Dec 7, 2011

Strength Training for Endurance Athletes Part I:

By Jacob Goodin 

The law of specificity states that to get better in any activity, you must practice precisely the skills that apply to that activity.  So for us endurance types it only makes sense that to accomplish our competitive goals we must spend a great deal of time running, riding, or swimming.  The more time we spend on each activity, the better (read: faster) we become, and it continues on in a predictable linear ascension forever, right? 


Cruel reality has taught us that these naïve expectations are idealistic at best.  We pull hamstrings and endure shin splints and patellar tendonitis, all of which can set back the training calendar for weeks, months.  Some of us spend more time rehabbing and cross-training than actually doing our sport. 

So what is missing?

The endurance athlete’s body can be seen as a marriage of two inter-reliant types of components: the mechanical—muscle, cartilage, and bone; and the physiological—heart, lungs, and blood vessels.  The mechanical components are responsible for forward propulsion, while the physiological components serve as the engine that drives that propulsion.  Fortunately, it is much harder to injure or overuse most of our physiological workings.  I’ve yet to hear anyone say “Man, I think I strained my capillaries on that last interval.”  We all are physiologically capable of lacing up and hammering hard ten-milers a couple of days in a row, maybe even three.  But your achilles tendon isn’t.  Or maybe it’s your hamstring.  Either way the weak link is bound to be muscle, tendon, or bone, not pericardium.

The mechanical components of our bodies take much longer to respond to the cycle of stress and recovery than do the physiological.  What then, can we do to bring our soft tissue and bone to the same level of fitness as our heart and lungs?  What, as I asked earlier, is missing?

A balanced, periodized general strength program.  Resistance training is the best way to improve the quality and strength of the body’s mechanical systems.  Think of it as insurance against injury.  A good strength program will weed out inefficiencies and target imbalances, raising the durability of the athlete.

There are those coaches or athletes who claim that strength training is unnecessary for endurance athletes because it makes them “bulky” or is just a waste of time.  We wont address the first myth (protein turnover is too high for much hypertrophy), but would counter the second by saying that although general strength training isn’t sport-specific, it allows the endurance athlete to spend more time training in a sport specific way by preventing injury.  If the hamstrings and calves are well-conditioned through eccentric strengthening, then risk of hamstring strains and achilles tendonitis drops dramatically.  If the four quadriceps and three gluteals are strong and the motor programming and coordination to use them well has been trained, then patellar tendonitis will often subside and go away all-together.

To recap, non-sport-specific strength training helps endurance athletes by allowing them to stay injury free and thus handle a greater load of endurance-specific training.  We must keep our mechanical systems two steps ahead of the physiological systems, and strength training is the best way to do this.  Part II of this article will discuss strength training as it affects the primary determinants of distance running performance.

*A couple examples of professional coaches and collegiate runners who utilize general strength training.  

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Rutherford OM, Greig CA, Sargeant AJ, et al. Strength training and power output: transference effects in the human quadriceps muscle.
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