Endurance sport athletes are probably some of the most focused and dedicated group of athletes I have worked with. I know from the perspective of a strength coach to many of them, as well as a convert to the endurance sport over the past few years myself. As with many sports, strength training should be a part of most athlete’s training plans. The list of benefits include injury prevention, improved posture, improved power production, ability to push harder through rough and inclined terrain, as well as over all health. I am sure there are other things that most people can add in to this list.
The misinformation that circulates on the internet on blogs, popular websites, endurance coaches, and trainers on how to train endurance athletes is baffling. I know I am grouping all endurance athletes together, but this blog lays out many of the common mistakes across the board. MTB athletes need to do things different than road cyclists, and cyclists have some different needs than runners, and if you throw multi-sport in the mix we can even go further with looking at a needs analysis. There is however a common theme amongst these groups of how they are training. Here are some of the biggest mistakes I have seen endurance athletes in make with their strength training.
SKIPPING STRENGTH TRAINING ALL TOGETHER
Many times they find this isn’t the best plan of action after they have succumbed to 1 too many injuries or annoying aches and pains that are starting to interfere with their performance. Many athletes are afraid to bulk up, fearing it will interfere with their power to weight ratios. Here is the thing, without any muscle or strength there is no power production. Trying to lose more weight for many athletes just makes them less powerful at a lower weight. Also, a little extra stability, strength, and some muscle around those hip joints are are your friend on down hill runs and the hard pushes up hill whether it is running or cycling. Running creates 6x BW impact on your joints, a little muscle adds a lot of shock absorption. The improved posture and strengthening the posterior chain will have a huge impact on performance toward the end of a race for all endurance sports. The other big reason endurance athletes skip the strength work is because they feel it takes away from their time training in the sport. You need the right strategy and training plan to make it happen, but either make time to work on your strength or make time to be sidelined with an injury.
HIIT TRAINING IN THE GYM
I get it you love conditioning. Many endurance athletes love the hit of adrenaline that can come with the sport. The important thing to understand is that HIIT training is NOT strength training, even if you are doing it with weights. Lifting weights can and will increase your heart rate but that increase in HR doesn’t transfer over to improved cardiovascular endurance. Here is a more detailed article on the myth of HIIT I wrote. If you are an endurance athlete working on a solid endurance program you should be getting nearly all of your conditioning work in your training plan in your sport. Keep the gym for your strength work, not participating in random acts of exercise. Strength work trains a different energy system, so fast paced circuit training isn’t strength. If you are killing it in your sport training then add a bunch of HIIT Circuit training into your programming you will just continue to grind your body down and your cross training is now interfering with your performance, not adding to it. Just because it is fun, gets you sore, and your HR Elevated doesn’t mean it is effective. I have had too many endurance athletes come to me and want me to kick their ass with cardio or to get their muscles burning, because that is what they want. It’s not my job as a coach to give them what they want all the time, but rather give them what they need to improve in their sport. In the off season there is a argument for HIIT in the gym, but if you read the article I linked to above make sure your HIIT is actually HIIT and not just High Intensity training.
DOING HIGH REP ROUTINES WITH LIGHT WEIGHT
There is a time and place for higher rep training, but it isn’t all the time. I have done numerous searches online for strength programs for endurance athletes and nearly all them have full body circuits of 12-20 reps on everything. Yes, building strength-endurance(moving heavier weights for more repetitions) is important for power and improvement in sport, but strength is built in the 1-10 rep range with moderate to heavier weights. In order to have Strength-Endurance, a base of actual strength is needed.
If you don’t have a base of strength then you are just building up lactic acid in the muscle with those higher reps. This doesn’t mean endurance athletes need to train like powerlifters and there is not only one way to do it, but there is a science to building strength, and lifting in the 12-20 rep range consistently isn’t one of them.
DOING TEN THOUSAND DIFFERENT/FANCY EXERCISES
Muscle confusion is not a thing, it is however awesome marketing. I cringe every time I see someone with no strength base doing elevated leg TRX lunges and TRX Pushups. Until someone masters the fundamentals nothing fancy is needed. Can you do 10 Strict pushups with awesome form? Can you do Pushups explosively or are they are grind with your body dipping at the hips. If you can’t you don’t need unbalanced pushups. Can you do loaded squats with good form with hips below parallel for multiple reps? I am pretty sure that doing them on the balanced ground is always more important than doing them while standing on a balance pad or adding jumps. As Coach Dan John made famous, the Push, Pull, Hinge, and Squat as being the most crucial aspects to master in a training program and I agree completely. With endurance athletes it is also crucial to focus on mastering single leg movements such as the single leg deadlift, lunge, and a controlled Step up(video). Whether its running or cycling we need both legs to to develop power and work. The ability to control these movements with mastery is where the magic happens in transferring over to injury prevention and balanced power production. Just doing single leg movements quickly with compensation will just amplify existing dysfunction. Taking the time to own these movements is crucial.
CORE TRAINING MISTAKES
It is no secret that the core is crucial to train, but how to train it is where the confusion lies. Sit-ups, twists, and flutter kicks can be useful for some people, but can actually cause more problems for others depending on injury history and their individual needs. Flutter kicks and sit ups are terrible for someone with significant anterior pelvic tilt, so all that “core” training is just making things worse. There have been tons of articles on what the core is, but it isn’t just the abs. The core involves the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and all the muscles in the hips. Training the core correctly also depends on having the requisite mobility and movement in the hips. Focusing on anti rotation and anti-flexion movements are a better addition for most athletes to utilize over movements that are flexion and rotational dependent.