Strength Training for Endurance Athletes, Part 2

In Strength Training for Endurance Athletes, Part 1, the role of strength training as it relates to injury prevention, correcting imbalances, and developing strength was dissected in detail. Specifically, the physical adaptations and benefits of strength training were discussed as they related to the deadlift, because of its unique ability to target so many of the muscle groups recruited in running, swimming, cycling, etc. The deadlift, however, is only one of many compound movements that, when performed properly, can benefit an endurance runner.

As an aside, to address an issue that may be raised after seeing the compound lifts about to be presented (which are more often associated with Powerlifting or strength athletes), it is worth making one major point to bear in mind while reading this article.  There are many programs out there designed for runners that emphasize “running specific” movements, such as half squats, walking lunges, one handed overhead goblet squats, or other esoteric movements performed with a typical high rep, low weight scheme.  What these programs ignore is the simple truth that the MANNER in which an exercise performed matters just as much, if not more so, than the actual exercise itself.  While a bodybuilder, a Powerlifter, a triathlete, and an ultramarathoner may all squat using the exact same form, the loading pattern, lifting cadence (tempo/speed), and volume all determine the specific training effect.  This will be explained in specific detail when discussing ME/DE lifting.

Specific Adaptations from the Squat

The squat is another compound movement that efficiently targets many of the relevant muscle groups and cartilage attachments for good crossover from the weight room to the trail (or road, pool and so forth, depending on your event).  The prime movers in this compound lift are the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus group, and hip flexors, with significant mechanical contributions from the spinal erectors, abdominal muscles, and calves. The flexion and extension of the ankles, knees, and hips during the course of this movement also contribute to stronger attachments of ligaments and tendons (from increased osteoblastic activity at the site of these attachments, as discussed in part 1) as well as increased muscle mass around these joints for improved stability.

The squat is also a useful lift for developing a stronger “final kick” by improving muscle fiber recruitment. By training with higher loads for lower repetitions (singles, doubles, or triples), the body is forced to recruit more muscle fibers (through enhanced neuromuscular adaptation) in order to move the heavier load. By training the body to fire more muscle fibers at one time, the net result is increased power and force production each time the neurons in the brain send a signal to the neurons in the muscles.  Perhaps most importantly, however, training muscles to fire maximally, and fire quickly, improves efficiency- there is less energy wasted as the muscle fibers respond to nerve activation. This means that when you need to kick it into high gear, your body will be able to call upon more muscle fibers to contribute to power production to get you up that hill or to that finish line, and can do so with less wasted energy.

In addition to the traditional back squat, there are a number of variations of the squat exercise that emphasize different parts of the movement and include the following:

1.       Front squats –this a more quadriceps-dominant lift with decreased emphasis on the spinal erectors, though increased emphasis on the hips given increased depth and position of the bar

2.       Zercher squats – requires increased involvement of the posterior chain including the glutes and hamstrings, as well as the anterior stabilizers to maintain balance, while also targeting the quadriceps and spinal erectors

3.       Bulgarian split squats – the primary movers are still the quadriceps, glutes and hip flexors, however there is more emphasis on the stabilizers at the core, hips, calves and ankles.  Single leg movements are also excellent for addressing leg strength inequality and imbalances.

Specific Adaptations from the Bench Press (and other upper body exercises)

Although the bench press offers less direct translation to running or cycling, it is still an important lift in your rotation and should not be discounted completely. We will discuss it here in terms of running (as was done for the squat and deadlift) and although the benefits may not seem as obvious as they were for the squat and deadlift,by stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, you will hopefully understand its value.

The bench press primarily targets the pectoralis major and the anterior and lateral deltoids, which are also the muscle groups that bring the arm and upper torso forward during the arm swing while running. This is important because the arm swing actually works in a synergistic manner with the opposite leg creating a reciprocal and opposite arm-leg swing pattern. When your left arm swings forward and elongates, the right leg comes off the ground through the swing phase of the running gait. The speed of your feet can actually be dictated by the speed of your arm swing (often practiced with arm swing drills on the track). This becomes important when trying to maintain the most efficient running form. A lean upper body with slightly increased muscle mass will allow for a powerful arm swing that proportionately improves leg drive. The effects of increased strength and power in the upper body will likely be most noticeable when pushing up a hill or powering through your final kick to the finish line when your body is otherwise fatigued and depleted.  There is also, again, the fact that improved muscle coordination improves torso stability and movement efficiency, and a trained upper body will not be subject to the same “flop” that one will often see in fatigued distance runners.

An upper body workout is not complete without some exercises that focus on the antagonists of the pectoralis major and deltoids, namely the rhomboids, trapezius, and latismuss dorsi. Working only the chest will set you up for developing an imbalance that would be more detrimental than beneficial to your running form in the long run. A comprehensive, but not exhaustive list of exercises that target these muscles groups include barbell rows, Pendlay rows, seated cable row, lat pulldown or face pulls and can be incorporated into your routine after your compound lifts. The value of these lifts are in developing strong shoulder and upper back muscles that will help you maintain an upright posture as you start to fatigue. If you watch a tired runner, you will notice that the upper torso tends to lean forward and the shoulders begin to round. This position prevents full flexion at the hips and leads to a shortened, contracted arm swing that translates to an inefficient stride. The head down position also tremendously increases the load on the lower back (as the head, being one of the densest parts of the body, is no longer balanced above the spine but rather pulling down the front of it), which can serve to cause premature lower back and glute/hamstring fatigue while running. Targeting your upper back and shoulders will help you avoid this issue.

Changes in Body Composition

With all this lifting, many runners become concerned that they will put on too much muscle mass that will have detrimental effects on lightness and efficiency. However, given the volume of endurance training engaged in by most endurance athletes, the balance of catabolic to anabolic effect is typically in favor of a net catabolic state, making it very difficult to GAIN mass. With proper nutrition after a strength training workout, an athlete’s body is primed for muscle hypertrophy as it utilizes amino acids to rebuild and repair microtears in the muscle.  However, in someone who is otherwise engaging in significant catabolic activities like running or cycling, the body never has time to hold on to the muscle gains. The primary effect of weight training on body composition in an endurance athlete will therefore be decreased body fat and increases in the quantity and efficiency of Type IIa muscle fibers.

Strength training improves fat loss not only by improving your resting metabolic rate (because slight increases in muscle mass will burn more calories than if that muscle were fat) and through a mechanism called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which basically means that your body will continue to burn calories after your workout  Though many distance runners may not be terribly concerned about fat loss specifically, they will nevertheless be heartened to know that any slight muscle mass gains from weight training will be balanced by a loss of fat, and fat certainly does not make ANYBODY faster.

In addition to burning more fat, a study by Aagaard and Anderson demonstrated that your body will also respond to strength training by improving the number of Type IIa (or fatigue-resistant) fast twitch muscle fibers in key muscle groups. This is primarily relevant at times when you must “dig deep” and find some energy left for your final kick to the finish line or to pass another competitor. By incorporating a combination of maximum effort and dynamic effort lifting, you may not find that you’re bigger, but you should notice that you’re stronger with a little more speed when you need it.

Designing a Training Program

Designing the best routine for you will depend on what distance event you’re training for as well as your previous experience with strength training and any weaknesses or imbalances noted on a strength assessment. However, regardless of these factors, it is the author’s opinion that there are two primary and essential types of strength training to incorporate into your lifting routine. These are maximum effort (ME) work and dynamic effort (DE) work, which primarily refers to the intensity and cadence of a specific lift or a given day depending on how it is incorporated into the athlete’s overall routine. For instance, you could do all of your DE work on one day (for upper and lower body) and all of your ME work on another day or you could split up your workouts into upper body and lower body days with ME and DE lifts combined on each day. For now, let’s just break down ME versus DE lifts.

Maximum Effort (ME) versus Dynamic Effort (DE)

*Note: All strength training, whether ME or DE, should be preceded by an adequate warm up of the muscles to be used and can result in injury if the lifts are not executed properly.

Maximum effort lifts are just as they sound- high weight, low repetition lifts that maximally recruit muscle fibers and primarily improve peak force and strength of the muscle group worked. These will typically be done for one, two, or three repetitions with a percentage of the maximum amount of weight the athlete can do for one repetition, known as their 1 rep max (1RM). ME work is typically reserved for compound lifts such as squat, deadlift or bench press, which involve large prime movers and require appropriate neuromuscular adaptations to execute the lift.  Though many runners may question the value of a 1 rep max, maximum force is a component of power, and greater absolute force contributes to greater absolute power.

Dynamic effort lifts, on the other hand, are much more variable in their execution and can take on a variety of forms depending on the goal of the lift. In general though, DE work tends to involve lower weights with higher repetitions, or lower weight and low repetitions performed at very high velocity, usually with a specific purpose in mind- developing speed, muscular endurance, or even power at a particular point of a given lift. For runners, a DE workout might incorporate circuits, plyometrics, or even speed work that translates into improved running form while fatigued, quicker explosive power, and faster reaction times.

DE circuits are particularly useful in targeting muscle groups to train once pre-fatigued by the previous lifts in the circuit and are ideal for improving running while fatigued. For instance, a DE circuit might include deadlifts to fatigue the posterior chain followed by high pulls to fatigue the upper back, ending with face pulls to strengthen the rhomboids once fatigued. The purpose of this circuit is as specific as it sounds-  to improve posture and prevent rounding of the shoulders while in a fatigued state.  Alternatively, a circuit might include Zercher squats to fatigue the quads and glutes followed by split-squat jumps and a 100m stride with emphasis on running form, again to improve running biomechanics when tired. A particular circuit would be repeated 4-6 times with 10-20 seconds of rest between each set.

Incorporating plyometric drills into a DE workout can be useful in improving the amount of force produced when pushing off the ground as well as reducing the amount of time the foot stays in contact with the ground resulting in quicker turn-over during a run. These types of drills include single-leg hops, split-squat jumps, A-skips, bounding, pogo jumps, and box jumps. Each of these drills reinforces a quick, forceful reaction. Typically these drills are done for 10 repetitions, starting with one set and working up to 2-3 sets while maintaining proper form. Since these drills tend to be quite exhausting to a very specific muscle group they should be performed after other technical (or compound) lifts have been completed, though the athlete should avoid performing these drills when completely fatigued to the point where form suffers (as injury may result).

Lastly, DE workouts might include lifts that focus on speed development such as speed pulls (essentially very quick deadlifts) or plyometric bench press on the Smith machine. (LINK TO VIDEO) Speed work in the gym consists of low repetition, low weight lifts that focus on moving the weight as quickly as possible. Improvement in these lifts is primarily measured by moving the weight more quickly rather than increasing the amount of weight moved. The benefit of these lifts include dramatically increased rate of force production (the delay from when you “ask” your muscles to move to the moment they ACTUALLY move, at maximum force), improved coordination, enhanced muscle fiber recruitment, and ultimately, improved speed in your endurance sport of choice (provided you are targeting the relevant muscle groups for proper crossover).

Specific Training Programs

As far as incorporating a strength training program into your routine, below are a few program outlines tailored to different types of runners.  Note that these basic ideas apply to all endurance athletes, however.

Short Distance Runner (1500 – 5k)

Individuals hoping to post competitive times in distances up to the 5k will benefit most from ME lifts and DE circuits and speed lifts that emphasize improved specific anaerobic work capacity (i.e. muscular endurance in the legs), improved muscle fiber recruitment and maintenance of optimal running biomechanics while fatigued. For these athletes, every second counts, so good form and a lethal final kick are essential to performing well on race day. Since these runners typically have 2-3 intense workouts per week that utilize similar energy pathways (which take priority over strength training), strength training should be scheduled on aerobic recovery days or a long run day, provided the athlete maintain at least one day completely off per week to allow these fast twitch fibers to recover.

For these athletes, I would recommend one upper body combined ME/DE day, focusing primarily on heavy chest and back loading to improve arm and torso power (such as the bench press, barbell row, landmine press, and military press), as well as several explosive movements to improve arm drive and speed (such as push presses, plyometric bench press, and explosive Pendlay rows.)  Leg days should be divided into one ME day focused heavily on posterior chain strengthening for balance purposes (deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, and glute-ham raises), and a dynamic effort day designed to improve explosive leg power, incorporating both plyometric movements (lunge hops, box jumps, jump squats) and more traditional speed/explosive movements (power cleans, speed squats, full cleans, split squats).

Medium Distance Runner (10k – ½ Marathon)

Individuals training for longer events like the 10k to half marathon distances should incorporate some ME lifts and DE circuits with more emphasis on correcting imbalances and injury prevention. There is less of an emphasis on explosive power for race purposes, so the emphasis becomes more on improving local anaerobic endurance and pro-actively addressing possible injury sites.  For these athletes, the same basic split as above can be followed, but the upper body workouts can focus far less on the explosive lifts, and more on steady, controlled lifting, particularly for the upper back.

We suggest following the above guidance for ME upper body lifts, but then switching out the explosive movements for more upper back “builder” movements, like barbell shrugs, snatch grip high pulls, band pull aparts, and reverse lateral raises.  For the lower body, the emphasis for ME likewise remains the same, but the DE workouts should be switched to more low intensity circuits of similar movements.  For example, a 10:00 timed circuit of walking lunges, front squats, LOW box jumps, and mountain climbers (as many rounds as possible within the time limit) would build the athlete’s lower body work capacity- useful for extended hills or surges during a race.

Long Distance Runner (Marathon – Ultramarathon)

As distance increases even further, gym workouts become increasingly further removed from the chose activity.  As it is nearly impossible to mimic, in a 45 minute gym workout, any challenge faced out on a 26+ mile run, the emphasis then becomes nearly strictly injury prevention, with a minor focus on building hill climbing/descending power.  The above guidance for upper body lifting holds true, as does the same basic ME emphasis, but the DE/circuit emphasis should then become replaced by true endurance circuits.  In fact, replacing DE/circuit days with more general conditioning, including stadium run/sled push complexes and run/plyometric circuits (e.g. 800 meter repeats with low weight, high repetition goblet squats/burpees/walking lunges in between) will build the long distance runner’s strength and anaerobic work capacity, while simultaneously improving his or her ability to maintain form while certain muscle groups are completely fatigued or in a low glycogen state.

Bear in mind, these are just examples.  Every runner has specific strengths and weaknesses, and designing a lifting program that will ENHANCE a runner’s athleticism, rather than simply given him or her something to do when not out on the trail, requires a real analysis of the individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

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