Strength Training for Endurance Sports

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The first consideration when looking at endurance sports is the type of strength that is necessary to improve performance. This strength is focused on improving skill of the events and efficiency. The goal is to improve an athlete’s ability to streamline in the water; maintain an aerodynamic position in the saddle producing maximum power per pedal stroke on the bike; and ability to use the ground in running and be able to tolerate the amount of running necessary by avoiding impact injuries such as tendonitis.

These demands create a little different approach to strength training then in non endurance sports. The strength goal is to work on exercise movements that improve posture and alignment rather than ability to produce force. In swimming, the term, “grip it and rip it,” leads to a great deal of inefficiencies in the water. The goal should be to strengthen the core and legs and properly strengthen the upper body so that the athletes can improve their distance per stroke. In cycling, a large part of efficiency is to hold the aero position, which demands a large amount of core strength, stability in the shoulders and obviously functional leg strength. In running, efficiency is a matter of balancing stride length with stride frequency, and depending on the length of the run, requires a huge amount of strength endurance.

As endurance sports have become popular there seems to be a distinct misunderstanding of the role of strength training. Strength training is an umbrella term with weight training as part of strength training. There is a mistaken notion that one has to go to the gym to strength train. Over the years, I’ve evolved the concept of a “weight room without walls” for endurance sports. The no wall weight room is equipped with sets of dumbbells of 10 to 25 percent of body weight; a sturdy box 12 to 14 inches high; a medicine ball about 3 kg; and stretch cord. With these items one can do anything needed to strengthen for improved endurance performance.

Since most endurance athletes do their sport on a part-time basis, time is of the essence. The program consists of 20 minutes of strength training three times a week and ten minutes twice a week with extensive static stretching post exercise. This program should also be part of in-season training and to obtain optimum results, needs to be done for a minimum of 12 weeks. The method requires a consistent application of a few exercises done with intensity. In my opinion this program is more important for female athletes because of their hormonal profile and a lesser amount of muscle mass as opposed to their male counterparts.

The strength-training menu is divided into three different categories—(1) total body, which includes pulling/pushing movements and their variations done with dumbbells (i.e., dumbbell high pull, rotational snatch with one arm, etc.); (2) lower extremities, which are all derived from squatting movements, step-ups and lunges all done single leg or alternating legs; (3) is upper body, which includes more body weight type of movements such as pull-ups, push-ups and their variations, and core strength work.

A comment about static stretching is necessary before we move to the program itself. There are a lot of experts who now advocate dynamic stretching and movement as part of warm-up. Some say that static stretching even reduces power. In warm-up, the latest research indicates that static stretching is counterproductive. It has a relaxing affect but no positive impact on exciting the center nervous system to get the body ready for training. However, after a workout the calming affect of static stretching is desirable to get the muscles back to resting state. This is the logic for static stretching. The recommended for holding the stretch is 15 to 30 seconds. What I’ve found is that this type of stretching doesn’t have to be done immediately, post exercise. There seems to be a window of about two to three hours after training to gain the affect you want. I’ve found that after a late afternoon workout, one should do a cool down, eat and then do extensive static stretching. This aids reduction or at least minimizes the onset of muscle soreness.

The 20-Minute Day

The selection of exercises includes two total body movements (done as an emphasis for the workout), one or two leg exercises with one or two upper body movements.

The 10-Minute Day

This is devoted to core development with an emphasis on rotation. It is a misconception that since the movements of running and cycling are linear in nature that there is no need for rotational movements, quite to the contrary, control of rotational movements is necessary; in order to be more efficient.
As the season progresses and the competition schedule increases in number and importance, this can be reduced to two sessions of 20 minutes and three of 10 minutes for female athletes and one of 20 and three of 10 for male triathletes.

I have found that it’s possible to do the strength training work pre-swim and not have it affect the quality of the swim workout. With cycling, if the workout calls for steady medium intensity, then some core and upper body work before riding can be beneficial. However, in running, because of the high eccentric component, you could do core work beforehand but total, upper and lower body work would be a no-no. The overriding principle is that one never wants to compromise the quality of the actual endurance activity as a result of a strength-training workout. Some of these considerations are also dependent upon an athlete’s training age and background.

Another consideration is doing a strength workout early in the day and the endurance workout in the afternoon. A lot of strength people discourage early morning strength workouts because of neurological factors. That’s great if one is a full time athlete, but with people who have a lot on their plate as far as everyday work, the early morning session makes a lot of sense. Before strength work one should do some dynamic warm-up followed by the strength session. This is an excellent way to address the problem of getting the workout done.

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Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta

Director at Gambetta Sports Training Systems
Vern is the Director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems. He has been the a conditioning coach for several MLS teams as well as the conditioning consultant to the US Men's World Cup Soccer team. Vern is the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets. He has lectured and conducted clinics in Canada, Japan, Australia and Europe and has authored six books and over one hundred articles related to coaching and sport performance in a variety of sports. He has a BA in teaching with a coaching minor and an MA in Education with an emphasis in physical education from Stanford University.
Vern Gambetta

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Athletic Development Coach & Consultant. Founder of GAIN Network. Proud dad. Love to read everything.
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