Our training philosophy revolves around the idea of maximizing six components fitness (read about the concept HERE). This post will focus on element number 2: Muscular Strength. The idea that there are six areas of development required for endurance athletes to maximize their fitness came about from years of working with endurance athletes coming from a variety of different backgrounds. Improved muscular strength is one area that we continually see needing attention in nearly every athlete we work with (including ourselves). We’re not talking about moving big weights around, making a lot of grunting noises (well, maybe a little grunting), and using the word “bro” throughout your training dialogue kind of strength training; we’re talking about moderate to light weight and body-weight exercises performed in functional movements that apply to your sport. Developing the core stability required to maintain form and function when you’re deep into your race should be the goal in your strength training and the following paragraphs will help you understand why we think this is true.
Most endurance athletes are surprisingly weak.
Sure they can complete a marathon, an Ironman, or even a 100 mile foot race through mountainous terrain, but none of that necessarily equates to them being particularly strong or stable. Strong in will and determination, perhaps, but ask them to perform a one-legged squat and not have their knee track to the inside or execute a single-leg prone bridge and not have their hip drop, and more often than not, they can’t do it. Many will claim that endurance athletes don’t need to be “strong”, rather they argue that aerobic fitness is the most important thing and that any time spent training outside of their primary sport is a waste of time. They say for example, “If you want to be better at running, you simply need to run more.” Aerobic fitness is certainly required to participate in endurance sports and it is true the more you run the better a runner you will become; however, time spent improving your muscle recruitment, strength, flexibility, and stability will improve your economy of movement. This means you will be able to move (with what fitness you have) more powerfully and efficiently while wasting less energy and minimizing potential injuries. All which in turn, yield faster speeds and increased endurance at the same level of aerobic fitness.
Pure muscular strength, the muscle’s ability to apply force to a stationary object, is what allows us to move.
When swimming, we apply force to the water, pulling ourselves forward with every stroke; when riding a bike, we apply force to the pedals while turning the cranks at high cadences to produce more power; when running, every foot strike applies force to the ground for the push off, and with appropriate stability and flexibility allowing increased stride lengths and stride rates, we run faster and faster. Through the implementation of resistance training you can increase the force-producing capabilities of the “major muscles” that contribute to forward movement. Exercises like squats, deadlifts, leg curls, leg extensions (to name a few) will train the force-producing quadriceps, hamstrings and glute muscle groups; exercises like pull-ups, pull-downs, chest press, rows, shoulder shrugs and presses will train the larger back and shoulder muscles for force-producing movement strength. A stronger muscle will be able to produce more force for the power required to move as well as fatigue at a slower rate, thus increasing your muscular endurance.
There are several other factors to consider when addressing the concept of muscular strength. Equally important, and perhaps even more valuable to the endurance athlete is the concept of muscular stability. This concept focuses more on the “minor muscles” that don’t necessarily contribute directly to forward movement. These muscles include, but are not limited to, the collection of core muscles that surround the hips, including the lower back and deep abdominal muscles. Stability and power in all sports initiates from the hips and extends outwards to the limbs that make the movement happen.
Excess movement beyond that which is required to execute forward movement is wasted energy, and this excess movement occurs from lack of stability.
Wasted energy occurs in running when your hips drop from side to side with each stride, or your knee dives inward or outward with each step, for example. “Fish-tailing” when swimming indicates lack of core stability and wastes energy as you move down the lane wiggling from side to side with each stroke. Rocking hips and/or upper body movement when cycling is another example of wasted energy that stems from a lack of stability in the hips. Along with hip stability, shoulder stability is another critical area that requires attention for swimmers (or any activity involving power production from the arms). Stabilize the hips and shoulders with specific training movements and you improve your form, efficiency, power production and endurance. Time well spent.
A factor that coincides with stability surrounding a joint is flexibility. Joint flexibility contributes to range of motion which is essential to producing power for movement. Anyone with inflexible joints can attest to the limited power and speed that is attainable. On the contrary, hypermobile joints that are “overly flexible” can create issues of instability and possible injury. An increase in muscular strength surrounding the hypermobile joint can often improve the stability for those individuals. Just like strengthening muscles with specific exercises, you can improve your flexibility and range of motion with specific exercises. By honing your flexibility (either minimizing or maximizing) your surrounding joints will become more stable and powerful, and in the long run, be less prone to injuries.
Being able to perform an endurance sport event requires your muscles to repeat movement over and over for many minutes to several hours. Overuse injuries are a major cause of missed training and unmet goals for endurance athletes. If your muscles are not functioning in the way they were designed, you are putting increased stress on your other soft tissue and joints.
Training muscles to function or ‘fire’ correctly when called upon, and for longer periods of time, requires specific training.
We engage our larger ‘primary mover’ muscles very easily when training, but often the smaller supporting muscles get overpowered or neglected causing them to ‘turn off.’ These muscle ‘imbalances’ often lead to frustrating niggles, if not full blown injuries, that can derail an athlete’s training and racing objectives. By activating these smaller muscles with stability training exercises, you allow them to ‘turn on’ in conjunction with your dominant muscles both improving your economy of movement and resistance to injury.
Fortunately, many endurance athletes embrace the idea of strength training. Most athletes typically include some form of strength training for several weeks during their off-season. Unfortunately, most athletes end up dropping their strength training sometime early in their pre-season training, either because they are bored due to limited knowledge of core exercises or they feel it gets in the way of their sport-specific training. This is an unfortunate occurrence. For long-term continuing improvements to occur from year to year, it is critical to include strength and stability training throughout the entire year. Your return on investment in strength and stability training includes increased force and power production with decreased rate of muscular fatigue for forward movement, increased economy of movement with less wasted energy and ability to tap into more of your given aerobic capacity, and more consistent training and capacity for higher training loads due to increased injury resistance. For these reasons alone, endurance sports athletes should make strength and stability training a high priority in their overall annual training program in order to reach their highest level of performance.