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Developing Muscular Strength for Endurance Sport

BY Joe Hamilton

When you strength train is as important as how you strength train.

Muscular strength is the maximum power output that muscles can exert against some form of resistance in a single effort. Endurance sport takes a tremendous amount of muscular strength, incorporating the core, back, hip flexors, quads, and calves. Taking time to develop and refine these muscle groups will prepare you for the strength demands of the season ahead. 

Strength development begins with power strength efforts in the form of applying force with weight. Then when your season begins, it is about effectively translating those gains made in the gym into the specific power requirements of your endurance sport.  Strong and developed muscles will not only improve the ability to sustain your posture for hours at a time but also help reduce the likelihood of overuse injury and fatigue. The bottom line, a strength program is vital to the success of your season and long-term health especially as you continue to age. 

Here are essential things to remember when incorporating a strength program into your season’s training schedule.  

When to Strength Train 

Strength training is the result of training both the muscular and the nervous system to deliver force when it is needed. Training one without the other is inadequate for high-performance competition. The nervous system’s job is to recruit the right muscle fiber at the right time to produce the maximum amount of force. In sport, the ultimate goal is to obtain the ability to maximize your nervous system’s ability to recruit the right muscle fibers at the right time and in the most efficient way possible. Like anything else, this takes training your muscular and nervous systems with periodization.

Periodization is alternating phases of periods of training based on volume, intensity, and movement complexity. Whether someone is competing or not, the objective of a strength training plan is to address general adaptation and the principle of specificity to vary the amount and type of stress placed on the body. This stress helps your body adapt at a rate that prevents injury. Periodization involves dividing the strength training program into distinct phases of training that align with the aspects of the overall annual sport-specific annual training plan. 

Periodization is the primary method of having a plan and then working that plan. The program must prevent overtraining and optimize peak performance while allowing for the time and training for the specific demands of an athlete’s sport. The time of the year concerning your priority events dictates the amount and type of strength training required. The physiological and physical adaptations that occur depend on making the right adjustments with the right acute variables (exercise selection, intensity, repetitions, and tempo).  An appropriately periodized strength training program gradually decreases as sport-specific training increases. The balance can be different for everyone and it is the job of a coach to determine where that line is between the right amount strength training and the right amount of endurance training so the neither compromise each other. 

What to Focus On

A typical year-round weight program for athletes can be divided into three parts. Off-season, pre-season and in season. Each part contains different phases of training.  

The offseason is the time to focus on taking advantage of the time off your endurance sport and allocating that time to the gym. I refer to these stages as the stabilization, strength endurance, and maximum strength phases. Often athletes are either in their transition phase or just beginning a mid to low volume, lower intensity training block for their endurance sport. 

For many athletes, the stabilization phase begins in October (if priority races are late spring and early summer) and typically last four weeks. This phase’s emphasis is preparing athletes with stability and form to get them prepared for the higher level demands in later phases. This period is crucial for all beginners and is also necessary to cycle back through this after periods of strength and power training to maintain a high degree of core and joint stability. Stabilization phase specifically focuses on:

  • Improving muscle imbalances
  • Improving stabilization through core musculature
  • Preventing tissue overload by preparing muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints for the upcoming imposed demands of training
  • Establishing proper movement patterns and exercise technique

The strength endurance phase typically starts in November. The focus of this phase is on more intense strength-building workouts. This phase maintains stability while increasing the amount of stress on the body. During the strength endurance phase, an athlete will typically incorporate a strength specific exercise with a stability exercise (better known as super setting). Strength training volume is at its highest and the focus of this phase is to: 

  • Increase the ability of the core musculature to stabilize the pelvis and spine under more massive load, through more complete ranges of motion 
  • Increase the load-bearing capabilities of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints 
  • Increase the volume of training
  • Increase motor unit recruitment, frequency of motor unit recruitment 

December may or may not be the offseason, depending on your event and your location. However, for many athletes, this is still the time that the focus is on lower volume and lower intensity work in their endurance training program. December is time to incorporate the maximum strength phase. The maximal strength phase focuses on increasing the load placed on the tissues of the body and has been shown to help increase the benefits of power training in the next stage. The maximal strength phase improves 

  • Recruitment of motor units
  • Rate of force productions 
  • Motor unit synchronization. 

The maximum strength phase’s primary purpose is to increase intensity (load) and volume (sets). Unlike the prior phase of muscular endurance, this phase reduces the number of exercises and improves the force needed to move quickly in the power phase.  

The Power phase is what I refer to as the “application” phase and typically occurs for most athletes in four weeks in January (the pre-season). By this time, my athletes feel very strong and are ready to do some explosive training. This level of training increases the rate of force production (or speed of muscle contraction). The power phase uses the adaption of stabilization and strength acquired in the previous phases of training and applies them with more realistic speeds and forces that the body will encounter in everyday life and to sport. Power = Force multiplied by Velocity. Therefore any increase in force or velocity will produce an increase in power. This increase in power happens by increasing the load (or force) as in the speed; you can move the loads. This complex phase of training typically combines a power exercise right after a strength exercise. 

The final strength phase that I keep my athletes on throughout their “season” is the maintenance phase, which typically begins in February and lasts throughout the entire season. Depending on the training and date of my athlete’s event, I may cycle back to stabilization training to improve or refine neuromuscular efficiency. Often the maintenance phase will include one or two training sessions scheduled early in the week and fall under the priority of higher intensity sport-specific training, like intervals. Before any major competitions, I ensure an athlete does not lift any weight at all. During the entire maintenance phase, the focus becomes on stretching, foam rolling, and strength workouts that focus on total body strength and core circuit work. 

During the in-season athletes should replace one of their strength training sessions with neuromuscular power sessions for their sport, often referred to as force reps. These force reps are essential endurance type workouts for building strength and are very much like doing double or single-leg squats, step-ups, or lunges. These workouts are specifically about building the force to apply to the pedals or the run. Incorporating force workout replaces those strength workouts and is an effective method of developing a more powerful pedal stroke and becoming a more powerful rider or runner.

How to Utilize Strength Training For Your Primary Discipline

Resistance training, like endurance training, focuses on the “SAID” principle. The strength workouts must follow the Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. The program must mirror the demands of the activity you are trying to improve to receive sport-specific benefits from a strength training program. For example, if you are a cyclist, the hip joint only moves from 30 to an 80-degree extension. So in doing squats, you do not need to go all the way down to a 90-degree knee bend in the knees. Squat only until you have an 80-degree bend in the knees, which will simulate the curve in your leg at the top of the pedal strokes. 

The speed of movement is also essential. Strong and big muscles like that of a bodybuilder will not make you faster endurance athletes. As an athlete, you need to train the nervous system to create the power and demand of your sport. For example, sprinters, plyometric, and power cleans in the training program will give you the desired results because you have the neuromuscular efficiency to execute those movements quickly and effectively. 

With work, family, events, and only a certain amount of time allocated to training, strength training often is the first to get neglected. Good news, though. Research shows that for strength exercise to be effective, expect to spend no more than one hour in the gym at a minimum of 2 times per week. Workout intensity and quality are essential and mean ensuring that you have a plan in place including an appropriate number of reps, the tempo of workout, weight, and proper form. Below are some additional general pointers to help you get the most out of your time in the gym:

  • Use exercises that work numerous joints. Most single joints exercises are not as functional as multi-joint lifts. For example, choose squats over the leg press machine. 
  • Use free weights when you can. Free weights allow for your body to work in all planes of motion with various degrees of amplitude and ranges of action consistent with those movements used in the sport. Free weights improve postural stability, strength, muscle size, and power and are most active. 
  • Use circuit training or supersets in your routine. These specialized training styles minimize downtime between exercises, thereby limiting the time spent resting between sets. 
  • And most important of all, always know what you are going to do before you do it. Never start a workout without an idea of what you want to accomplish. Remember, those who fail to plan, plan to fail.
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Joe Hamilton Mountain Biking On A Trail In The Woods
About Joe Hamilton

Joe Hamilton is a coach for SpinDoctors Performance, LLC. He has more than a decade of experience in the bicycle industry as an athlete, coach, personal trainer, and team organizer. As a USAC and Accredited Training Peaks Level 2 coach, he has helped athletes at every level prepare to reach their goals in road and mountain cycling. You can follow SpinDoctors on Instagram or Facebook. For more information on personal coaching, training plans, or to schedule a free introductory call visit: https://spindoctorsperformance.com/

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