Sports Specific Strength Training for Endurance SportsDonovan van Gelder
Strength sessions for endurance sports are an interesting concept. Here we are talking about specific strength workouts, not lifting weights or performing jumps and explosive movements. We are referring to increasing the resistance and load while performing the actual activity, swimming, cycling and running. The debate is whether we can call that ‘strength’ training at all, but that doesn’t really matter. The benefits of high-resistance training in endurance sports are well established. Increasing the resistance or load during our training will recruit more muscle into the work as well as increasing the force of the contraction in the muscle. The strength developed will be more specific. In other words – where we use weights and plyometrics to improve the general durability and wellbeing of our bodies, we use strength sessions out on the road or in the pool to make us go faster and further.
Adding resistance while we train has another benefit in that it can make our movements more concentrated and focused. Our cadence can slow slightly and the increased pressure through the swim or pedal stroke and running stride, allows us to feel where we may be losing our grip on the surface that we are trying to apply force to. The pressure against our hands, arms and feet is increased and therefore more noticeable. Making it easier to notice where and when that pressure is not optimal. There is less margin for error when the resistance is higher.
Strength sessions for the different disciplines are quite different so let’s deal with them separately.
We can’t swim uphill or into the wind, so we have to add resistance in another way. We do that through the use of hand paddles or fins. Paddles come in a multitude of shapes and sizes but the overriding principle is that they allow us to get a better grip on the water than we would just using our hands and therefore increasing the load on the muscles as they pull the body forwards. Notice I didn’t say, “pull the water backwards.” We are moving through the water when we swim, not pushing it backwards.
The bigger the paddle, the larger the load and the strain on the muscles and shoulder. So, paddles should be introduced only once a good foundation of fitness has been layed. They should also be incorporated gradually and possibly, starting with smaller paddles and increasing in size as adaption occurs. Much as we would do in the weight room, gradually adding weight as we get stronger.
Paddles force us to angle our hands correctly as they pass from the entry, to the catch phase, under the body, to the exit as they pass the hips. If our hands are not sculling correctly to apply pressure on the water, we will feel that when we are wearing paddles. Obviously, we could be pushing against the water in the wrong direction in order to maintain pressure, so using paddles will not automatically sort out poor technique under the water therefore the usual attention to stroke-correction should always be a priority.
An excellent method to add to the force that we need to pull on the water, is to turn short of the wall or start our intervals without a push off. Having to build up our momentum from zero, or even with our bodies moving in reverse in the case of a short turn, dramatically increases the amount of force needed. This is also a highly effective training technique when preparing for races that have a deep-water start. Beginning our short intervals away from the wall, sculling to keep the feet off the bottom, is a brilliant race-start preparation. Performing longer interval sets and turning before the wall so that there is no push off is excellent strength training. Just tumble turn early so that our feet don’t touch the wall and start swimming back in the other direction. We will have a short peak of power before we can settle back into our rhythm again and, especially if we are in a 25m pool, we will just get back into that before we do it again.
Cycling and Running
We are putting these two disciplines together because the strength work is so similar and involves hills and to a lesser extent, wind. The major different lies in the fact that we can use our gearing on the bike to alter the resistance on the bike, whereas running we only have cadence and effort.
Specific, targeted strength sessions should be included into our training programs after a good foundation of endurance and aerobic conditioning has been layed. I emphasise ‘specific sessions’ because for many of us, hills are impossible to avoid in the areas that we live. So, we’ll be climbing hills right from the beginning of our first phase of training. What we are going to discuss here are training sessions where our goal is not building endurance or simply improving fitness, but actually developing sport specific strength in the muscles we use to generate forward movement.
Free Rides/runs on Hilly routes
This is as simple as it sounds. In these sessions we just go out on the hilliest routes that we have available. Focused work on the inclines, and recovery periods on the declines. We can change the focus and impact of these, uncomplicated workouts, by altering the effort that we put into the climbs. Maintaining an aerobic effort (AT) at 20bpm lower than AnT heart rate or 80% of FTP on the climbs will result in a more muscular effort. Our breathing will remain controlled, allowing conversation in short sentences. Here the focus should be on maintaining perfect posture and technique and, in running – concentrating on generating force through the hamstrings and glutes, and in cycling – applying pressure to as much of the pedal stroke as possible, while staying seated with a relaxed upper body and light pressure on the handlebars. On the bike this is also a good session to employ a lower than normal cadence from time to time. Higher cadences tend to raise the heart rate, but lower pedalling rates increase the torque on each pedal stroke and emphasise the power phases of the pedal stroke, where the big muscles play the largest role. Form, posture and technique should never be compromised during training so the cadence should not be lowered to the point where we are labouring over the pedals.
Hard on the Hills – The next step on a simple hilly session would be to add more intensity. Again, nothing complicated about this type of session. We will simply push the hills hard and relax and recover on the downhills. On steeper inclines in running it is important to make sure that we don’t lean forward from the waist when climbing. This is an easy thing to do when the gradient starts exceeding 6-7%. We should always concentrate on leaning forward from our ankles so that there is more or less a straight line drawn up from the ankles, through the spine and neck to the top of the head. We don’t want to be looking down in front of our feet. Our eyes should be focused towards the summit and should be pulling us to the top of the climb. We should always be aiming at maintaining the same posture and body position that we hold when running fast on a flat road. Shoulders back, chin up and chest out. We also don’t want to reach to far forward with our feet (over-striding) and a high knee-lift is also not necessary. The power in running happens behind the body line. We want our feet to make contact with the ground, more or less underneath our centre of gravity and then have the hamstrings and glutes pull and drive us forwards. Our arms play a large role in determining our cadence. We need to make positive but small movements with our arms, which our legs will follow. No wild swinging of the arms but short, positive and purposeful movements.
Harder efforts on climbs on the bike are approached in much the same manner as for running, with the major exception that we have two different positions on the bike, sitting and standing. Climbing in the saddle is more efficient and faster in the long term. We can produce more power out of the saddle by adding our body weight to the pedals and incorporating more upper body muscle into the equation but, that comes at a cost. When we are out of the saddle, our bike will be rocked from side to side. This increases the rolling resistance of our tyres and there will also be some power loss through flex in the frame and wheels, no matter how rigid these are. We are also in a higher body position with more frontal area catching the wind. Even though our speeds are slower when climbing, that extra wind resistance will have an effect. Using more muscle to propel us forwards will require more oxygen and fuel, so there is a higher metabolic cost to riding out of the saddle. All of this does not mean we should never lift our butts off the saddle though. There will always be occasions where a short burst out of the saddle is needed, to maintain speed on a short, steep section, to accelerate passed a competitor or just to ease tight muscles or a tender bum. So, we should definitely also do it from time to time in training on hills in order to become more comfortable and efficient in that position. The bulk of our climbing should still be done in the saddle as a triathlete because that is where we spend almost all of our time in a race.
‘Hard on the Hills’ sessions can be as simple or as complicated as we want. We can simply target a certain intensity for the climb and maintain that. That intensity will be determined by where we are in our training progression and what events we are training for.
All the different variations of free-ride hills sessions can be done as a set of hill reps as well. The difference being, on the positive side, hill reps can be more structured and controlled and the time between intervals can be reduced to increase the cardio-vascular impact of the session. On the negative side, they can be a bit more stressful and mentally taxing because the effort is more concentrated and there can be more focus on split times. It is more noticeable if splits start falling away as a result of starting the first few reps too hard than it would be out on the open road where each hill is different and difficult to compare with others. So, depending on where we are physically and mentally in our build up, hill reps can be incorporated into the schedule as strength sessions.
Generally, hill reps are performed up and down the same hill, performing U-turns at each end. They can also be done on a circuit if more recovery is required. Recovery time should not be less than 1:1 but more than likely a little bit longer than the interval time. On the bike there may be the need to freewheel down on the brakes in order to achieve this, especially if the reps are longer, where more speed can be achieved on the downhill. During shorter intervals, the time taken to turn at each end will often compensate for greater descending speed. In running, an easy walk jog back to the start point should take longer than a hard effort up the same climb.
Other strength training methods – There are some other methods that athletes have used to increase the load that the body has to overcome but most range from: too difficult to apply; completely ineffective to downright dangerous. Things like running dragging heavy objects like tyres. May be effective for power sports like sprinting but not useful for endurance athletes. Running with weight vests or ankle and wrist weights. This is more likely to cause injury or, at the very least, flaws to good running mechanics and form.
Cyclists have been known to add weight to their bikes in order to increase the load in training. This has some merit, but it may be more psychological than physical. Training on a good set of heavy, robust wheels and running a fairly low tyre pressure, will be a significant contrast to the lightweight racing wheels pumped to their optimum. The bike will feel light and responsive in comparison but whether there will be in physiological improvements as a result of pushing those heavy hoops up our hills in training, is up for debate.