In my previous blog post, I discussed the role of strength training in endurance sports. Not only can resistance exercise make us faster at our chosen sport, but it can significantly reduce the likelihood of injury. By progressively increasing the loads our muscles and tendons are able to tolerate, we can not only improve our absolute strength - the maximum force our tissues will tolerate before they fail - but we can also make our bodies more ‘fatigue-proof’, and less injury-prone. This occurs through a few different mechanisms - most notably, we can actually change our muscle fibre fibre type by heavy resistance training, we can increase the size of our muscle fibres, and we can train our brains to recruit more muscle fibres to work in a given exercise. All of this leads to increase strength, improved fatiguability, and the ability to work at higher intensities for longer durations.
In the past, conflicting advice has been given to endurance athletes with regards to the value of strength training. There is often concern that ‘bulking up’ will worsen performance, but in the real world this simply doesn’t hold true. You have to work really hard, in a very specific way in the gym, with fairly dramatic dietary and supplement support to get big. There is now a wealth of evidence that not only can concurrent strength and endurance training lead to greater performance gains than endurance training alone, but that favourable changes in body composition occur which optimize, rather than hinder, our endurance.
So what does a strength program for endurance exercise look like?
Well much like a well designed run or ski program ebbs and flows in terms of volume and intensity, with the aim being to build a good aerobic base, then progressively add in more challenging and specific workouts, building in defined rest periods, and ultimately peaking just prior to a predetermined event, a strength program has a similar approach. This is what is known a periodization.
A strength program for endurance exercise typically should consist of several phases: strength endurance, basic strength, strength and power.
In the first phase, a general strength program is undertaken to prepare the athlete for the more vigorous training to follow. Higher volume training is undertaken - typically 3 times per week, with higher repetitions of 10-15 repetitions per set. Usually 3-4 sets of 4 or 5 exercises with similar movement patterns to our chosen sport. This phase may last 2-3 months, and as we progress, higher loads with fewer repetitions are introduced. Typically every 4th week will be used to recover, and to enhance physiological adaptations (super-compensation). As the athlete moves towards more specific race preparation, the volume of strength training is typically reduced, whereas the intensity is upped. Strength workout frequency is typically twice per week, with 3 sets of 3-5 repetitions of each exercise. Heavier loads and more explosive lifts are utilized in this phase, which may be 2-3 months in duration. Closed chain exercises are most often utilized, and I would recommend looking for 4 or 5 specific lifts, and work with a trainer to hone your technique. Finally as the athlete approaches race season, the really heavy loading is typically reduced, but volume is maintained at twice owe week. The aim is to facilitate recovery but maintain the strength gains achieved earlier.
For those looking to delve into the specifics further, an excellent free article is available online, with examples of specific exercises in the April 2015 edition of Strength and Conditioning Journal: Strength Training for Endurance Athletes: Theory to Practice.