So many of us know deep down that we would be better cyclists, runners, swimmers, triathletes, etc. if we hit the weights in addition to our sport specific training. Yet when it comes down to it we never really make the time or we go so sporadically that we don’t experience any gains from it. Or worse, we do it so completely backwards that we experience unusual fatigue and or injury instead of gains. Enough is enough. Lets understand these principles in an easy way so that anyone can begin adding strength training to their routine for legitimate and improved results.
I’ll start with a little background into my personal experience and history. I started out in 2010 with triathlons. I have competed in 8 Ironman Triathlons and countless 70.3, Olympic, and sprint distance triathlons. I eventually transitioned into CrossFit towards the end of my triathlon experience. I became a certified CrossFit Endurance Coach. My last 3 Ironman triathlons I completed in the top 1/3 of the finishers and only ever did crossfit (i.e. strength training). While I don’t recommend that approach it was an experiment that proved strength training (and cardio through crossfit W.O.D.s) was sufficient to get me across the Ironman finish line with a “decent” time. No one will ever be Kona bound without sport specific training, period, end of story. However, the crossfit endurance strength training proved to be very effective. I later moved into a weird period of strength and endurance training that was 100% geared towards the Navy Seal Kokoro program. That was incredible! After that I moved into ultra running for a short spell mixed with crossfit endurance. Then I moved into 100% cycling with no strength training at all. And most recently I have transitioned into ultra cycling with zero strength training.
My endurance and cycling is better than it has probably ever been. Yet I feel weak. My core strength is gone. My neck, shoulders and back can often fatigue, and by fatigue I mean start to really hurt. I have suffered from Shermer’s neck and more. I know I am missing out on the benefits of strength training. Over the past 8 years I have been on and off again with my strength training. I have felt the difference between over training with weights and not training at all with weights. The results or lack there of are easily noticeable.
I have signed up for a 2 person Race Across America (RAM) team with my amazing friend Tommy Liddell. We race in June for 2019. The winter season is quickly approaching and I for one want to better utilize this season to help increase my power, strength, and balance as an athlete, especially in light of the significant challenge of RAAM. With this in mind I began devouring everything I could get my hands on in regards to proper strength training for endurance athletes. There are so many different schools of thought floating around out there. I can say that the internet is full of advice, and not all of it is even remotely good. The old school way of dealing with strength training is really whacked.
Lets break it down into simple to understand terms and principles. FYI – of all the internet, books, and personal experiences I have had there are 3 stand out articles I will draw from. They are cited below.
In it’s most simplest sense, strength is the ability of your muscles to move stuff. In the case of endurance athletes it is your ability to move yourself. Move yourself with your own two legs running, or move your pedals in a way to produce speed on a bicycle, or your arms in a way to swim.
For some old school thinkers muscle is just extra bulk. Just wasted watts. We have all heard that we “need to lose a few lbs and get down to race weight.” In many cases that is simply wrong. At a certain point there is a such thing as too much bulk where your VO2 Max per kilogram of muscle caps out. There is a ceiling so to speak. Studies have demonstrated that aerobic capacity peaks out at 180 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of arm and leg muscle mass (see Ben Greenfield article).
But beware, muscle mass isn’t always equal to what we know as strength. I know first hand what it is like to carry around extra weight. It sucks. It makes me much slower than I need to be on any climbing section of a race. However, my body fat % is the first culprit of this offense, not my muscle mass. In general, most all of us endurance athletes can stand for a bit more lean muscle mass. Or at least more strength in the lean muscles mass we already have.
It is important to note that we we talk about strength training we don;t mean that you should bulk up or even increase your muscle fibers (build new muscle). While for those of you who are skinny little rails that may be true, for those of us who have decent muscle mass the goal is actually to train our bodies to recruit multiple muscle motor units regardless of whether they are fast or slow twitch (see Ben Greenfield article and How to Strength train for Cycling).
So strength can be more muscle, and it can be a better trained signal to recruit more of our muscle motor units like they are on tap or on instant demand. This translates to more explosive force, more long term endurance with prolonged fatigue when your competition or buddies start dropping. Strength is not necessarily Arnold Schwarzenegger (although he is certainly strong!) – as an endurance athlete it is tapping into and recruiting multiple motor units. For some of us that means we must also build these muscle motor units. yes, I am talking to you skinny little guys who fly up those hills. You can be faster and go longer with more strength… and possibly a bit more muscle mass.
Dealing With Fatigue
This is by far the most common fear many of endurance athletes face. “How do I go and crush my workouts on my bike (or running, swimming, etc.) and have energy to lift weights?”
Or, “How can I actually get quality results from my specific workout on my bike (or my run, or in the pool, etc.) if I am too tried from my lifting session?”
I get it. I remember when I hired my first cycling coach I was told not to lift at all. So I stopped it right then and there. My coach told me that I would be robbing myself of my workouts that were panned for my growth if I started also lifting weights. I was told that I wouldn’t get the quality of the workout and I would just fatigue and maybe even get injured for over doing it. I was reassured that the strength training I needed I could just complete while on the bike. I was curious as to how that would work so I gave it a shot. Short story, it didn’t work at all.
I know the coach meant well, and frankly, the timing of when you do your strength training is critical to it’s effectiveness. If I hammered all of those cycling workouts and then added my own strength training on top of it I may be over doing it and then I would surely suffer from fatigue and my growth would be caped. In that sense the coach was absolutely correct. Yet I knew something was off. It just didn’t feel right. I have been used to serious strength training and for a significant period of a couple of years it was almost exclusively what I had done for any sort of fitness. When I cut it out all together I felt the effects immediately. I began to lose strength pretty immediately. My coach would have been better to coach me in the timing of my strength training carefully knowing what endurance training to cut back and when to add my weight training. Most coaches and endurance athletes still struggle with old school thoughts centered around the fatigue issue of strength training and therefore completely miss the benefits or misapply them. Keeping weight lifting as a routine would have helped my over all progression immensely.
Some important and landmark research back in 1999 shows that maximal strength training on top of an endurance cycling training program had zero negative physiological effects on the athletes’ endurance factors such as maximum oxygen consumption and lactate threshold. In fact, it showed that contrary, improvements all around from strength training (see the How to Strength train for Cycling). Over doing it is still a potential problem, and every coach knows this. The study shows that you must know when to add your strength training and what volume to add in order to experience proper growth and performance without impairment.
So When Do I Do My Strength Training?
The short answer is always. That is right. Strength training should be done all year. The magic is to know when to adjust the volume – this depends on when you have an off season and when you are in season, and what your primary race is versus all the other less important races.
By far the biggest gains you can experience is during an off season. Yes an off season. Just the words “off season” used to sound like a weak excuse not to ride my bike. I have never really taken an off season. But this year is different. I intend to fully execute an incredible off season with intentional and well planned out strength training mixed in with my on going endurance training; the endurance training of course will be cut back a bit. The Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology” found that strength training for 3x per week for 5 weeks was an excellent starting point. That amount of strength training means you will have to reduce your regular sport specific endurance training – meaning that an off season is the optimal time to build your strength without impairing your endurance performance (How to Strength train for Cycling).
In 2009 the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning” concluded that replacing a portion of a cyclists’ endurance training with strength training yielded increased power and better time trial performance (How to Strength train for Cycling). In other words, during your regular season the proper amount of strength training is still highly recommended.
In summary, the experience of the great endurance coaches out there (not the ones who say you shouldn’t strength train at all during season) agree on the following:
- Off Season: 2-3 times per week.
- In Season: 1-2 times per week.
A well written summary on the proper timing of strength training is here:
“Now that you have a basic idea of the yearly overview of strength training for endurance athletes, it will be important to understand how to integrate strength training into a typical week of endurance training, and there are three basic timing rules to follow as you set up your week:
- Timing Rule #1: Prioritize endurance training such as swim, bike and run workouts. If you’re pressed for time, you simply must train as specifically as possible. Therefore, if your day calls for a swim, bike or run session and a strength training session, perform the swim, bike or run session first, followed by the strength training session, either immediately after, or later in the day (14). There are additional benefits to this rule. The first benefit is that you will engage in better biomechanics because your muscles will not be pre-fatigued or broken down by strength training. The second is benefit is that research has shown a higher calorie-burning response when strength training is preceded by cardio, rather than vice versa. The only exception to this rule is the occasional need to train in a pre-fatigued state, in which case a short, tempo swim, bike or run session could be performed immediately after a strength training session.
- Timing Rule #2: Space strength training workouts that target the same muscle groups by at least 48 hours (12). Muscles will take at least 48 hours to recover between strength training sessions, so if, for example, a session includes barbell squats, and a subsequent weight training session includes dumbbell lunges, then space these sessions by at least 48 hours since they train similar muscle groups. This is only necessary if the workouts actually contain exercises that target the same muscle group. Otherwise, you can do strength training for different muscle groups on consecutive days.
- Timing Rule #3: Perform short and frequent or long and infrequent strength training workouts. In an a frequent scenario, two to three 20-45 minute weight training workouts can be performed on a weekly basis (3). In an infrequent scenario, a single, 50-70 minute full body strength training session can be performed on a weekly basis. There is absolutely no need to for an endurance athlete to strength train more than three days per week, especially if you’re following the Ancestral Athlete rules of performing HIIT and Greasing the Groove. But if you’re weak and need to build strength, I recommend you incorporate three strength training sessions per week, and then 1-2 sessions per week for continued maintenance.”
What Lifting Should I Do?
Great question. Hands down the best thing you can do is learn the proper lifting techniques for using free weights. Free weights will engage the entire body and other muscle groups in a way that can improve balance, increase strength, and more. A few coaching sessions with a good trainer can create an opportunity for you to be independent for ever more on lifting free weights the right way. I highly recommend it.That being said here are the exercises that have been found to benefit the endurance athlete the most. Notice there are some plyometric and body weight recommendations as well for building that power:
- Dead Lift
- Box Jump
- Roman Dead Lift (Barbell Row)
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Bench Press
- Pull Up
- Push Press
- Lunges (can also add weight and lunge with a barbell)
The old school philosophy of low weight and higher reps has been refuted by all the latest research as well. The best recipe is as follows:
For Strength 1-5 reps per set, 3-5 sets.
- Longer rest periods, heavier weights
- No lifting to failure or for burn/pump
- Best for endurance athletes seeking to build strength
(see the How to Strength train for Cycling article).
Strength training is absolutely necessary for improvement. Do it all year. Know how much to do and when to do it, but DO IT. Take an off season and use it wisely to maintain your current level of endurance fitness as best you can while building your endurance base and adding strength at the same time. During your season hit the weights 1x per week to keep the strength maintained going. Lower reps, higher weights, and 3-5 sets is the magic formula.
Get out there and crush it!
Ben Dodge, Esq., Endurance/Ultra Cyclist
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