
Sports Science lecturer for 10 years at St Helens HE College.
2004 established The Endurance Coach LTD sports science and coaching business. Worked with British Cycling as physiology support 2008-2008. Previous Triathlon England Regional Academy Head Coach, North West.
In 2006 established Epic Events Management LTD. Now one of the largest event companies in the NW, organising a range of triathlon, swimming and cycling events. EPIC EVENTS also encompasses Montane Trail 26 and Petzl Night Runner events.
In 2010 established Montane Lakeland 50 & 100 LTD. This has now become the UKs leading ultra distance trail running event.
In 2010 established The Endurance Store triathlon, trail running and open water swimming store. Based in Appley Bridge, Wigan, we are the North West’s community store, organising and supporting local athletes and local events.
Check out the endurance store HERE