The following article was written by Daniel Pedraza, BS, CSCS. Danny is a coach for Liberty Performance Training and works with a broad range of athletes and people, including champion triathlete Maria Kilgore. Follow him on Instagram @damnnndaniel89 for insight on his training methodologies and practices!
The Importance of Strength and Conditioning for Endurance Athletes
There you are on the starting line for one of the biggest races of your life. You have been training for months now with only one objective in mind: victory. You have competed in dozens of other races and have never been in better cardio shape in your entire life. You almost feel bad for the other competitors running against you. A sense of calm and overwhelming confidence envelops you and helps to settle your pre-race jitters because you have been putting in more distance than anyone else around you. BANG! The race begins and you settle in to the blistering pace that you have been training at and before you know it here comes the finish line! You did not dominate the other racers like you thought and not only are you feeling a few injuries coming on but you just could not seem to keep up with their “kick” towards the end of the race. What happened?
While this is a slightly romanticized and exaggerated example of what can happen on race day, it is a fairly commonplace ordeal that every competitor feels at some point in their endurance racing career. They may feel that their conditioning is on point, they have upped their mileage and can go on forever and yet they struggle to keep up with their fellow competitors who are similarly conditioned. One of the major facets that is commonly overlooked by endurance athletes and coaches alike is the pivotal role that a proper resistance training program can play. Many runners, swimmers, bikers, and triathletes are simply not strong enough to compete at the level they would like, or they often suffer from muscular imbalances which can severely limit their athletic potential. Not only can this cause decreased performance in their sport, but can also lead to injuries down the road that can often be avoided or, at the very least mitigated.
More Miles, Better Results?
The most obvious way to get better and more competitive for a distance event is to keep adding more and more distance to your routine right? While the thought process behind this training methodology makes sense, it also is inherently flawed from a scientific and athletic stance. The thing to understand is that your cardiovascular health and endurance ability of the muscles involved absolutely needs to be at a level above that of the competition, that is, if you are preparing for a 10k race you need to be able to cover that 10k distance with little to no trouble. While being able to cover 20k or 50k with ease will absolutely allow you to set a more difficult pace for the 10k in question, being able to cover more distance can only increase your speed by so much. Speed will ALWAYS have some benefit from increased strength no matter the distance and without having a (pardon the pun) strong resistance training foundation, you can never reach the fastest times that you are capable of.
The important thing to remember here is that I am NOT knocking the importance of a proper conditioning and distance program. Resistance training alone will never be able to prepare you for an endurance event but there are a number of common misconceptions regarding strength training and the ability to maintain proper cardiovascular conditioning. Many people worry that the growth and focus of the different muscle types will have little to no effect, or that the potential muscle and weight gain from a resistance training program will only be an added burden for you to carry. While it IS harder to do an endurance event with a higher body weight in general, there is a huge difference between carrying excess weight (superfluous body weight and body fat), and carrying more FUNCTIONAL weight (more muscle due to resistance training). The former makes most activities harder to do while the latter can be extremely beneficial to balance, speed, and explosiveness.
The other misconception is that because endurance events typically recruit slow twitch muscle fibers (Type I) there is no reason to grow your fast twitch muscle fibers (Type II). The problem with that is that at almost no point in your life are you exclusively using one type of muscle fiber for any single event. It’s true that the primary muscle fibers vary for different events and activities but the advantage an athlete has from having strong muscle fibers of both types is extremely important as well. The “kick” that most people refer to comes mainly from those fast twitch muscle fibers so if you never train them, your kick at the end of the race might end up being more of a sputter.
The other important benefit that the role of strength and conditioning has in an endurance training program is that of injury reduction. Stress fractures, swimmer’s elbow, patellafemoral pain syndrome, low back issues and other endurance training related injuries and symptoms often stem from overuse of the related muscles and body parts during training. Stress fractures often start small and develop into larger and more serious injuries for the simple fact that a majority of endurance athletes just push through them with a “no pain, no gain” type of mentality. Swimmer’s elbow starts as a dull ache and progresses to more painful levels if not given the proper amount of time to rest. Patellafemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) is an umbrella term for general knee pain found on the anterior part of the leg just below the knee which is usually caused by an imbalance of the musculature of the leg and the repetitive patterns that are repeated ad infinitum with every single step during a run and every single pedal during a bike race.
What do these all have in common? They are all overuse injuries and are almost impossible to avoid given the typical training periodizations found in traditional endurance programs. More miles without the proper musculature balance means compensation at every step. Compensation leads to (and is often caused by) poor movement patterns which can mean pain and can ultimately lead to injury. The simple way to avoid overuse injuries is to reduce the actions that cause them, i.e. less mileage, work to balance the strength of the muscles involved in the movements, and to fix compensations that are often related to poor movement patterns. The good news is that a proper resistance training program can help in all of these aspects and can significantly reduce the chance for overuse injuries.
The other thing to note about endurance training in general is that most of these activities take place in a single plane of motion (more or less). Running, biking, and swimming all take place in the sagittal plane of motion, that is to say that a vast majority of every motion is going forwards or backwards with little lateral movement. With that being said why would we want to train in any other plane of motion if 95% of the movements happen in this specific plane of movement? The main reason is because the human body is not uniplanar and the muscles that help us move in all other directions also help stabilize the body from moving in those same directions.
A great example of this would be the gluteus medius muscle located on the posterior lateral section of the hip which helps to internally and externally rotate the hip. Essentially, when this muscle is strong enough and activated properly, it helps to stabilize the hip during movement and helps keep the knee in a more biomechanically safe and stable position. However, if this muscle is not properly activated and lacks the strength to properly do its job then the knee will have to compensate for the shortcomings in the hip by moving into unsafe ranges of motion. With all of that being said, the reason that the glute medius is an important and often forgotten muscle is because it has little to no activation in the sagittal plane of motion. In order to effectively train this muscle as well as other similar muscles in the hip you must train in the frontal and rotational planes of motion. Not only that, but you also need to train these muscles to get stronger so that they do not fatigue as quickly in order to effectively keep the hips and knees moving correctly.
You may be asking yourself how proper hip strength and activation can possibly play a role in the health and efficiency of the knee but the thing to remember is that each joint has a huge effect on the joints immediately above and below. Many triathletes understand the importance of proper foot strike mechanics on speed and biomechanical efficiency but may not realize how much this can affect the health of the knee and hip as well. The same rings true for the hip and its effect on the overall health of the lower body. Poor hip flexor mobility can cause an inefficient gait and poor foot striking, weak hip stabilizers can lead to a valgus knee position and an imbalance of the glutes, hamstrings and quads can cause a whole host of other problems. With all of this in mind a proper resistance training program can help make up these differences and not only increase performance but also reduce the occurrence of injury.
What Does This All Mean?
Now that you have come to understand all of the advantages that a proper strength training regimen can play for an endurance athlete you may be wondering what the next step should be. Should you drastically reduce your mileage, train in the lateral plane of motion three times a week and focus on improving your max squat weight as soon as possible? Of course not. The most important thing to take home from all of this is that there are significant advantages from a proper resistance program that is applied in conjunction to your existing distance and cardio program. Not only can you improve your speed and lower your times (especially in shorter distances), you can also maintain more efficient mechanics because of stronger stabilizing muscles as well as reduce your chance for injury. Being an endurance athlete and being athletic do not have to be mutually exclusive. You can be fast AND be able to survive the long trials and distances that an endurance race can throw at you while staying healthy with a proper mix of strength and cardio. Next time you find yourself in the last half mile of a race and you are able to blow past your competition you will be happy that you worked on your squats and deadlifts while they struggled to find more time for even more mileage amidst their myriad of injuries.