Strength Training, that is training with weights in the gym (or at home), has become more widely accepted in the endurance sport world over the last 5+ years. There are still some hold-outs on the subject of the benefits of Strength Training for endurance athletes, but most athletes and coaches will agree there are valuable benefits to be gained from lifting heavy weights within an endurance sport training program. The intent of this article is not to spew out the benefits of Strength Training (you can read a previous post that covers all those points); rather my intent with this article is to point out the value of YEAR-ROUND strength training and, more specifically, focus on lifting weights within your competitive racing season.
If you’ve gotten this far, I’m going to assume you’re on board with Strength Training (ie. lifting heavy weights for performance gains), at least as part of your off-season training program. The majority of endurance athletes do some form of strength training in their off-season as part of their preparation for their next race season. Then what seems to be very common is many athletes cease their Strength Training program once their more competitive race season begins. The reasons I hear for dropping the strength training modality are often:
- Wanting to spend more time on their primary sport (“get more miles in”)
- Lifting weights makes them slow (“legs too sore/tired”)
- Don’t want to gain weight (“too much muscle”)
- Getting bored with the strength training (“same old routine”)
I’m here to encourage you to not stop your Strength Training once your race season begins. In fact if you do stop, I can tell you you’re leaving performance gains on the table!
You may be thinking, “Whoa! Hold up. You want me to lift weights during my race season?!”
Yes I do! And here’s why…
When you Strength Train for 2, 3 or even 4 months of your off-season, you spend the first few weeks working through the soreness of training the muscles and then you begin to make some gains in actual strength of movement. These improvements to your health & performance as an athlete include:
- Increased muscle fiber recruitment (use more of the muscles you have)
- Increase top-end power (raise the ceiling of your power curve)
- Increased anabolic hormone production (balance the catabolic nature of endurance training)
- Improve range of motion/activation (offset imbalances)
- Improve the overall “durability” of your body
Like most things in life, the process of building strength and making progress is slow and (should be) methodical. It takes time and consistent practice to make improvements. When the end of your off-season arrives and you decide to drop the lifting in favor of more time performing your primary sport, you gradually lose all of the hard earned benefits you recently gained. By the time your goal events roll around a few months later, your strength gains have all but vanished. Perhaps even harder to swallow is when your next off-season rolls around and you pick the strength training back up, you’re essentially starting all over again! Back to square one. Going through the soreness phase, starting with lighter loads and not making any real progress from year to year.
There is a simple solution to this lack of progress: LIFT WEIGHTS YEAR ROUND!
Strength Periodization: BASE, BUILD & MAINTAIN
Just like you likely periodize your aerobic training for your endurance sport: with an off-season base & build training phase and an in-season competitive phase (as a simple 3-phase annual cycle example), you should periodize your Strength Training. You have your off-season Strength base & build and your in-season Strength Maintenance. Make strength gains within your off-season and then switch to maintenance mode to maintain those gains through your competitive season. Then when you return to your off-season, you begin your next build at a higher level of strength which can allow you the opportunity to finish your subsequent Strength Build at a higher level of strength compared to the previous off-season. Now that’s real progress! Not to mention you maintain the benefits mentioned above throughout your entire competitive season:
- More muscle fiber recruitment = greater capacity to do work (more endurance/more power)
- Improved hormonal balance = improved recovery & anti-aging
- Use all your muscles = eliminate back pain, neck pain, knee pain, etc.
- Crash! = increased likelihood you ride away from it
MAINTENANCE PHASE HOW-TOs
The term maintenance indicates that you’re not trying to improve or increase your strength, but rather “maintain” your strength gains you’ve made. In reality, you will likely lose some of your strength (maybe 10% or so compared to peak strength levels coming off last off-season build), but that’s relatively minimal compared to dropping strength training altogether. For muscles to maintain strength, all that is required is to lift 80-90% of your 1RM of a specific set a few times every 4-8 days. This minimal amount of lifting will be just enough to activate the muscle recruitment to allow you maintain strength.
Following our own specific Strength Training protocol of developing strength in the deadlift & back squat movements, we structure our Maintenance Phase training sessions in a 1-2x per week schedule based on if/when you’re competing on a given week. We have our athletes categorize the priority level of events/races as A, B, or C priority to organize their training season (read here). These categories of races indicate how fresh or close to a peak performance an athlete is and where the importance of weight lifting lies on a given week. Within the competitive season, we offer our athletes three different Strength Maintenance training sessions to cycle through throughout their entire competitive season based on their racing schedules:
- No Race or C Race Week = two 1 hour sessions (typically Monday & Thursday or Friday), heaviest lifting up to 80-90% of 1RM in deadlift & back squat.
- B Race Week = one 40 minute session (typically Monday or Tuesday), moderately heavy lifting to 70% of 1RM in deadlift & back squat.
- A Race Week = one 20 minute session (typically Monday), light lifting to 50% of 1RM for muscle activation.
Surrounding the specific weight lifting work, there is a warm-up consisting of dynamic movements, core activation, and push & pull sets prior to the heavy lifting component. Following the lifting is a stability movement, a short explosive power set and finally a mobility set to act as the warm-down.
In summary, don’t let your off-season strength gains go to waste. Instead keep lifting! All it takes is once a week with a few heavy lifts per session to keep you stronger, more durable, healthier and ready for more progress next year.
Wanna learn more? Listen to an audio recording of Coach Cody going through the Strength Maintenance concept of lifting within your competitive season: