The topic of strength training is hugely important, varied in opinion, and generally confusing in many cases. These are my opinions on the matter after 25 years of strength training personally, 12 years as a certified personal trainer, and 10 years coaching endurance athletes of all ages. I could go in several different directions with this, but my goal is to address endurance athletes specifically here.
The basics: Rather than first focusing on specific demands of your particular sport, endurance athletes should aim to have better movement in general. This can be broken down into 6 primal movement patterns: 1) Push 2) Pull 3) Twist 4) Bend 5) Squat 6) Lunge. All other movements are essentially built off of these compound (multi-joint) exercises. If any of the primal pattern movements are not performed correctly, the compound movement can be broken down into smaller (single-joint) pieces until neuromuscular and strength capabilities are improved to allow for the more advanced movement to be done correctly. The same holds true when rehabbing from injury. In most all other cases single-joint exercises are the worst thing an athlete can do. They can overload one side of one joint which leads to imbalance and moves in the complete opposite direction of what is being gained through sports specific movement; requiring the dynamic teamwork of multiple joints and muscle groups working in harmony.
Endurance athletes are not trying to put on muscle mass, especially to their upper body, that would require more oxygen use without moving them forward. In nearly all cases putting on muscle is never the goal for endurance athletes. Moving better, and improving exercise/sports specific economy is the goal. There are some other positives associated with strength training such as hormonal health and force production. Strength training concurrently, immediately after an endurance session can increase testosterone which can be decreased from extended endurance. Other times you may want to add in “activation” type strength training, such as swimming stretch cords before the endurance training session.
After addressing basic movement patterns and general strength over a period of 4-12 weeks the athlete can move through phases of strength training focus depending on what their race schedule might be, athlete specific needs, and what their schedule allows. In the next phase of training I recommend an increase in weight, a decrease in reps/sets, and an increase in rest periods between sets. In this phase the emphasis is on speed of movement. If at any time the weight is not able to be lifted safely with speed, it is far too heavy. Always, as an endurance athlete, choose 10% less weight than you think you should be lifting. As a race season approaches lifting should decrease in overall load to a maintenance period of once per week or not at all during a race week.
Plyometrics are another great strength type of exercise that has been proven to increase running economy specifically. If you decide to experiment with plyometrics always stick to a 1 – 5 work to rest ratio, meaning 10 seconds of exercise with 50 seconds rest for example, or 20 seconds “on” and 1 min 40 sec “off” etc. Plyometrics are not for everyone! These are ballistic exercises such as repeated squat jumps, or lateral jumping, and these should be added to a program when there are no known injuries and the athlete is ready to add an additional training stress to their program outside of the normal program.
Just like endurance training, strength training “depends” on the needs of the athlete. Every stress you apply to yourself, every lift you may do, changes you in one way or another. Have a plan and be confident that you are working towards your own needs and not lifting for the sake of lifting which may or may not be working to address your movement or sport specific needs. I hope this helps some of you plan your strength training with a little more focus into your next training cycle. There is a lot more to strength training than what I wrote here. I will address more in detail some of the specifics in the future. As always, if you have any questions at all please email me and I will be sure to answer them.