Written By: Andrew Read
Endurance athletes can be a blessing and a curse to train. Endurance sports are built off extreme work ethics and the ability and willingness to suffer. However, that determination and motivation can easily sidetrack your clients with injury and burn out. It can also make programming hard due to weakness or mobility restrictions that come from many hours spent hunched over a bike or running.
At Read Performance Training, we have a basic entry progression that sees a client undergo an functional movement systems (FMS) screen on their first session. Provided they have no limitations, they are then taught basic exercises over a period of three to five more sessions
However, our endurance clients often follow a much different progression. It’s extremely likely that the endurance clients will score poorly on the FMS, usually due to mobility restrictions, which in turn generally leads to a lack of core control – an essential element of running fast for a long time. The lack of mobility and motor control means programming for strength can be quite simple.
Our basic training plan for these endurance athletes comprise of what I call “crawls and carries”. The basics of the plan are obvious – we do loaded carries and crawling variations. But it’s here where most people stop. They only worry about load when it comes to the same simple carry variation and they persist in crawling like babies forever.
The nervous system, the thing responsible for controlling your movement, can’t be loaded like the muscles can. What the CNS craves, what we all actually crave, is movement complexity. We develop so many skills and abilities early in life through useful play and exploration that we often lose sight of how powerful it can be for our bodies simply to “move around”.
Once we get to standing from all of the fundamental postures (lying, quadruped, and kneeling) we have three options:
- Bilateral stance (squats and deadlifts)
- Split stance (lunges and to an extent cycling and running)
- Single leg stance (kicking and running)
There are no other options and every exercise is a variation on one of those three. So if you spend a large amount of training time in a bilateral stance, you are missing 70% of the options available to you. When it comes to increasing athleticism for your endurance athletes, you’ll find that running and cycling are far more dependent on a split and single leg stance than they are on a bilateral one.
From my perspective, this is where loaded carries came in. They begin to blur the line between a bilaterally loaded exercise with the weight even in both hands, to a movement that actually encompasses all possible foot patterns. The movement begins by deadlifting kettlebells from a bilateral stance and then proceeds at various times to be either single leg or split stance. If you can avoid dropping the bells and maintain good posture, you prove that you own a variety of tasks such as:
- Shoulder stability
- Midline stability
- Resistance to rotation
- Ownership of the “other 70%” of foot patterns – i.e. split and single leg stance
Carries can come in many variations. Below are some thoughts on different ways to do them.
The basic type of carry is the farmers walk. Simply begin by grabbing two objects of the same size and weight and carry them for distance or time. At RPT we aim for everyone to be able to deal with multiple 20m laps with bodyweight split evenly between each hand (i.e. half bodyweight in each hand). (N.B. 20m is not a magical number; it is the rough length of the space we have).
However, there are drawbacks to farmer walks too. One of the hidden possible issues is that they seem to help people be “heavy”. While many are looking for added muscle mass there is a large number of athletes, such as runners and other endurance athletes, who are very concerned about how much they weigh. In my experience it is very difficult to get people to cut weight while using heavy farmer walks. Secondly, in terms of challenging the body, the farmer position is the easiest. You can make it more difficult by changing how you carry the weight. Like with foot positions there are three possible hand positions too – hands down/ suitcase, in the rack position, and overhead – and the other hand positions are by far more challenging from a stability point of view.
Back when I was young we actually had to carry our suitcases if we wanted to travel. I only mention this because some people may wonder why on earth it’s called a suitcase carry when you no longer need to carry a suitcase, as everything has wheels on it now.
While a single sided carry may be a great option, and I’ll discuss better ways below, the reality of a single sided carry is that they just don’t work well. If you use even a moderately heavy kettlebell or dumbbell the weight will hit your leg and make it difficult to maintain good posture. The options then are either to reduce the weight or choose a different variation such as the rack or overhead carry.
The rack carry is perhaps the best combination of all for loaded carries. The weight on the chest makes breathing difficult. The reason this is so important is that good breath function dictates how well you can do just about everything. If your breathing is compromised under load, you clearly don’t own the necessary stability required in that position, and you will start to cheat elsewhere.
If you’re looking to turbo charge this version of carries I can suggest bottoms up carries. Dr. Stuart McGill says of unilateral carries, “The asymmetric kettlebell carry uniquely challenges the lateral musculature (quadratus lumborum and oblique abdominal wall) in a way never possible with a squat. Yet this creates necessary ability for any person who runs and cuts, carries a load, and so on. The suitcase carry is another variation suitable for many advanced clients.” But then adds of bottoms up carries, “a one-handed bottoms-up kettlebell carry enhance[s] core stiffening and the skill of steerage of strength through the linkage.”
Holding something heavy overhead and maintaining good posture is very hard, which makes an overhead carry a fantastic choice provided you’ve got the tools to do so.
Even those who have decent pressing abilities may struggle when they have to hold load overhead for any period of time – even the smallest flaws in their abilities will be highlighted. And if you decide to go with a double overhead carry you may well end up with a few shoulder and neck issues from your clients as we discovered at RPT when we started doing them frequently.
I am always trying to achieve as many possible things with a movement as I can. While a carry proves shoulder stability, midline stability, ownership of the three-foot patterns, and, to a degree. anti-rotational ability, we can improve this by holding different loads in each hand.
By using two different size weights in each hand, and in particular using rack holds and walks, we really force the core musculature to fire in the manner that Dr. McGill speaks of above. If you really want to supercharge this, try using a large dead ball such as a 45kg+ ball and placing it on one shoulder while walking or lunging.
Asymmetrical Hand Positions
To increase the demands on the body the next logical step is not just to use asymmetrical loads but asymmetrical hand positions too. Having one hand in a suitcase carry while the other does a rack carry is a unique challenge to put the core through. Likewise, having one hand overhead while the other is either in a rack, suitcase or bottoms up carry is a new way to challenge you.
You will find, out of practicality, that it is best to have the lighter bell higher than the heavier one. i.e. if performing an overhead + rack carry the overhead bell will be lighter than the rack carry. If performing a rack and suitcase, carry the rack kettlebell will be the lighter of the two.
Like with carries, there is a need for more complexity too if you want to get the biggest benefit from these movements. Most people perform the basic crawling movements that have been popularised by Ground Force Method, Ginastica Naturale, and Original Strength. However, to quote movement guru Ido Portal, “why are they all still crawling like babies?” In other words, despite claiming to follow the neuro-developmental sequence, which is built off learning more and more complex tasks, these people are using the same simple variation monotonously. In the same way your body gets bored with performing the same resistance exercise with the same intensity and volume (how much you lifted for how many reps) your brain will get tired of performing the same crawl too.
In addition, for our endurance athletes there are some tremendous mobility gains to be made from some other variations of groundwork. Everyone thinks groundwork need only be done in a quadruped position, but there are other possibilities too, such as using a low gait, which is very similar to the other foot positions of split and single leg stance.
We focus on three main variations – bear walk, frogger, and duck – which my clients have not so lovingly started referring to as the barnyard workout. Like with all of our training, we have a quality focus on these movements, and it’s not unusual for someone to be more tired and sweaty from performing them properly than they are from their strength training. The real benefit/difficulty in these comes from the mobility required to do them well. In all three positions you spend a lot of time in deep stretches with bodyweight, passively encouraging you to gain even more range. I’ve seen extremely stiff but fast runners go from “I can’t squat” to “check out my squat” after a single half hour devoted to these drills.
Everyone should be familiar with the bear crawl. It is usually one of the first crawling variations done. For that reason, it is usually done the most poorly. We focus on what amounts to a slowly moving downward dog position. We want arms and legs as straight as possible at all times. The biggest gains in this variation come from continually trying to push the heels to the ground. Because running tightens up the calves so much, bear crawls can be an excellent way to get some much need posterior chain stretching in.
The secret to the frogger is the squat. If you need a rest you don’t get to stand up – you must stay in the squat. The stretch reflex – the thing that gives the impression of tightness – is a threat response. You feel stiff when your body thinks you’re entering a range that is dangerous or that you have no control over. By staying in a given position for a period of time, you encourage your body to accept that this new range isn’t a threat.
Reach forward with straight arms and hop. After each hop sit up as tall as you can and make your squat as deep and pretty as possible.
Begin with a very short lunge by placing the front foot flat on the ground and pushing up on the ball of the back foot. Squat down. This is another sneaky ankle flexibility drill, so push the lead shin as far forward as you can to stretch the calf. Staying as low as possible, bring the other foot forward and repeat.
Putting It All Together
Most endurance athletes won’t need many strength sessions per week. We often use as few as one depending on how close they are to a race, and we use the crawls and carry day as the strength session done earliest in the week. This is because they’re usually under enormous fatigue from a weekend that may have included as much as ten hours of training with a heavy leg focus. Using the crawls and carry workout to address postural and core control, mobility, and recovery all in one session sets them up well for another solid week of training. So at RPT this type of session will often be done on a Monday or Tuesday.
- Farmer walk – 20m
- Bear crawl – 10m
- Asymmetrical carry – BUP/ suitcase 20m, swapping sides at the 10m mark
- Frogger – 10m
- Overhead walk – single hand, swapping hands at the 10m mark
- Duck – 10m
- Repeat for five total rounds.
We’ve found that keeping a crawl and carry workout at the beginning of the week allows us to have one or two good quality strength sessions later in the week. These can be performed as usual and focus on high-yield exercises such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, and others that focus on true strength gain. Since implementing this focus, we’ve had near zero soft tissue injuries in our endurance clients, and as a result of gaining flexibility and movement, we often see a reduction in times, especially for swimming and running.
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