Complete, all around athleticism has always been our major goal in training our athletes. Though we focus on techniques used to maximize performance in every specialty, the focus has always been in developing individuals who can be ready to take on any challenge, and compete with high level competitors who may only be specializing in a single discipline.There is little true information out there on specific considerations when it comes to strength athletes training for endurance events, or endurance athletes looking to build high level (competitive) strength. There are numerous unique issues that larger athletes face when competing in endurance sports; issues that oftentimes lighter athletes, or athletes who have little interest in simultaneously improving their 1RM squat, do not even have to consider. This article will focus on two things:
1) The impact of endurance training on strength, and special programming considerations that strength focused athletes should take into account when planning their endurance training.
2) Special considerations and tips that larger, strength focused athletes may benefit from in training and competition.
This article will assume the basic example of a larger (198+ pound male or 150+ female) Powerlifter training for a Triathlon, though the information contained therein can be useful for all strength athletes. These individuals were chosen simply because these athletes tend to be bulkier than the average endurance athlete, possess and wish to maintain or improve maximum 1 RM strength, and compete in both upper and lower body strength events. Triathlon was chosen because the disciplines of swimming, cycling, and running present, between the three, enough unique and varied challenges that most individuals can translate these considerations to their sport.
The impact of swimming on strength
Swimming, given its low impact nature (and fact that it makes the body nearly weightless) seems to be a natural fit for many strength athletes. Many larger individuals may feel less out of their element in the water than lined up next to marathon runners or endurance cyclists- perhaps because swimming is often recommended for overweight individuals as a safe method for losing weight (and many strength athletes, in terms of BMI, could be considered overweight). Swimming, however, can be one of the most damaging activities for upper body strength if incorporated haphazardly into a routine.
Worth examining for a moment are the relative ranges of motion for the leg during a typical run, during a full cycling stroke, and during a squat. Certainly the squat itself would seem to work the leg through a much larger overall range of motion, and is indeed in and of itself beneficial for increasing mobility in a runner or cyclist. The exact opposite is true for swimming- the standard freestyle or crawl stroke rotates the arm through a rather extreme range of motion- far greater than that of a bench press, overhead press, or row.
2) By virtue of the “excessive” range of motion, swimming may cause significant delayed onset muscle soreness and discomfort in strength athletes.
3) There is little translation from a swim stroke to any upper body lift, though the reverse is not true. Since swimming will not make you stronger, the most you can hope is that it will not make you weaker.
Point 1 may be somewhat controversial, as there is a school of thought today that seems to dictate that mobility is always “good”. This is incorrect- a strong bench press is by nature an unnatural movement for the body- the shoulder is designed for mobility, not single plane force production, and as a result developing significant pressing strength requires that the shoulder develop incredibly stiff, strong muscle and tendon attachments. This isprotective, not a maladaptation, as any Powerlifter with excessive looseness and mobility can attest to. Swimming can and will introduce a “looseness” into a strength athlete’s upper body that can be dangerous if not recognized. These individuals will have to spend additional time focusing on rear deltoids, external rotators, and the scapular retractor muscles to compensate for the “lost” inherent stiffness.
Point 2 is more immediate- swimming must be carefully incorporated at first into a strength athlete’s routine, with short workouts and limited speed work until the athlete is comfortable and has developed a smooth stroke.
Point 3 is fairly obvious- the freestyle swim stroke will NOT improve your bench press or pull-up strength, so forget about swimming for that purpose. There is simply not enough power in the average swim stroke, nor is the range of motion or movement pattern in any way similar to most upper body power movements, so a strength athlete needs to understand that swimming cannot benefit their specific upper body work capacity or strength. Any movement that fatigues muscles, requires extensive recovery, introduces new movement patterns, and works musculature in a manner optimized for efficiency, NOT maximum power (and even short distance swimming is about efficiency), is by definition a hindrance to strength.
A final point is the upper body’s overall work capacity- unlike the lower body, upper body musculature is not called upon as frequently in daily activity as the load bearing muscles of the lower body. Many strength athletes push their upper bodies to the point of diminishing returns (one need only look at the number of “stagnant bench press” complaints versus “stagnant squat and deadlift” complaints to see this first hand). Swimming twice a week and pressing twice a week may push most individuals well beyond this point.
Therefore the overall recommendations to preserve strength while swimming are:
1) Limit “speed work” and workout frequency, particularly until stroke quality and efficiency are improved. Quite frankly, there is less need for a strength athlete to “sprint” in the water to develop power than a non-strength athlete. While it is true there are numerous adaptations that speed workouts develop (including, of course, improving overall swim speed), athletes with a background in strength focused lifting have a lesser need for speed work (and will experience more negative side effects in their upper body workouts).
2) Do NOT follow most swim “masters” program workouts- the vast, vast, VAST majority of triathlon coaches and swim coaches are not aware (nor are they particularly concerned with) the negative impact of swimming on upper body strength. If you are a strength focused athlete swimming at a particular level, halve the volume or frequency of a pre-programmed swim workout for a comparable swimmer. If training for a triathlon or distance swim event, the author HIGHLY recommends that swimming peak LAST and for the shortest duration, as it will have the most severe negative impact on your total.
3) Increase accessory work- external dumbbell rotations, band pull-aparts, face pulls, and bent-over lateral raises are some excellent lifts to maintain shoulder stability.
This is not to discourage the prospective swimmer- it is indeed possible to have a strong bench press and swim long distances, however it is a significant challenge to manage and can require very careful planning and routine modification.
The impact of cycling on strength
Out of all the forms of cardiovascular activity discussed, cycling can actually have the most varied impact on strength training depending on workout modality.
Cycling itself is an excellent choice for cardiovascular health for the strength athlete, provided it is done at a relatively low intensity- the knees and ankles are not load bearing structures during regular activity, and the overall movement itself is quite low impact. However, unlike many other forms of cardiovascular activity, its focus is heavily restricted to JUST the legs, and excessive cycling at the expense of other workouts will quickly result in an overall loss in leg size, strength, and explosive power.
Compared to the squat or deadlift, the motion of cycling itself is heavily quadriceps intensive- though the glutes and hamstrings may be engaged during high intensity speed bouts while in the drops (low handlebars) or aero position, the majority of cycling up in the hoods (high handlebars) or bartops does not appreciably engage the posterior chain- certainly not to the extent that many strength athletes have developed this musculature.
Standard moderate effort cycling, of the sort that can be maintained for hours, is minimally catabolic to muscle tissue, and quite frankly quite easy to recover from for the body. Fast twitch fibers are hardly being recruited, provided that gearing is sufficiently low and cadence sufficiently high, and many strength athletes may find that they can easily recover from an hour or two on the bike (at low intensity) simply by COMPENSATING CALORICALLY. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
Longer distance cycling, and in particular, sustained hill climbing, is a different story. This sort of riding, with the extended “burn” (from lactic acid production), begins to cross the line into taxing similar energy systems that are needed for lifting- but it is taxing them repeatedly at a low threshold. This is, quite frankly, the worst possible scenario, as fast twitch fibers will be repeatedly engaged, damaged, and fatigued from extended hill climbs and riding with depleted glycogen stores, and the body will indeed begin to catabolize existing muscle. If long mountain century rides are the strength athlete’s goal, the strength athlete is advised to STRONGLY consider the incorporation of more frequent shorter distance rides (versus less frequent longer distance rides) to allow for muscular recovery. This would mean, for example, breaking a weekly volume of 150 miles into 3 15-20 mile rides and 2 40-50 mile rides, versus one long slow distance ride and a handful of shorter ones. In addition, strength training must be particularly prioritized during these long ride training cycles, with extra effort devoted to maintaining speed and explosiveness. Steady cadence riding is training opposite movement patterns, so to maintain leg power the strength athlete should modify their lifting routine to incorporate additional speed (dynamic effort) or plyometric work if they do not already.
Sprint cycling, or training for short distance time trials is an interesting blend- excessively taxing one’s legs via constant sprinting on the bike can and will over-fatigue the legs and result in stagnant lifts or regression in strength if volume isn’t adjusted accordingly. Sprint cycling is, however, perhaps the single best activity for thigh hypertrophy that the author has ever found. If the strength athlete wishes to devote significant time to high speed, short duration training on the bike, he or she should immediately eliminate all higher volume and/or hypertrophy work for his or her lower body in the strength routine, and lower the volume of most accessory work to prevent overtraining. Bear in mind that the body can and will take longer to recover from high intensity short duration cycling than low intensity long duration cycling as far as limit strength is concerned- energy substrates are what are depleted during long distance low intensity cycling, and energy substrates are NEVER THE LIMITING FACTOR IN MAXIMUM EFFORT LIFTS. Actual mechanical damage takes place during higher intensity cycling, however, which can in fact negatively impact maximum force production. One final point to mention- many routines for sprint cyclists need to be adjusted for the strength athlete- high level strength athletes have force outputs that are sufficiently high to compete with higher level track cyclists- what they lack is the power production over time. Therefore, “strength” workouts (like cycling in a higher gear with slower cadence) can be ignored or eliminated. (This actually applies to all cycling).
As the Germans here are happy to demonstrate- sprint cycling builds rather large legs.
To summarize:1) Low intensity, moderate duration cycling has a negligible impact on strength, and can easily be incorporated by most strength athletes with minimal effect.
2) Low intensity, long duration or moderate intensity, long duration cycling can be extremely catabolic over time, and the strength athlete is advised to break up longer scheduled rides into two back to back rides to allow for feeding in between. He or she will still receive the benefit of cumulative mileage and the training effect of riding while fatigued, but the overall activity will be less catabolic. In either case, the strength athlete should devote additional time to plyometric and speed training to compensate for extended “slow” training, and be prepared to dramatically ramp up caloric intake.
3) High intensity, short duration cycling can be beneficial for hypertrophy, and should be considered an additional “lifting” workout, with the current lifting program adjusted accordingly. Extra care should be taken to allow for additional recovery, and “strength” workouts can be eliminated from most cycling routines if you choose to follow one.
The impact of running on strength
The humble run is one of the most misunderstood activities by strength athletes. Depending on who you listen to, running can be one of the most devastating activities a real strength athlete can engage in, almost as heinous and destructive as eating white bread or curling in the squat rack. Don’t do steady state slow running, it’ll make your body less effective at burning fat! It’ll ruin your knees! If you do run, run barefoot and do nothing but sprints!
Quite frankly, the majority of that misinformation out there is worth about as much as you paid to read it- nothing. (You may have noticed this article is also free. Recognize cognitive dissonance for what it is and let’s just move on.) Steady state cardio does not make your body less effective at burning fat (though the more running you do, the more efficient of a runner you are). Larger athletes shouldn’t necessarily run barefoot or on minimalist shoes (more on this later), and so on and so forth.
What a strength athlete needs to know about the impact of running on strength is that SHOULD BE this: minimal. A slow to medium speed run, provided it is efficient, utilizes a large number of energy stores and can be taxing on the bones and joints, but is not nearly as traumatic to the leg muscles as cycling, or as taxing on the upper body muscles as swimming. Low intensity, long distance running is actually remarkably easy to recover from, provided calories are kept high, and it is not uncommon for our athletes to have heavy leg days after long runs with minimal performance decrease. (Though intensity and motivation may suffer, soreness from running is not typically due to type II fiber mechanical damage. In other words, your strength output isn’t altered, you’re just tired and sore, but can easily push through it).
Running, unlike cycling, is also not NEARLY the muscle-intensive workout that a hard bike is- supporting the body engages the majority of the body’s skeletal muscle at some point during your stride, but it is ideally gravity and tendon rebound that propels the body forward. A few simple rules for running while preserving strength:
1) DON’T SKIP THE COOLDOWN. Running engages the body’s core and upper back relatively statically- your entire frame is being held more or less upright, stiff, for mile after mile. If the strength athlete does not make an extra effort to loosen these muscles up after a run, he or she will be VERY tight the next time a leg workout needs to happen.
2) AVOID SPRINTS unless you are training as a sprinter. Yes, this flies in the face of what many fitness web sites recommend. Nevertheless, sprinting will NOT increase your leg strength nearly as much as squatting, it will not improve your explosiveness nearly as much as plyometric work, and it will not improve your agility. Unless you are a sprinter, speed work should not include flat out, maximum effort sprinting, ever. It can severely hinder recovery, as it is engaging and damaging type II muscles with limited carryover into maximum force output or rate of force production (two important factors for strength), without the hypertrophy benefits of sprint cycling. Even speed work should be done sparingly, and utilized much like sprint cycling, though with the understanding that it is not a substitute for leg hypertrophy work. Remember, you are not using your cardiovascular activity to enhance your strength or size gains- the goals are completely different and should be kept as such.
3) Eat to recover. Simple as that.
You’ll notice running, as a relatively simple activity, has fewer strength considerations than other forms of cardiovascular activity. It is, quite frankly, the easiest to manage and the easiest to incorporate. One only need look at the wide variety of athletes and professionals who regularly run a variety of distances (from military special forces, to police forces, to football and rugby players, to marathon runners) to see the huge number of body types that can reasonably run.
Now, on to special considerations for larger athletes. These are rather scattered hints and tips, but have been compiled through years of training and racing while maintaining a bodyweight far heavier than most endurance athletes. Some are training tips, some are racing tips, some are gear tips- hopefully several will be useful.
Swimming considerations for the larger athlete
“Don’t worry- you’ll float”- If the author could eliminate one phrase from every swim coach’s repertoire, this would be it. The simple fact is, more muscular athletes may not float at all (the author is neutrally buoyant in the ocean while wearing a 3mm long john wetsuit). The ideal swimmer’s body type is, quite frankly, about as far removed from the average strength athlete’s as you can possibly get. Long limbs, slender arms, relatively non-muscular legs, no glutes, long torso, perhaps a wide back but little else… and moderate to high bodyfat, at least when compared to most top level athletes. The simple fact is, these are all positive adaptations for a sport that rewards buoyancy, long efficient strokes, and minimal cross sectional area. Larger, more muscular athletes may need to recognize that they are truly going against their body type when they step in the water.
First, the more muscular athlete needs to realize that buoyancy may be an issue- many larger athletes learning to swim for triathlons may be well served making a wetsuit-legal event their first foray into open water swimming. These athletes need to realize that maintaining forward momentum is absolutely CRUCIAL in the water, and also need to realize that the conventional “Head down” coaching may be completely wrong for them. If negatively buoyant, keeping one’s head down can actually result in the individual becoming so submerged that breathing can and will become quite a challenge. I recommend many larger athletes keep their eyes slightly forward, which may result in a slightly less favorable body position (with legs slightly lower than torso), but will serve to keep the athlete above water and head clear when breathing.Strength athletes may also “suffer” from a relative lack of shoulder mobility, as mentioned earlier. For these individuals, incorporating more body roll into breathing may be very beneficial, with the body position actually rotating as much as 90 degrees when going to take a breath. Again, this is not ideal for speed, but is far better than over-extending one’s shoulders.
A few other considerations:
1) Dial down the stroke power. Strength athletes may “over-pull” in the water, using strokes that are entirely too strong… creating cavitation while wasting energy. Think about pulling yourself along gently, gliding rather than using brute force to tear up the water.
2) Relax your legs. Particularly if you are a triathlete or aspiring triathlete, understand that the legs are really providing very little propulsion in the water and fatiguing them early will just make biking and running harder. The movement should come from your hips, and be primarily geared towards helping your body roll and straighten as you breathe. Remember that your (most likely) larger than average legs take more work to move than the typical swimmer’s, and using them for significant propulsion is a great way to burn tremendous amounts of energy, jack up your heart rate, but not improve your speed much at all.
3) Relax. Your arms can and will fatigue very quickly early on in your swimming career- chances are your upper body is specialized for shorter duration, explosive, powerful movements. Don’t worry about it- you will adapt quickly, and it’s normal to feel fatigued sooner than your non-lifting counterparts. Your inherent shoulder, chest, and back tightness and higher amounts of skeletal muscle are forcing you to do significantly more work per stroke than others. You’ll simply need to get that much better at being efficient to swim as effortless as your peers.
4) Don’t hesitate to buy a good pair of racing trunks or a speed suit. Even if swimming is just a hobby or adjunct, you will be VERY well served spending a bit of money (and then feeling slightly silly) wearing a proper set of racing gear in the water. You’re already engaged in an activity that is a challenge for you, don’t make it harder than it has to be by wearing swim trunks or an old ratty one piece.
Finally, be careful when it comes to listening to lifelong swimmers. Though there are some universal truths when it comes to swimming, recognize that you are effectively a specialized athlete, and will need to take all advice with a grain of salt.
Cycling considerations for the larger athlete
Cycling may be fun for many strength athletes- it is one of the few disciplines where, in many circumstances, their specific physiques convey many inherent advantages.
Of course, this needs to get weighed against how consistently this power can be generated. VERY light athletes cannot generate much power at all, since they lack much skeletal muscle, but as they get heavier (add more muscle), their sustained overall power output increases until their lungs and circulation become a limiting factor. Many lifters understand that light athletes may be proportionately strong but relatively “weak” on an absolute scale, but as they get bigger, peak strength increases while relative strength decreases. Cycling is no different- as the athlete gets larger, absolute power output increases, but relative power output decreases (lungs and heart can only increase in size and efficiency so much). The reason I mention this: 300+ pound strength athletes may not feel very efficient or powerful at all- their lungs simply cannot take in enough oxygen to power their massive “engine”. Overall, however, the average strength athlete may find that he or she can maintain pace with more experienced and potentially better trained riders on flat courses, and certainly initially should plan rides and races accordingly. A few other important considerations:1) GET A GOOD BIKE FIT! And if possible, get a good set of clip on aerobars for your road bike (they’re already included on a triathlon bike). Aerodynamics are INCREDIBLY important for you, as fast flats are where you will make up your time. However, understand (and this is important) that an “ideal” bike fit may NOT be a good bike fit for you. Many strength athletes may be comfortable a bit more “upright” than non-strength athletes. Larger thighs, tighter and more powerful glutes and hamstrings, and a larger more robust abdomen may make a true aero position very uncomfortable (and make it nearly impossible to breathe), so make sure your bike fitter is aware of this (and don’t let your considerations be ignored).
2) Hills can and will be horrible, so gear accordingly. Headwinds will break your lighter brethren while you hunker down and power through, but the moment the grade ticks up, your weight becomes the biggest detriment in the sport. (Look at climbing specialists versus sprinters in the Tour de France- the sprinters look like they’ve been stealing food from the climbers for the last few months.) If you are a strength athlete, don’t hesitate to get yourself a larger cassette in the back. Most road bikes come with 12/25s or 12/27s (bigger numbers in back = easier). You may thank yourself later if you get yourself an 11/32 for any races in that involve extended climbs.
3) Accelerate by coming out of the saddle. You have that extra bodyweight- USE IT. A larger rider can keep the bike in a higher gear and use his or her weight and upper body strength to accelerate tremendously quickly, while sparing those fast twitch fibers in the legs. Any time you have to slow down for a turn or stop and start, take advantage of this. It’ll pay off over a long ride.
4) Keep your cadence lower than your fellow riders. Your system is optimized for power, not high turnover. Moving your larger legs at a high speed (90+ RPM) as they teach most roadies or triathletes will likely tire you out. 75-80 RPM is a good sweet spot for most athletes with larger legs and greater absolute power output.
5) Get a robust bike, and avoid low spoke count wheels. Don’t worry- even carbon fiber bikes can usually handle 260-270 pound athletes, but the moment your low spoke count racing wheel hits a rut, it’ll fold up like a taco. Get a higher spoke count, sturdier, CHEAPER wheelset. It’ll be worth it in the long run. Additionally, please remember that at your weight, spending another $3,000 to save a pound on your bike is just silly. So don’t do that.
6) Get a good seat. I recommend the ISM series (their Adamo Peloton is phenomenal). The amount of weight you are putting on a very small, very delicate part of your body is extreme, so a good seat with a cutout is worth its weight in gold. And get good bike shorts. They don’t look any sillier than squat suits or singlets, so get over it.
7) Change your tires regularly. You will burn through rubber MUCH faster than a lighter rider. And don’t skimp here on cheap tires- get a good, sturdy set that will last you more than few months.
8) Learn early on how to eat on the bike. If you’re planning on putting in any real distance, given your caloric requirements you likely will not last on energy gels alone. Get accustomed to eating whole foods while riding.
One final point- make sure, when you do decide to buy a bike jersey, to buy at LEAST two sizes larger than normal. Don’t make the same mistake the author did many years ago when he assumed a size XL jersey was remotely similar to an XL t-shirt.
Running considerations for the larger athlete
You are not a Kenyan or Tarahumara, so please take your copy of “Born to Run” and put it with your other fiction books. Not that there are not phenomenal lessons to be learned within, and not that it is a terrible book, but please do take note that the typical strength athlete does not have the light, lithe build of many of the people that the author is speaking of.
Robust leg bones, powerful upper bodies, wide shoulders, large necks and upper backs, and glutes built for squatting rather than marathon running mean that the average strength athlete does not look so much like a thoroughbred as he or she does a charging rhino when pouring on the speed.
There IS one exceptionally important lesson to be found in that and other books, however- running should NOT feel painful. Running should be natural, efficient, and essentially relaxed. Pain is usually an indication that something is drastically wrong, and a heavier than normal athlete needs to be particularly aware of potential issues before they become serious problems. A few tips for the aspiring oversized runner:1) Unless you have a tremendous amount of running experience, ditch the minimalist shoes and the toe shoes. Yes, they encourage a midfoot strike, which can be much easier on the knees. If artificially forced, however, mid to forefoot striking can cause tremendous calf pain, plantar fasciitis, and shin splints. (I will NOT get into the whole barefoot versus cushioned, heel strike versus forefoot strike running debate here- suffice it to say with the variety of bodies out there, expecting a single answer for all runners would be ludicrous). The running gait should be natural, with several drills that can be incorporated to result in a more efficient stride (see, again, parts 1 and 2 of “So you want to run and be strong”). A zero drop shoe is indeed a good choice for many runners, however a shoe with no padding is absolutely NOT (until the aspiring runner has reached a level of comfort and experience with his or her stride that is so advanced that, quite frankly, he or she isn’t reading this or any other articles.) Incidentally, “zero drop” means that there is no difference in level of padding between heel and toe- while a flat sandal is technically zero drop, you can find many running shoes out there that are similar, though still have cushion. Try out the Brooks PureProject series or any of Hoka’s shoes for minimal drop yet still cushioned shoes.
2) Learn to recover on the uphills. Seems like a specific bit of advice, but the principle applies to all running- Uphills will always be your weakness, as a larger runner. It is NOT the place to take the lead in a race, rather it is the place to consolidate your strength. Shorten your stride, increase your cadence, and let your legs recover. Likewise, downhills are also not the place to make your gains- loping downhill will put tremendous strain on your lower limb joints, so short, controlled steps is the way to go.
3) Change your shoes regularly. More regularly than most runners. Even minimalist shoes will break down over time, losing grip and fabric integrity, as well as over-compressing the contact points on the sole. If you start developing new aches and pains, get a new pair of shoes before doing anything else. I’ve heard the “new pair every 400-600 miles” guideline thrown around- I’d recommend every 200-300 for normally cushioned running shoes, and 300-400 for minimalist.
Finally, one overall point- DON’T GET DISCOURAGED! Trying to conquer multiple challenges at once is, quite frankly, much more difficult than excelling at any one. Realize you will not initially make the same speed and duration gains as dedicated runners, swimmers, or cyclists, nor will your lifts increase as quickly as you are accustomed to. Do realize, however, that the gains WILL COME, and once you understand how to construct a proper routine and address the considerations unique to larger athletes, you’ll be a far better all around athlete than you ever thought possible.