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Strength Training and Endurance Athletes – The Missing Link

March 27, 2009

By Jacques DeVore, CSCS, President

The debate rages on. Is it effective for endurance athletes to add strength training and if so when and how? Numerous studies have shown differing results, however the consensus seems to be leading to numerous benefits from the addition of strength training.

How force production impacts endurance sports performance is still not totally clear because a majority of the research is limited in scope. However as a cycling coach and strength and conditioning coach the goal in training the endurance athlete is producing greater amounts of sustainable power. The training should result in the athlete producing power outputs at or below lactate threshold that are a greater and greater percentage of VO2 max. Different training sessions are prescribed to overload the different energy systems furthering the goal of higher maximum sustained power. For example, if during a long duration tempo ride (65-75% of VO2 max) the athlete is able to produce a greater amount of average power without exceeding the prescribed intensity the athlete will receives a greater overload during the same duration of time. This increased average power output allows the athlete to receive a greater overload and subsequently greater adaptation. Properly managed resistance training provides the athlete the ability to generate higher levels of sustainable power throughout sport specific training sessions.

It is encouraging that the majority of research does support the benefit of strength training because most of the studies have only looked at the direct results in a 6-8 week strength program and how increases in absolute strength impact typical measurements of endurance sport performance (VO2max, anaerobic capacity,etc.) immediately following a strength training program.(Millet et al. 2002, Wisloff and Helgerud 1998, Hoff et al. 1999) The larger direct sports specific benefit outside of the immediate improvement in strength is the ability to achieve greater overloads in subsequent training than the pre-resistance trained endurance athlete.

The limitation with most of the research is that the majority of the studies have looked at the correlation between absolute strength and endurance performance after a short bout of resistance training. Most of the studies do not turn the corner and look at the correlation of increased strength and subsequent increases in power as well as other underlying benefits. In addition if trained properly the ability to increase overloads in the specific sport are greatly enhanced by increases in power production.

In many cases the exercise protocol prescribe for endurance athletes leans more toward hypertrophy which will in the short run produce lower performance in most endurance training programs. This is caused because as muscle tissue is added the percentage of capillary dense and mitochondria rich muscle is diminished. In other words this muscle has not been endurance trained. Most endurance sport performance is driven by the ability to sustain maximum power but most resistance programs are strength and sometimes mistakenly hypertrophy driven.

HOW DO YOU DEVELOP AN EFFECTIVE RESISTANCE TRAINING
FOR THE ENDURANCE ATHLETE?

The goal in endurance training typically focuses on improving the maximum oxygen delivery (VO2 max) and the ability to efficiently utilize the oxygen that is being delivered. It is not always the highest VO2 max that wins the race. The ability to sustain power at the highest percentage of VO2 max is typically the major contributor to success in endurance events. It is with this in mind that a resistance training program should be developed. Therefore the goal of the resistance training should not necessarily be absolute strength but how added strength aids the athlete in producing greater sustainable power sport specifically. The goal of increased power also needs to be balanced with the issue of weight gain in the endurance athlete, as well as timing the resistance training so as not to compromise sport specific training. In most endurance sports power to weight ratio is of great importance, and many endurance athletes are very body composition focused so a coach has to be careful how an athlete perceives added weight.

Understanding the goal of producing maximum sustained power(msp) the coach should initially evaluate the athlete to determine on a relative basis what type of power the athlete is currently producing. Tests to determine absolute measurements of power such as vertical jump, med-ball chest throw, isokinetic testing to measure velocity of jump and time to peak force can help us understand the current level of short term power output. Eventhough these tests are only a snapshot of the athlete they provide a window into the athletes absolute power that when coupled with a sports specific evaluation and needs analysis will start to connect the dots as to where training time should be spent. Typically endurance athletes will have decent relative strength but poor velocity of movement. You will find that many endurance athletes because of the nature of endurance sports have poor relative measurements of short-term power to other more explosive sports. Other more sophisticated tests for measurements of sustainable power are recommended such as Wingate, time vs. distance, watt meters etc.. However, the simple tests can inform a coach about athletes and their competitive performance. For example: If you have a cyclist that shows tremendous power output but does not win races you can look at other reasons other than ability to sprint that may be limiting their ability to win.

THE MISSING LINK:

A CYCLIST AS AN EXAMPLE

THE REAL MEASUREMENT OF A GOOD RESISTANCE TRAINING PROGRAM FOR A CYCLIST OR OTHER ENDURANCE ATHLETE IS THAT IT CREATES A PLATFORM FOR THE ATHLETE TO PRODUCE GREATER POWER OUTPUT DURING SPORTS SPECIFIC TRAINING SESSIONS. THIS ALLOWS THE ATHLETES TO HAVE GREATER OVERLOADS IN THEIR ACTUAL SPORT SPECIFIC TRAINING.

This is the missing link that most of the research misses. Most of the research is looking for the direct correlation between strength and endurance performance. However the long term benefit, especially with elite athletes, of allowing the athlete to produce greater average power output throughout all training sessions leads to higher overloads in the sports specific training, and subsequently higher levels of adaptation. The difficulty in obtaining larger overloads in the elite athlete becomes even more difficult as the athlete reaches higher levels of performance and greater maturity in their respective sports.

Let’s look at correlation for a moment because it is important to understand this concept when developing proper training for the endurance athlete. Correlation (r) is a statistical measurement of the relationship that one variable has on another. Correlation is measured intuitively by most strength and conditioning professionals. It would be very obvious that the ability to perform a forearm curl would have very little impact on an athlete’s ability to run a 100-meter dash. However vertical jump would intuitively have a much higher correlation to an athlete’s ability to run 100 meters. Correlation is measured in a range of 1.0 to -1.0. By multiplying (r) by itself one obtains a co-variance coefficient or measurement of one variable to another. A more positive correlation means that the variables are closely related and move in tandem. A negative correlation would mean that one variable has very little impact on the movement of the other. It is the responsibility of the coach to identify these degrees of correlation to the specific sport to effectively develop a program. Oftentimes a coach must look to an exercise that on the surface has no direct link to the specific sport but is highly correlated to performing other exercises that have a high correlation to the specific sport.

Ex: A cyclist is conducting an interval session. He is producing an average of 400 watts of power over every three min session. If the athlete completes 8 intervals he has completed a total wattage of 8x400x3min=9600 watts of total power output. If the athlete through resistance training can produce a 15% increase in power through resistance training then the total overload is increased to 11,040 watts during the session. During longer training bouts the average power output over the season starts to really compound and provide bigger and bigger benefits. During longer tempo types of rides the athlete is able to produce greater average watts at a lower percentage of maximum wattage. Over time this ability to incrementally increase power output at lower than maximum levels is a huge advantage for an elite endurance athlete’s efficient production of sustainable power. Efficiency in oxygen utilization by longer duration stress at 60-80% of VO2 max is where a large percentage of an endurance athlete’s gains are made. This is evidenced by the ability of older athletes to be at world-class levels of performance in endurance sports. The body will adapt to these greater overloads after a period of time and the athlete will see the increased performance results because of the increased overload and subsequent adaptation.

When evaluating winning race times and top quartile performance times in endurance sports the disparity is typically separated by less than 10%. In many cases the margin is even lower than 10%. A small increase in the ability to produce maximum sustained power can make a top 15th to 20th place athlete move into a top 5 finish.

Research shows that there are a number of increases in anaerobic performance after a 6-8 week strength program, (Nokes 1988) however the bigger benefit comes later when the endurance athlete has had enough time to train at the higher power output over multiple training sessions.

SUMMARY:

1) Research shows that resistance training aids endurance athletes.
2) Properly managed resistance programs goal should be focused on power development.
3) Coaches should understand the correlation of resistance training protocols and the sports specific training required.
4) The ability of the athlete to produce higher overloads in sports specific training sessions is the biggest benefit for the endurance athlete.
5) Increased core strength and overall improvement in muscle imbalances helps prevent overuse injuries. This is in addition to the added benefits of power production from appropriate resistance training programs.

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