Strength Training for the Distance athlete. Part 3
A facet of training that is even less understood than speed training by the distance athlete is the benefit of strength training for improved performance. Typically we see the endurance athlete performing circuit type strength sessions believing that this "strength training" will increase performance.
Posted Tuesday, 21 October, 2003
There are a few issues that need to be addressed here:
Circuit training (low weight, high reps) really doesn't have much of an effect upon strength (maybe a bit in the first few weeks - as indicated by the muscle soreness that you will probably feel when you try to get out of bed the next day!). Often the endurance athlete thinks that by performing high reps that this somehow simulates what they do in their actual performance. Let us look at this scenario more closely.
Typically the endurance strength session consists of several sets of exercises (eg squats) with a light weight and the performance of anywhere from 20-50 repetitions per set. The athlete might complete 4 sets for a maximum total of say 200 repetitions. In a running environment 400m reps/steps would be equivalent to less than 400m of running!!!
So what is the distance athlete developing when they complete such a strength routine? Mainly it is further anaerobic adaptations to the muscular system. Whilst this has some benefits, it is not really strength training and could probably be equally if not more successfully developed performing hill sprints (at least you are simulating the movement of running in this example).
So what are the benefits of a structured strength routine and what should the distance athlete look to be doing in a gym environment?
Firstly the benefits can be broken down into several components:
- Resisting collapse each time the foot hits the ground. Eccentric forces (the forces that occur at each foot contact) are very high in distance running and the stronger the athlete in the appropriate areas, the less collapse at contact, the quicker off the ground and the faster they can move into the second phase of the stride.
- Pushoff takes place at the end of each contact. The stronger the pushoff the longer the stride meaning the athlete is covering more ground with each step therefore needing less steps to complete a distance (less energy expended).
- Strength through the athlete's mid-torso will also assist in maintaining efficient running technique throughout the race.
From my experience with endurance athletes, pelvic stability is generally pretty bad and performance improvement can be substantial with a good general program for this region.
The types of exercise routines that work well include:
- Swiss Ball - Varied crunch & rotational routines.
- Medicine Ball - Varied crunch, balance and rotational routines.
- Loaded abdominal exercises (by this I mean making the exercise quite difficult and/or adding a weight to the exercise and keeping the repetitions low).
Another typical situation in a gymnasium is where the athlete will train the upper body and lower body with low repetitions and using weight but when it comes to the mid-torso, they opt for high repetitions and no weight! The core is made of the same muscle that exists in the arms and legs and will respond really well to weight loading.
In all of the above mid-torso examples, the number of repetitions performed are less than 15-20 (some of the hard exercises will have repetitions of only 6-8 - eg hanging leg raise).
In a typical session I would look at having the athlete perform up to 6-8 sets of mid-torso exercises (using a combination of the above examples).
Looking at the other parts of the body, I am also a firm believer in performing what I term Core or Multi-joint exercises (those which use many body parts).
This is beneficial for several reasons:
- Core exercises uses more of the body resulting in less time needed to complete a full workout.
- Core exercises are more specific to real life exercise (where you don't isolate a single muscle group such as that which typically takes place in the gym environment).
- Core exercises lead to greater overall strength gains which is the reason the athlete is in the gym in the first place.
The sorts of exercises I would like to see the endurance athlete perform are:
- Squat/lunge/stepup type exercises.
- Pushup, bench press type exercises.
- Seated row, bent over row, chin type exercises.
These exercises work many muscles/joints and lead to the best overall strength gains.
Other variables to be considered during your strength routine are as follows:
- Keep the session to a maximum of 60 minutes (any more and quality will suffer).
- Combine exercises using different body parts and go from one exercise to the other (eg. Squat with pushups). This will decrease time needed in the gym.
- Keep the repetitions b/w 6-15 (start with the higher range and as strength improves move down towards the lower end).
- Perform 1-2 warmup sets and 3-4 main sets for each exercise.
- If you have the availability of facility, perform a circuit but using the above repetition/set structure.
- Try to complete at a minimum two strength sessions per week (3 is even better).
- Change the exercises you are using each month to keep mentally stimulated and to ensure that strength gains continue (athletes can quickly plateau if they do the same exercises month after month).
Once the athlete has gained a good strength base, then they can start looking at the more intense training routines that make up power training - which I will address in the next article.
Adrian Faccioni is the Managing Director of GPSports Systems, a sport performance evaluation company who have developed GPS/heart rate capture technology - www.gpsports.com.