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Strength Training for Endurance©
by Ken Mierke

While the fastest endurance athletes runners certainly will never win a bodybuilding contest, a well thought out strength training program will absolutely improve endurance performance. Given the duration of endurance events, performance will be limited by the muscles of the extremities, not the cardiovascular system. A fit athlete has an extraordinarily strong cardiovascular system, but the winner is the athlete whose muscles hold up to the demands of racing.

Interestingly, the greatest benefit of strength training for endurance sport is improved economy. Strong athletes can move fast using less energy than weaker runners. So it isn’t that strength training enables you to sustain a higher workload, but that strength training enables you to go fast with a reduced workload.

Injuries are an ever-present risk with endurance training. Beyond using correct technique and developing training schedules that balance volume, intensity, and recovery, strength training is an athlete’s best defense against injury. Strength training increases the strength of all of the connective tissues as well as the muscles.

Athletes who perform serious strength training in the off-season also recover faster from workouts, especially runs. A strong athlete will suffer less micro-trauma – tiny tears in the muscles that cause soreness. Anything that speeds recovery and allows more training volume and intensity without overtraining will improve performance.

Remember that a triathlete is in the weight room to build strength. Endurance athletes are not interested in getting bulky muscles – that would only slow them down. Endurance athletes are also not going to build endurance in the weight room. A very long weight training set is two minutes in duration, not even as long as a half-mile run on the track or a warm up in any endurance sport. On a two hour bike ride at 90 rpm, a cyclist’s legs perform 10,800 repetitions. Which is going to increase endurance better, that or a two-minute weight training set? Stronger muscles will have better endurance, but it is the strength developed in the weight room that increases performance, not endurance from high repetition sets.

Prioritize Intensity Over Volume

An endurance athlete’s strength training workouts should be short duration and high intensity, using a minimum number of sets, slow speed of movement, and relatively heavy weights. The athletes I coach, including world ranked professionals, spend no more than thirty to forty minutes in the weight room two to three times per week. I recommend a single very hard set for each muscle group. Increasing strength is accomplished with high intensity workouts. Increasing volume beyond a single maximal-effort set delays recovery significantly without much additional return. Endurance athletes - who need to spend hours swimming, cycling, running, rowing, etc. – and lift weights - should get in the weight room, work their tails off for a short time, and go home. I have found that this method develops strength very effectively and leaves time and energy for other workouts. Strength training is a very important supplement for a triathlete, but it should always remain a supplement and not dramatically interfere with the primary workouts.

Use Relatively Heavy Weights

To build strength, triathletes need to use relatively heavy weights. Increasing strength requires stimulating muscle fibers that are not used in your normal workouts. Weight training with light to moderate resistance is not effective. Beginning a strength training program using light weights and building to moderate weights is important initially, but once the tissues have adapted to the demands of strength training use heavy weights.

A weight training set should end because the muscle will no longer, even with 100% effort by the athlete, create the force necessary to lift the weight. This should occur before lactic acid builds up in the muscles causing incredible pain. Weight training workouts do require great effort and will cause some pain, but it should be the effort of lifting heavy weights, not the burning of pumping out reps, that causes momentary failure and ends the set.

Keep Movements Slow

I believe that weight training movements should be kept extremely slow. Slow movements minimize momentum and require a more sustained contraction. This is much more effective than accelerating the weight initially, which builds up momentum that allows the muscle to relax. Slow, steady contractions increase strength much more effectively than the contract-relax-contract-relax rhythm of faster movements which feature built-in moments of relaxation due to momentum.

I recommend a style of strength training using repetitions with a six to ten second lifting phase and a four second lowering phase, with no pauses at any time during the set. This is an extreme style which requires tremendous discipline and concentration, but I have found it to be extremely safe, extremely time-efficient, and extremely effective. Great care should be taken to accelerate the weight very deliberately at the beginning of each repetition and to avoid setting the weight down between repetitions. Anything that would cause the working muscle to relax, even for a split-second, should be avoided. The idea of this style of weight training is to completely avoid buildup of momentum and to maintain constant muscular contraction form the beginning of the set to the end.

Selecting the correct weight to be used is critical. Regardless of the style of lifting you prefer, each set should last between forty and eighty seconds. With slow movements this will not produce a large number of repetitions, but duration of contraction is key, not number of repetitions. When you become strong enough that eighty seconds of continuous contraction are possible, you need to increase the weight by about five percent. This will reduce the set duration back toward forty seconds and you gradually build duration back up.

Exercises

I recommend using a single set of a single exercise for each major muscle group. Avoid doing too many sets or redundant exercises, as increasing the volume of the workout reduces the intensity, resulting in less effective stimulation. Extra work will only delay recovery and unnecessarily interfere with swim, bike, and run workouts. I recommend the following exercises using machines that can be found in most fitness centers:

1. Leg Press: Place feet at the very top of the platform, shoulder-width or narrower. Set seat so that knee angle is slightly less than 90 degrees and hip angle is significantly below 90 degrees. Press the platform out slowly until knees are almost straight. Lower slowly until knees are bent to a 90 degree angle and repeat. This exercise works the quadriceps muscles on the front of the thigh and the gluteus maximus muscles of the buttocks. Placing the feet too low on the platform puts most of the stress on the quadriceps and minimizes stress on the glutes.

2a. Seated Leg Curl: Sit on the machine with legs between the two roller pads. Slowly and deliberately pull the heels back toward the buttocks by bending the knees. Keep the toes pulled up toward the knees and avoid pointing the toes. This exercise works the hamstring muscles on the back of the thigh.

2b. Lying Leg Curl: Lie face down on machine with knees lined up with machine's axis of rotation and heels hooked under the roller pads. Slowly bend your knees until your heels come up and touch your butt. Your hips may rise slightly off the machine; don't try to keep them all the way down. During the entire set, keep your toes pulled up toward your knees - don't point your toes or your calf muscles will assist and may fatigue before the target muscles have been effectively worked. This exercise works the hamstrings on the back of the thigh.

3. Leg Extension: Sit with your knees lined up with the machine's axis of rotation and your feet hooked under the roller pads. Slowly straighten your legs until they are completely straight. Make sure to achieve a full 180 degree angle - the last few degrees are very important. Lower the weight stack until your knees are bent to a 90 degree angle, without setting the weight down, and repeat.

4a. Calf Raise : Sit on a leg press machine with only the balls of your feet on the platform. Straighten your legs and lock out the knees (unless you feel pain or have a history of knee problems). Keeping the knees straight, lower the weight by dropping your heels. You should feel a deep stretch in the calves. Slowly point your toes, trying to shift your weight onto the big toe of each foot. Don't let your feet roll to the outside.

4b. 1-Legged Standing Calf Raise: Stand on one foot on the edge of a stair with the ball of your foot on the stair and your arch and heel off the stair. Drop your heel to get a full stretch of the calf muscles, then slowly push up on to your toes and extend your ankle. As you push up, try to roll your weight on to the big toe as much as possible.

5a. Seated Row: Sit in front of a low pulley with your feet braced against the machine. Grip the handle with your palms facing each other. Keeping the elbows straight, slowly pull the shoulders back (squeeze your shoulder blades together and stick your chest out) without raising them toward your ears. Only when your shoulders are pulled all the way back, slowly bend your elbows and pull back until the elbows are well behind the torso. Lower the weight until the arms and shoulders are fully extended and repeat.

5b. Lat Pull: Using a palms-away grip about six inches wider than shoulder width, slowly pull the bar down to the base of your neck where it meets the upper chest. Allow the bar to slowly rise back to the starting position and repeat for the designated number of repetitions.

6. Bench Press: Lie on your back with the bar lined up with your shoulders. Grip the bar about 6" wider than shoulder width. Lower the bar to your chest and slowly press upward. Slowly lower and repeat.

7a. Lateral Raise: On a machine, place your elbows inside the pads. Or, stand with dumbbells hanging at your sides. Slowly raise your arms out to your sides. Make sure to rotate your arms from the shoulders, instead of "shrugging" the shoulders up toward the ears. This exercise works the outside of the shoulder.

7b. Shoulder Press: Grip a barbell using a palms-away grip about four inches wider than shoulder width. Slowly push the barbell upward until arms are fully extended overhead. Slowly lower the bar to your upper chest and repeat.

8a. Low Back: Sit in the machine with your hips pressed all the way back against the lower pad. Put both belts across your hips and legs and tighten as much as possible. Cross your arms on your chest and press back slowly against the upper pad with your upper back and shoulders until you feel a stopper. Lower the weight, rounding your back as you come forward. If you cannot hit the stopper, you are using too much weight. Make sure that the belts are tight enough that your hips cannot move forward or up during the movement.

8b. Dead Lift: Stand with a barbell directly in front of you. Grip the bar at shoulder width. Stand up, keeping your arms straight and lifting the bar to thigh level. Slowly lower the weight to the floor and repeat.

9a. Leg Lifts: Lie on your back with your arms on the floor at your sides. Very slowly raise your legs and bring your knees in to your chest, bending the knees as you lift. At the end of the movement, concentrate on rotating your pelvis upward as much as possible. During the entire movement, concentrate on squeezing the abdominal muscles, not just completing the movement.

9b. Crunches: Lie on your back and cross your arms on your chest. Very slowly roll your shoulders forward and upward while keeping your lower back in contact with the floor. Pause at the top and return. As with the leg-lifts, concentrate on squeezing the abdominal muscles, not just completing the movement

9c. Sit-Ups with Twist: Lay on your back on the floor. Put your feet under the edge of a couch or have a friend hold them down. Lock your fingers behind your head. Bring your right elbow up to your left knee, go back down, and bring your left elbow up to your right knee. Repeat. Additional resistance can be created by holding a weight behind your head or using an incline board.

10a. Shoulder Internal Rotation: (for swimmers and triathletes) Attach a stretch-cord to a doorknob or other stationary object at about waist height. Stand far enough away to create optimal resistance. Face 90 degrees away from the doorknob, so that it is directly to your right. Hold the stretch-cord in your right hand with your elbow tucked firmly against your side and bent at 90 degrees so that the forearm is horizontal and pointing toward the doorknob. Maintaining a 90 degree elbow angle, slowly rotate the upper arm, moving the hand away from the doorknob in an arc. Make sure to keep the elbow locked against your side and move only the forearm and hand. Repeat slowly for one minute. Resistance should be great enough that completing the final repetition is very difficult. Repeat with the left arm.

10b. Shoulder Internal Rotation: (for swimmers and triathletes) Grip a lat bar so that you have a 90-degree bend at both the elbow and shoulder. Begin with your upper arms horizontal and your lower arms vertical (pointing up). Rotate your hand and the bar forward until your lower arms are pointing down. Your elbows should remain in place, with the upper arm only rotating. This works small, weak muscles, so start very light.

11. Shoulder External Rotation: (for swimmers and triathletes) Attach a stretch-cord to a doorknob or other stationary object at about waist height. Stand far enough away to create optimal resistance. Face 90 degrees away from the doorknob, so that it is directly to your left. Hold the stretch-cord in your right hand with your elbow tucked firmly against your side and bent at 90 degrees so that the forearm is horizontal and pointing toward the doorknob. Maintaining a 90 degree elbow angle, slowly rotate the upper arm, moving the hand away from the doorknob in an arc. Make sure to keep the elbow locked against your side and move only the forearm and hand. Repeat slowly for one minute. Resistance should be great enough that completing the final repetition is very difficult.

12. Hip Flexors: Use an ankle strap and a low pulley machine to work the hip flexors. Face away from the machine and lean forward on a chair or something similar for stability. Begin the exercise with the strap on your right ankle and with the right leg fully extended behind you. Slowly drive the right knee forward, allowing the knee to bend. Ideally the range of motion at the hip will vary from about 45 degrees behind you to 45 degrees in front of you. Allow the leg to stretch out behind you again and repeat. Work this muscle particularly hard as it is important in all three triathlon segments.


Ken Mierke, developer of Evolution Running®, author of Lean for a Lifetime: An Athlete’s Guide to Losing the Last Ten Pounds and The Triathlete’s Guide to Run Training, is a two-time world champion triathlete and a top coach.  Ken can be reached at Info@EvolutionRunning.co

 
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