Strength training for endurance athletes; 3 tips.

Strength training for endurance athletes; 3 tips.

In general, runners, bikers, triathletes and most endurance athletes tend to treat the free weight section of the gym like it’s a gluten filled cake on a hipster's birthday. Complete avoidance with the occasional snarky comment about getting too big or building useless muscles. Fortunately, we are at a point in the evolution of sport where we know that endurance athletes avoiding strength training and lifters avoiding aerobic conditioning is to their detriment. We now have the studies to back up the fact that strength training helps endurance athletes:

  • Improve body composition (reduces fat, increased lean tissue)
  • Increases muscular power which transfers to speed over the ground
  • Increases movement efficiency and my personal favorite
  • And helps to keep you injury free, allowing you to do what you want more often and with better success.

If the above information is not enough to sway you, direct your attention to the Boston Marathon. One of the largest races in the world of endurance sports and my personal favorite of any event I have ever competed in. At 39 years old Meb Keflezighi became the first American to win the event in decades. The key to his PR performance after an entire career of running wasn’t that he simply ran more than normal leading up to the race. It was the fact that he began a simple strength routine that year leading up to the race for the first time in his life. Ryan Flaherty, the world renowned strength and conditioning coach at Nike began working with Meb on his force development. Specifically, utilizing a hex bar deadlift. Flaherty observed that if he could increase Meb’s force development, his stride would in turn cover more ground every time that he pushed off of it. During the course of a marathon, where a runner typically takes about 20,000 strides, adding just three inches to your stride will put you over a mile ahead of your PR. But, the only way that you are going to increase that force development is with stronger muscles and soft tissue that create and can handle more force when you need it.

Because most endurance athletes aren’t always well versed in a good strength and condition program, I am going to give you my three biggest strength tips for endurance athletes in hopes that you can implement them right away as you chase your own PR’s.

The first thing you should know before implementing any actual routine is how to go about picking the movements and exercises that you want to utilize. It should always consist of movements that are functional to your specific sport. This means your exercise either mimics a portion of the movement such as lunges do with running or cycling, or it works your body in a similar fashion to your sport such as the way that box jump overs prepare you for the deceleration of trying to run down hill. Most endurance athletes have a limited time to work on strength training so picking movements that are in line with your sport ensures that you get the most efficiency out of your limited time in the gym.

Secondly, you should always ensure that you have a strong focus on your midline stability and posterior chain, in that order. Deep into an endurance event, it is your midline that will keep you powering forward when your limbs are tapped out. As an example, consider your iliopsoas, “the V” that people who are skinnier then me get in their abdomen right above the beltline. While it is true that most people consider this your core or your trunk, it is also true that it inserts in your mid thigh, making it crucial to any endurance activity involving your legs. This can be strengthened with flutter kicks, toes to bar, leg lifts and a host of other exercises. When your hamstrings and quads are spent, it will be the conditioning of your iliopsoas and your core  that carries you the rest of the way to the finish line.

After midline stability, you should focus on posterior chain development or your hamstrings, booty and back to put it in layman's terms. Having a conditioned and developed posterior chain is what will give you the force development that we talked about in Meb’s case. Also, if your posterior chain becomes fatigued over the course of a long run, it will leave your quads and knees to take a lot of the abuse which over time, becomes terribly painful. The act of simply working exercises that focus on your posterior chain not only improve your proprioception but it will teach you recruitment patterns meaning that you will be able to call on your largest section of cross pattern muscle better when you need it. This not only allows you to use what you already have more efficiently, it also helps strengthen all of the surrounding soft tissue, further preventing injury. My favorite movements for P.C.D. are the kettlebell swing (I warm up every workout with them), the glute ham bridge, back extensions and deadlifts (use the hex bar if form is a concern).

Lastly, you should always focus on unilateral movements first, meaning that only a single side of your body will be working at one time. Almost all endurance activities require that just one part of your body is doing the work while the other side is in a recovery or preparatory phase of the movement. Running is the most obvious example of this as only one foot pushes off of the ground at a time. When you power lift, you can sometimes get away with one limb being stronger than the other. Typically if your right or left leg is stronger in a squat, it will pick up some of the slack without making too big of a deal. In running, that excess energy is transferred to all of the joints involved, leaving them to shoulder an extra load every single stride. Over the course of a few miles this can be detrimental. Consider using single leg movements such as a single leg RDL or single leg box step ups. Load the step ups with kettlebells in the front rack position and you will be able to work midline stability at the same time, increasing your efficiency in the gym even more. As soon as you start using single leg lifts, your weak side will become evident and allow you to react accordingly, hopefully getting you ahead of injuries before they arise.


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