The topic of strength training in endurance sports is always a controversial one, with some coaches avoiding it at all costs and others praising it as the key to success. ironguides coach Alun “Woody” Woodward explains why and how strength training can be an extremely effective tool for endurance athletes.
The topic of strength training in endurance sports is always a controversial one, with some coaches avoiding it at all costs and others praising it as the key to success. Over the past few years strength training has really started to make a big comeback; almost every magazine dedicated to endurance sports will have a section on strength training. Articles in this section always relay the same message: functional exercises are the only type of strength work that will benefit endurance athletes.
Functional exercises are essentially movements that follow the movement patterns used in sport—they don't work muscles in isolation. These typical articles predominantly look at exercises that involve the legs such as dead lifts, squats, split squats, one legged squats, and so on.
While these exercises are great, they are also extremely demanding and require a lot of recovery, which can significantly impact our sport-specific work.
This approach, I believe, is looking at strength training in the wrong way. Yes, we need strong legs to perform our sport but we must consider what we, as endurance athletes, need exactly from strength training in order to improve our performance.
The key things I am looking for when designing a strength program are:
- Stressing the central nervous system to stimulate hormone release.
- Improving core strength.
- Recruiting muscle fibres.
These are the 3 main benefits of a strength program; I will go through each one in this article and show how it will bolster your training.
1 – STRESSING THE CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM
When we perform strength training with heavy weights that force us to use a large amount of muscle mass and we also add an element of balance to activate our core, then we stress our central nervous system.
The load we have placed on the body is above normal, safe levels and the body does not like this. As a result, it tries to get stronger, which it does by releasing growth hormone and targeting strength in ALL the muscles activated.
This has numerous benefits for an endurance athlete, including that core strength is increased which I will go into more below.
The key, however, is the hormone release; our bodies are ruled by hormones. The more growth hormone we have circulating in our body, the more we can maintain or build muscle mass and burn fat. Reducing body fat is a great way to improve endurance performance.
Most athletes, though, will straight away fear lifting heavy weights, as we fear building muscle, and the associated weight gain. In reality, endurance athletes like us are never in such an anabolic (i.e. build-up) state that we'd be able to do this.
As endurance athletes, we use the increase in anabolic hormone production to counteract the negative catabolic (breakdown) effect of hard endurance training and to keep our bodies healthy and balanced.
Conventional wisdom tells us that endurance training will make us healthy and lean but the reality is that this alone is not the key. Watch any big-city marathon or major ironman event to see a fair proportion of athletes competing with excess body fat, despite extreme and hard endurance training.
The reason that larger endurance athletes remain heavy is almost always that the body is not balanced; adding some heavy conditioning training to their program would help them get leaner and improve body composition, and so performance.
While leg exercises may be the most effective for stimulating hormone response, they are also very damaging and can affect our endurance training consistency, as I mentioned above. I prefer exercises that focus on the upper body and core. My favourite exercises are:
- Standing Military Press – Perform 3 x 5 reps at a weight you feel you would fail after 7 reps.
- Chin Ups – Perform 5 sets to one chin up before failure would occur.
- Bench Press – Perform 3x 5 reps at a weight you feel you would fail after 7 reps
- Renegade Rows – 5 x 5 slow and controlled repetitions.
Next time you're feeling drained and are really suffering in training, go to the gym to perform a routine such as the above—you will be amazed at how energized you feel the next day.
2 – IMPROVING CORE STRENGTH
Core strength has been a major topic for a while now and we have seen many fitness inventions come to the market claiming to increase core strength. Many people believe that core strength is about doing 100s of sit ups, crunches and balancing on gym balls—while, in fact, the opposite is true.
True core strength is the ability of the core muscles to hold your body in a strong stance protecting your spine and allowing your major muscles to work more effectively in performing their task. If we have a strong core, we will move very efficiently and so save energy for any given activity—this is the key to performance in endurance events.
If we watch videos of the greats in our sport, such as Craig Alexander, we notice that their movement looks so easy and relaxed despite the speed and effort they are putting out. This is all due to a strong core and, essentially, movement efficiency.
As endurance athletes we look at the likes of Alexander, Chrissie Wellington, and the great runner Haile Gebrselassie, and we believe that their huge training volume is the key to their success. We may focus on Gebrselassie running 200km a week but we don’t recognize the other work he is doing—the time he spends in the gym to ensure he can maintain his great technique when tired.
Wellington has commented many times on the strength and core conditioning work she does in the gym with Dave Scott and how important it has been to her continued development.
So what exercises are core strength exercises? Well, they are the same exercises I outlined above. The military press is one of my absolute favourite exercises because you need your full abdominal muscles and glutes to be tight and activated to perform it. You will notice after a few reps that it's not really the shoulders that are giving out, it's your core that starts shaking first!
Push ups are a great core exercise, again as you need your full abdominals activated. Most athletes, on completing push ups after a layoff, will notice stomach pain the next day, rather than chest and shoulder soreness.
Pull ups also are an amazing core exercise. It has been said that 90% of the population, and also many top athletes, are unable to do these. That's because you need good body position to be able to get into position for the correct muscles to work to lift up the body and the only way to get into this position is by having an extremely strong core.
I do not believe in separate core routines as I think they should be part of the strength program. As endurance athletes we do not have the time to be in the gym four or five times a week so we should get everything we need with two visits per week.
I suggest going through the above routine once a week, and once a week I like to throw in kettlebell work with some body weight exercises. I like a set which I call the 50’s challenge
- 50 pull ups – rest as needed to complete
- 50 kettlebell swings – start with double arm and progress to single arm
- 50 push up walk outs – from a push up position walk hands forwards and then back
- 50 kettlebell clean and press OR 50 kettlebell snatches
- 50 push ups
3- RECRUITING MUSCLE FIBRES
This is a key area where we can improve endurance performance. When we perform endurance exercise we tend to use a very, very small proportion of our muscle fibres. Typically we use as little as 20% of our quads, for example, when riding and we always use these same fibres every session. As a result, our other muscle fibres are not used to working and when our working fibres get fatigued, the body has nowhere to go and so we slow down.
One area of training that is coming to the fore now is working to improve muscle recruitment. Renato Canova, coach to top Kenyan runners, uses 100-metre max speed hill sprints at the end of easy runs in order to do this, In our ironguides programs we use ALL OUT sprints in the pool and on the bike regularly to do the same, i.e. using a larger proportion of our muscle fibres. By regularly training these muscles, the body has somewhere to go when our normal endurance-trained fibres start to fail.
While sport-specific work is good, I believe we can get an amazing training effect for these fibres in the gym by using isolated muscle machines! While most strength coaches try to avoid these machines at all costs, I think they do have their place in our training programs.
An example is the leg extension machine that isolates the quadriceps. This machine will have an endurance athlete in a lot of pain very quickly as the isolated movement and weight means all muscle fibres are activated straight away and after 8-10 repeats, your legs will be screaming! To get the most out of these exercises, it is important to make the weight heavy so that you can perform around 10-12 repeats before failure. Do not lift so much weight that you fail after 3-5 reps as this will place too much stress on your knee joint. The only machines I use for this work are the leg curl and leg extension.
Strength training can be an extremely effective tool in your endurance training. Just remember to lift heavy and be specific in what you're looking to achieve, whether it be specific recovery work, core strength or muscle recruitment training.
Enjoy your training!