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Strength Training for Endurance

Strength training, when properly incorporated into an endurance training program, can increase the work capacity of the athlete, enabling her/him to run longer and faster without breaking down.  However, the amount and type of strength training that an athlete should do will vary from event to event, athlete to athlete, and season to season.  When determining what components of strength training to include, the coach and athlete must make an honest assessment of the athlete’s short and long term performance goals, the athlete’s training and injury history, and the athlete’s current strengths and weaknesses.

In a foundational article and USATF coaching education summit Coach Michael Smith outlined the essential elements of endurance training: 

“Stamina and speed are the two most important elements to be addressed in the training of distance athletes.  However, in order to maximize the training of stamina and speed, one must first create a physical platform from which to support the work volumes associated with appropriate and successful training.”

In a comprehensive training program, each of the essential elements of endurance – stamina, speed, strength, suppleness, and skill – should be developed to compliment one another.
Essential Elements to Endurance Training according to Coach Michael Smith
Essential Elements of Endurance Training according to Coach Michael Smith

Each component of endurance training is vital to effective race execution.  Given that all events from 800m – 100M are aerobic, the bulk of any endurance athlete’s training should be stamina based.  However, as we discussed previously, stamina work, alone, will not suffice.  It should be coupled with varying degrees of strength, speed, skill, and suppleness work to fully optimize the potential of the athlete.

Like stamina, strength is complex.  The type of strength work that you do should be determined by the specific demands of your goal event and the workload you intend to sustain in preparation for the event.  For our purposes, we will break strength down into seven related and complimentary classifications that build upon one another.  These are the classifications Coach Smith addressed in his USATF Endurance Coaching presentation.

 CLASSIFICATIONS OF STRENGTH
  •  Preventive Strength
  • Core Strength
  • Functional Strength
  • Strength/Muscular Endurance
  • Elastic Strength
  • Power
  • Absolute Strength
While each type of strength work has its merits, the laws of specificity and economy dictate that you should focus on the areas specific to the demands of your goal race.  The right type and combination of strength training at the right time in your training cycle can reduce injure rates and increase performance, but the opposite can also be true – strength training if haphazardly incorporated into an already demanding training regime can limit performance and ultimately lead to overtraining and/or injury.

Regardless of the race distance, every training plan can benefit by incorporating specific forms of strength training into the running routine.

Classifications of Strength by Frequency
Classifications of Strength w/ Suggested Exercises & Frequencies

The diagram above lists the classifications of strength based on importance and frequency.  If you are looking to add strength training to your routine, begin at the top with preventive strength and then work your way down.  You may already be touching on some of these areas of strength training as part of your routine.

Like stamina and speed work, it is important to incorporate various types of strength work into a daily and weekly routine; however, it is imperative that you start with the basics – preventive strength, core, functional strength, muscular endurance, and elastic strength – before jumping into the areas of power and absolute strength.

PREVENTIVE STRENGTH

Preventive strength training can be incorporated into a daily warm up or cool down routine and can also be performed throughout the day.  The purpose of preventive strength training, as the name suggests, is to prevent the body from breaking down by strengthening areas of weakness.  If the athlete can train consistently without breaking down, the work capacity will increase.  Preventive strength should target areas of weakness and overuse like the IT band, patellar tendon, shins, Achilles, and plantar fascia.  These areas can be strengthened through warm up routines that may include walking or running barefoot in the grass or sand, spelling the alphabet with one’s tows, toe raises or toe walks, heel dips or heel walks, and variations of these exercises made simply by rotating the toes or heels in or out.  There are also hip, lower-leg, and feet stretches/strengthening exercises that use resistance bands, balls, or ropes.

CORE STRENGTH

Core work, while probably the most common form of strength training performed by runners, may be the most misunderstood of the strength categories because many overemphasize the abs and under-emphasize the rest of the core – particularly the gluts, lumbar, and psoas.  A comprehensive core plan should be three-dimensional emphasizing each of the planes of the body – the transverse plane, the sagital plane, and the frontal plane.  Core work should emphasize posture, support, and efficiency over sculpting.  If you are eating right, running enough, and following a regular 3-D core routine, the aesthetics will take care of themselves.

A comprehensive core routine should include more than just crunches.  In fact, there are plenty of exercises that are of greater value - front planks, back planks, side planks, pelvic thrusts, pull ups, and leg raises (front, back, and side).  Additional work can be done with physio balls and medicine balls.  There are a lot of core exercises out there.  The key is to work each plane and to do it regularly.  If you are short on time and don’t know how to squeeze it in, just keep your yoga mat and foam roller handy and stretch/roll/do core while you watch the nightly news or your favorite TV show.  It doesn’t take much time to see improvements in this area.  The key is consistency.

FUNCTIONAL STRENGTH

Functional strength work is simply an extension of core work.  Functional strength encompasses what is often referred to as circuit training and includes traditional body weight exercises like push ups, chin ups, pull ups, lunges, squats and other variations of these exercises that include medicine balls, bars, and plates.  The purpose of functional strength is to increase the body’s capacity to stabilize itself or sustain its own weight.  Adding weight to these exercises should not be the goal, but rather executing high volumes with proper form.  Once the quality and quantity reach a high level, additional weight or resistance in the form of bands, medicine balls, bars or plates can be added.


Below are two workouts that can be done most anywhere with minimal additional equipment.  They can be used to develop a foundation upon which further work can later be done.  I suggest alternating between the two workouts and doing each twice a week after easy runs.


If the video won't load for you, follow this link:
ADAPT Training - Strength for Endurance Workout #1


If the video won't load for you, follow this link:
ADAPT Training - Strength for Endurance Workout #2


STRENGTH & MUSCULAR ENDURANCE

Strength endurance is the beginning of when we do what most people think of when they think of strength training.  This is when you begin adding weight to the exercises you are already performing with little or no weight – step ups, squats, lunges, and running arms.   The reason this is placed in this order is because due to the relatively light weight added and the fact that these are exercises that have already been practiced it is possible to do muscular endurance work regularly without much concern for overdoing them.

I would also include cross training, like cycling, Nordic skiing, swimming, etc. into this area because it works muscle groups at a low intensities with some resistance, with a high frequency.  Those who cross train either in the off season or throughout the year often view it as both preventative and strengthening work.

ELASTIC STRENGTH

In terms of benefits to overall running performance, elastic strength should be listed closer to the top of this list but it is listed at this position because elastic strength work should be limited to 2-3 times per week because it can be taxing and can lead to overuse if adequate down time is not taken between sessions.   Elastic strength includes bounding, sprint drills, jumping jacks, jumping rope, box jumps, lunges (depending on rate & weight), and other forms of plyometrics.  Even hill repeats (depending on the intensity, duration, and rest period) could fall into this area.

Hurdle and hip mobility drills also fit in this area.  While these drills overlap with the suppleness component of training that we will discuss later, they are activities that can and should be performed regularly to not only keep you loose, but also as a means of strengthening potentially weak areas (IT Band) and ultimately preventing injury.  If you don’t frequent a track regularly or don’t feel ready to take on a hurdle, just find something knee height or higher that you can step over.  I often do hurdle drills over a cable fence at the trail head I frequent before and after my runs.  This saves me a trip to the track and is actually a really good way of both engaging my hips before exercising on the hills and also stretching them after a hard effort.  This allows me to do a couple of multidirectional hurdle drills each week and I don’t even have to schedule a trip to the track.

Elastic strength exercises can be done as part of a warm up and/or cool down routine before and/or after a run or workout.

Here is a link to an elastic strength routine that I recommend.

POWER & ABSOLUTE STRENGTH

For our purposes I combine the areas of power and absolute strength because they have so much in common.  For greatest results, both should be performed when fully rested and only after you have established a strong foundation by incorporating the prerequisite components of strength training (all of the above) into your routine.  Power and strength work, if incorporated should only be included two to three times per week to enable the body to fully recover and absorb the training between sessions.

These exercises are performed with fewer reps, higher resistance, and more recovery.  Before performing the next set you want to have your heart rate and breathing back down to normal (which can take some time).

The famous Renato Canova /Brad Hudson short hill bursts fall under this category.  These are sets of short/steep hill sprints that range from 8-10 seconds, but are at an all-out effort (i.e. power or maximal strength).  Walk back down the hill after each burst.  Catch your breath.  Repeat.  These are meant to activate and build power and strength in your power train.  I find this exercise very effective because it actually replicates the full range of motion and simulate what may actually be encountered in a race.

Also in this category fall the traditional leg lifts of squats, cleans, and push press with high weight/resistance and few reps.  While performing these lifts has merit even for marathoners and ultramarathoners, in my opinion they are also the most risky.  If performed improperly – without proper form, with too much weight, or without a spotter – injury is likely.

To some, the potential benefits warrant the risk.  For others, they feel like they can get what they need by running a lot of hills and doing preventative, core, and functional strength work.  I don’t find it surprising that many of the world’s top middle distance runners incorporate many if not all of these classifications of strength into their yearly, monthly, and weekly routines.  However, I also don’t find it surprising when they don’t show up to the line healthy due to an injury incurred in the weight room – usually a hernia or a slipped disk.  (If you read the article linked to Brad Hudson above you will note that his athletes do not follow a traditional weight training routine.  One of his former athletes, Dathan Ritzenhein, was relatively healthy under this program, but has since moved to a more power intensive program and has spent more time on the sidelines due to injury - and in the case of his current injury it happened in the weight room.)

INDIVIDUALIZING STRENGTH TRAINING TO THE ATHLETE

Personally, I try to incorporate a little bit of each classification of strength into my own training and that of my athletes.  I encourage many of my athletes to touch upon each of these areas throughout the training cycle.  I try to individualize the strength training routine to the demands of the event, the experience (training age, actual age, injury history, strengths, weaknesses) of the athlete.

In most cases, if a choice must be made between running or doing a strength training routine in the weight room, I will choose the run and just try and do what I can from the outdoor gym.  Incorporating even a little bit of strength training will still benefit your overall well-being so I advocate for a modest amount (even if it is merely preventative, functional, and/or core work) for everyone.

In my personal case, I have a tendency to bulk up – particularly in the upper body (chest & shoulders) even by doing too many push ups and pull ups without additional weight - so I don’t spend much time doing forced reps with anything above my waist.  I've lived in flat areas most of my life and know that I need more strength in my legs for long mountain races so I go out of my way to incorporate hills a few times a week on both easy and long days.  I commute on my bike as a means of trying to strengthen my legs and prepare them for the fatigue they will face in a race.  I do step ups and lunge matrices as well as plyometrics & sprint drills, but it is rare that you will find me in a squat rack doing forced reps.
Why?  I’ve hurt myself trying to do too much in the past and I’ve had too many athletes (usually males) hurt themselves showing off in the weight room by doing too much that it just isn’t worth the risk to me.  

That being said, there are a lot of people who don’t have my genes (a 150-160 lb guy trapped in a 200 lb frame) who won’t bulk up or could actually benefit by putting a little meat on their bones.

Women, in particular, can benefit even more than men from heavy lifting.  Hormonally there is less likelihood that they will bulk up and lifting or pushing to exhaustion can stimulate the release of hormones that are naturally more abundant in men’s bodies, but require serious exertion for them to manifest themselves in women’s bodies.  These hormones aid in recovery and the development of strength, speed, and endurance.

*Many of the ideas and concepts in this post have been greatly influenced by the article linked above and additional presentations online and in person by Coach Smith.

descending in altras Jacob Puzey is a multiple time national champion and world record holder who coaches athletes from all over the world of all ages, abilities, and ambitions to help them achieve their goals at all distances and surfaces via www.peakrunperformance.com


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