The Off Season is the perfect time to introduce some focused Strength Training
By this time of the year a lot of triathletes in the northern hemisphere are nearing the end of their competitive season and are ready to transition into their off season. For many, this means no more structured training, a general loss of fitness and the need to build it all back up in the early spring. But what if you could give your body and mind the break they need while still laying the foundation for the upcoming season? For the past several months, training has meant long hours building the aerobic engine we value so much as endurance athletes. At a certain point the gains become smaller and smaller and harder to come by. The longer we stress our body in a singular manner, the less responsive it becomes to that stimulus. The off season is the perfect time to introduce some focused strength training – the different stimulus that will elicit several greatly beneficial adaptations for the upcoming season.
Every athlete has muscular imbalances resulting from ingrained movement patterns. These imbalances are not only a prime cause of inefficiency in sport specific movement as well as loss of power generation, but can lead to injury that can sideline you for weeks or months. By taking the time to address these imbalances in the off season, an athlete can make the return to aerobic training more focused and productive by reducing the chances of an injury. After all, a stronger muscle is a more injury resistant muscle. Hamstring injuries, for example, are an all too common occurrence, often requiring a long recovery and rehabilitation period. However, it has been shown that eccentric strength exercises dramatically reduce the risk of acute hamstring injury (3,4). Who wouldn’t want to lower their risk of injury?
As an endurance athlete you want to ensure you are expending the least amount of energy to cover a given distance at a specific speed. After all, we only have so much energy on race day, and how we expend it can mean the difference between a great race and a poor one. Running, being the last leg of a triathlon, is probably the most impacted by poor economy and the place where the biggest improvements (or losses) in performance can be gained. Even an efficient and economical runner can become inefficient when fatigued, and a weak runner will fatigue sooner than a strong one. In a Triathlon, especially a long course one, the fact is exacerbated by the bike leg preceding the run. It becomes doubly important to develop strength and power to allow your body to maintain form and efficiency throughout the entire race.
Strength training has been shown to improve running economy in runners by 3 % over a 12-week period when added to their regular training versus no improvement for runners who did not (6). I realize that doesn’t sound like much, but for a 3:30 Ironman marathoner that is a 6 minute and 20 second improvement. Now keep in mind that improvement came not through extra aerobic training, higher fitness or more work on race day – that improvement came from being able to move your body forward at a faster pace using the same effort through making your muscles and movement pattern more efficient. Now imagine also being less likely to get injured, and being able to recover faster due to the improved ability of your body to tolerate your training. You can truly take your training to the next level and those time gains can increase significantly!
Increase Strength and Power
Strength training will also significantly affect your swim by increasing the power of your pull by strengthening specific musculature as well as creating a stronger kinetic chain to stabilize your whole body during your stroke. This will lead you to swim faster while using less of your total available energy and power, leaving you more rested as you exit the water.
On the bike increased strength is a huge asset. Power is defined as Torque x Circumferential Pedal Velocity (Cadence). Strength training increases neural drive and thus the ability of our muscles to contract with speed and coordination, leading to improved Cadence. Strength is defined as the ability to increase a muscles’ capacity to exert force, on the bike this translates to the ability to generate greater Torque. The net result of a well-designed and integrated strength training program for a cyclist or triathlete can be summarized as the ability to push the pedals harder while maintaining cadence – more Watts! Who doesn’t want that?
The Hormonal benefits of Strength Training
Perhaps even more important for Masters athletes are the hormonal adaptations that strength training elicits. We all know that as we age our bodies got through changes that are not optimal for performance. Muscle mass, strength and power all tend to decrease and our ability to recover from training is reduced as well. A lot of this decline is rooted in hormonal changes that happen as we age. Resistance training has been shown to stimulate the production of hormones that increase strength, resiliency and performance of our musculature (7). As a result, recovery will be enhanced alongside power and lean body mass. These will combine to maintain speed and performance for the athlete who, in the absence of resistance training, would have experienced a gradual but significant decrease over time. It’s like turning the clock back, or perhaps slowing it down a few notches!
What about bulking up too much?
There is a widespread belief that strength training is incongruous with endurance athletes. It is often thought that since increased muscle weight is a performance detractor it should be avoided by endurance athletes, who should therefore eschew strength training altogether. While it is true that gaining too much muscle weight would hinder performance, it is very unlikely that an endurance athlete would achieve such hypertrophy. First of all, a properly structured strength training program for an endurance athlete should not be solely focused on hypertrophy, it should be tailored to strength and power gains and periodized as a companion to regular endurance exercise. Secondly, there is an antagonistic relationship between aerobic/endurance and strength training that detracts from the growth of muscle fibers versus strength training alone (5). As far as the belief that strength training will decrease aerobic capacity, research indicates that heavy resistance training has very limited, if any, negative effects on aerobic power (1), and it can actually enhance performance in endurance sports (2).
By working on strength development, especially sport specific strength, you are upgrading the available horsepower of your engine. When you return to full endurance training, while maintaining some in season strength work, you will be able to significantly improve your performance come race day.
If you would like to learn more or have questions feel free reach out to me. I’m always happy to talk training!
- Wilson, JR, Marin, PJ, Rhea, MR, Wilson, SM, Loenneke, JP and Anderson, JC. Concurrent Training: A meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. J Strength Cond Res 26:2293-2307, 2012..
- Sedano, S, Marin, PJ, Cuadrado, G and Redondo, JC. Concurrent training in elite male runners: The influence of strength versus endurance training on performance outcomes. J Strength Cond Res 27:2433-2443, 2013
- Nichols, AW. Does eccentric training of hamstring muscle reduce acute injury in soccer? Clin J Sports Med 40:2256-2263, 2012.
- Petersen, J, Thorborg, K, Nielsen, MB, Budtz-Jorgensen, E, and Homlich,P. Preventive effect of eccentric training on acute hamstring injuries in men’s soccer: A Cluster-randomized controlled trial. Am J Sports Med 39:2296-2303, 2011.
- Kramer, WJ, Patton, J, Gordon, SE, Harman, EA, Deshenes, MR, Reynold, K, Newton, RU, Trilet, NT, and Dziados, JE. Compatibility of high intensity strength and endurance training on hormonal and skeletal muscle adaptations. J Appl Physiol 78:976-989, 1995.
- Yamamoto, LM, Lopez, RM, Kalu, JF, Casa, DJ, Kraemer, WJ, and Maresh, CM. The effects of resistance training on endurance distance running performance among highly trained runners. A systematic review. J Strength Cond Res 22:2036-2044, 2008
- Kraemer, WJ. Hormonal mechanisms related to the expression of strength and power. The Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine: Strength and Power in Sport. Komi, PV, ed. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific, 291-304, 1992.