Strength training for endurance sports.
This week I was having a conversion with a colleague regarding the importance for a strong strength foundation within endurance sports, such a long distance running or cycling. If you’re an avid runner yourself or know somebody close to you that pounds the pavements three to five times per week but dismisses the fact that strength training will benefit their performance, then please continue to read.
I would like to paint a picture; imagine getting up multiple mornings to slip on your Asic running trainers, put on your windbreaker jacket and select shuffle on your Spotify account. You leave the warmth of your bed to rack up serious mileage every week. You start your mornings with a clear head, enter the office on top form and excel with your job. You’re the boss. You become an aerobic monster. You start to win weekend fun runs… you become the ultimate weekend warrior within your world.
So, what’s next? You sign up for an obstacle race, which you swear never to do again. You struggled to jump, climb and pull yourself up. You fail at some of the most basic of human athletic capabilities. The last 3 miles of running were slow and miserable. You entered the pain cave! After the race you re-evaluate your fitness. “Surely I should have smoked that with all the running I do” you mutter. Unfortunately, continuous running will only get you so far. You need to mix up your training. So, what should you do? A good place to start is reducing the amount of running sessions you do each week and start to introduce strength work.
So why is strength important? Strength, in particular absolute strength is the maximum force that an individual can produce, which is not relative to his or her body weight. If the forced produced was in the context of their body weight, the concept would be called relative strength which is important, but out of the context of this blog post.
Muscular endurance is an expression of muscular strength, which is series of sub-maximal contractions that require the individual to produce force through every stride, cycle or row. To put this into context, the more absolute strength you have at your disposal, the less the percentage of force required for sub maximal contraction. It’s important to emphasise that no matter what sport you practise, the individual needs a solid base of absolute strength to improve other aspects of fitness.
If you are looking to improve the “sprint” towards the finish line after a competitive half marathon race, you need to be able to produce more force through the ground to generate power which is an expression of how fast you can apply strength.
You need to ask yourself this question. Are you practising running your long-distance run, or are you training to improve your performance?
Stephen Paea in 2011 broke the NFL scouting combine record for the maximum repetition bench press test at 225lb (102.5kg). He boasted an impressive 49 reps. However; Paea has a reported 550lb (250kg) max bench press, which means he was working at just over 40% of his capabilities. If you look at these stats from a training standpoint, Paea was training within the muscular endurance threshold due to the percentage and overall reps achieved.
Alex Viada, overall performance badass is a competitive powerlifter and endurance athlete. He squats over 315kg but has a one mile run time of 4:15 seconds, a five-kilometre run time of 17:18 seconds and a half marathon at one hour thirty-one minutes. He also dabbles in ultra-distance… pretty impressive, no? The point I’m trying to make is that the stronger individual is literally doing less work than the weaker athlete because of the amount of force available at their disposal. If you are working at a lesser percentage of your maximum than your opponent, you are able to jump further or higher, apply more force into the ground to increase horizontal velocity whilst running or sprinting and generate a stronger pull through the lower and upper body on the erg. Get strong, be efficient and improve your performance. If you’re not strength training, you will not reach your full potential.
I would recommend starting on two to three full body strength training sessions per week which incorporate exercises related to running mechanics. The box squat is a great exercise to train overcoming inertia which is required to actually start moving at a faster rate. The box squat requires an eccentric load onto the box followed by a slight isometric pause into a concentric contraction; it’s a perfect strength builder.
Another addition is the lunge with either bodyweight or weight which will increase strength unilaterally. Asymmetries can be targeted to produce bilateral overall strength. Running is unilateral in nature, so it seems reasonable to select an exercise based on the mechanics.
Sled dragging is also a very good way in which to produce strength. Being able to drag a sled will limit eccentric loading, thus improving your recovery. Moving the torso into different angles will benefit you within this exercise as they replicate the acceleration and top speed positions. An upright posture will produce more posterior chain activation due to the initial heel contact whilst stepping. However, a torso angle of forty-five degrees will change the mechanics so that you drive with your mid foot, which will emphasis more Quadricep recruitment.
For the upper body, I would add in unilateral dumbbell rows and bench press to strengthen flexion and extension mechanics of the shoulder. Anti-flexion, extension and rotation core exercises should also be routinely added within the latter section of the session.
What have you learnt?
Strength training will make you more efficient at endurance sports.
You can use a smaller percentage of your absolute/ maximal strength to improve work capacity.
Make sure to implement progression when strength training.
Pick exercises that will help your sport