Strong Like Bull: Strength Training for Endurance Athletes February 19, 2021 17:36 Updated Follow Not signed in? Log into your Purple Patch account for full access to your education program for coaches and athletes. You need to sign in to view this page. Whenever we broach the subject of strength training for endurance athletes, it can quickly elicit evangelical reactions for those on both sides of the argument. I hear some endurance coaches proclaim that there is no value of training outside of the specific demands of the sport. On the other hand, a CrossFitter will proclaim that endurance activity is grossly overrated and the real resilience and endurance comes from having strength as the centerpiece of any training regime. As we explore, I should disclose that I strongly believe that potential and performance will only meet for an endurance athlete when a consistent, critical supplement of strength and conditioning is part of the training program; however, rather than simply pontificating about my opinion, let's explore the lens I take on strength and conditioning via a case study of a real Purple Patch athlete. ATHLETE CASE STUDY: MEET JENNY Jenny is a 46-year-old long-time endurance athlete. She is accomplished as an age grouper and has often finished on the podium. She clearly has a highly developed cardiovascular system as she has been doing the sport for so many years. She is one fit woman! Despite her accomplishments, Jenny started to plateau a couple of years ago. Her performances were stagnant, and this led to an erosion in confidence in both her ability as an athlete but also in herself as a human. Triathlon was her identity in many ways, and the flat performances left her feeling flat as a person. Not a great place to be. Her antidote to this situation was to throw more effort into her training. She trained more and more hours, amped up her riding and running miles, and aimed to develop more fitness. Even after all of her years in the sport, Jenny thought she needed more to get more. To further support her cause, she decided to head to a performance lab for physiological testing. Out of that single session, the well-meaning physiologist prescribed some magic training zones and told her to keep working hard to develop the base. Jenny came to Purple Patch with a prescription in hand and a readiness to add to the piles of miles. It was time to break the plateau. I looked at Jenny's history and the lab results, then almost spilled my morning coffee when reading the physiologist's advice. Building the base and working more was only going to result in one thing. She would keep developing fitness but would start to choose smaller and smaller gears on each hill, getting slower and slower as the years and age continued to climb. This would be a route to getting slower, not the result we all wanted. The key with Jenny was to realize that her baseline fitness was never the limiter, and she simply could not expect to get fitter and fitter. She needed a radical shift in thinking and a complete refresh in her approach to getting faster. The global intervention I ended up prescribing included: A complete strength and conditioning program A reduction in total training hours Strength-based riding repetitions (low cadence) and hill-based riding and running An increase in global intensity of intervals to balance the lower overall training duration This prescription was outlined with a couple of things in mind. First, she required a change of stimulus and a shift in training approach. And since I was also cognizant of her health and development as a woman, these factors played a role in the intervention, too. While she was fit, she was approaching the years of hormonal transition and, with upcoming menopause, it was critical to introduce strength as a stimulus to prevent a plummeting bone density status and global health decline. I wanted to build triathlon performance on top of a platform based on strength and health. WHAT WERE THE RESULTS? Over an 18-month period, Jenny not only evolved but she progressed to a whole new level. She began hitting performances faster than the prior five years. Strength training played a critical role in these performance gains, but not just in the way that you may think. It truly helped Jenny in ways beyond the splits of swim, bike, and run. CONFIDENCE Shifting the lens from simply accumulating miles in training gave Jenny a fresh lens and an arena in which she could improve. When we improve, we smile, and the feelings of growth and development replaced stagnation with joy. This was an easy win. Beyond this, Jenny felt better. The improvement in posture, standing taller and proud was highly noticeable. She lost no real weight but kept getting compliments on how good she looked. I realize vanity has no place in a performance article, but it added to the feeling of being an inch taller. It enhanced her confidence. RANGE OF TRAINING The athletic awareness, motor control, and stability had a large impact on her approach to the endurance training. The prior Jenny simply relied on accumulating hours and miles, but strength aided in a shift in athletic awareness. She had improved musculoskeletal health, but also a realization that the key low cadence work could be attacked with confidence and an area of development. She began chasing output over miles, and the shift in mindset was born out of the strength work. Another benefit -- Jenny quickly linked the strength to what we were looking to accomplish in the critical endurance work, and this allowed her to maximize the yield from these areas. The key for Jenny and for you is that adding strength training into your endurance routine is never going to be the route to improvement, but instead is a critical performance partner on that journey. Let's dive into the why. POSITIONING STRENGTH As I have mentioned in previous discussions around performance, strength is simply one part of the performance puzzle. As a high performance or endurance enthusiast a simple fact remains: When you have an appropriate endurance training program supported with strength training, a platform of quality nutrition, and adequate recovery and sleep -- you accelerate. No matter your level, it happens every time. So, we remove the other elements in the performance puzzle and only consider strength. This is why I call it a performance partner. Strength training is a catalyst for improvements in the bullseye - your endurance training. Appropriately integrated strength will: Have a hand in avoiding injury Act as a bridge between mobility, balance, synchronization, and strength with the sport-specific endurance Create a platform to maximize the hard work of sport-specific (that's endurance) training To allow us to keep this crisp, let's just outline the important things to consider as you map your own approach to strength and conditioning: It doesn't need to dominate the training schedule to be effective. This is critical as most endurance athletes are time-starved, and who has time to head to the gym for 60- to 90-minutes two to three times a week? Short sessions that are easily integrated are highly effective and important. It must be a season-long and year-round endeavor. While the purpose, role, and personality of your strength sessions may evolve as the year progresses, it cannot simply be an off-season activity. Integrate strength training as part of your performance journey, always. It must be about building an athlete - not an endurance athlete. Go beyond picking sport-specific movements, as you already have sport-specific movements under load by running, riding up hills, etc. Think about supportive, lateral, and a 360-degree focus in strength. Become athletic then use your endurance training to amplify and prepare for the sport you are doing. Just because you do strength doesn't mean you will add power or pace, and it doesn't promise injury avoidance. The puzzle is broader than this. You should never view the positive role of strength in a silo. Retain a big-picture lens. Join the dots between the gym (strength work) and what you are doing in sport-specific training. For the real benefit and value, it is important that strength training not live in a vacuum only to be forgotten when riding uphill or getting fatigued in running. WHY YOU NEED TO INTEGRATE STRENGTH The benefits of a properly designed functional strength program can unlock your potential to improve as an athlete and include: Increased movement synchronization and coordination A developmental platform for biomechanics and form Improved athleticism Enhanced injury prevention That list should wow you. Improvement in those four areas will have a dramatic impact on your performance as an endurance athlete. In case that list is too abstract or technical, let me break down the benefits for you in different terms: Improved muscle recruitment throughout the entire range of motion of the movement: all your muscles working together in balance, instead of stronger muscles compensating for weaker ones Ability to generate a given power output with less effort Allow you to move more efficiently - swim, bike and run more smoothly Allow you to increase your power production threshold Staying healthy unlocks the holy grail of endurance sports: the ability to train consistently over many months, without having to take time off for injury recovery I hope with that list you are suitably engaged in the value and role of strength. When properly mapped and integrated, it will not only bring you joy and a shift in training lens, it will also serve to amplify the endurance training you do. That is why we never view its role as simply aiming to prevent the negative of injury. We truly see strength training as a part of your performance journey.