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The Importance of Strength Training For Endurance Athletes: Guest Blog by Daniel Pedraza, BS, CSCS

 

Hey all! This week we are bringing a special guest onto the DPR blog to share his expertise in strength training. Daniel Pedraza, BS, CSCS.  Danny is a strength and conditioning coach working for Liberty Performance Training in Phoenix, AZ.  He has worked with numerous endurance athletes, including multiple ironman competitor and triathlete Maria Kilgore.  You can follow him on Instagram @damnnndaniel89 to see the method to his madness!

 

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There you are on the starting line of one of the biggest races of your life. You have competed in dozens of other races and have never been in better cardio shape. A sense of calm and overwhelming confidence envelops you and helps settle your pre-race jitters.  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!  But you did not dominate like you thought and you just could not seem to keep up with the other runners’ “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. One of the major facets commonly overlooked by endurance athletes, and coaches alike, is the pivotal role 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.  Reduced strength can cause decreased performance, but can also lead to injuries down the road that could have been avoided or, at the very least mitigated. 

 

Misconceptions of Resistance Training

 

Resistance training alone will never be able to prepare you for an endurance event, but a number of common misconceptions exist regarding strength training and the ability to maintain proper cardiovascular conditioning. Many people worry that the potential muscle and weight gain from a resistance training program will only be an added burden 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. 

 

Another misconception is that because endurance events recruit slow twitch muscle fibers (Type I) there is no reason to grow fast twitch muscle fibers (Type II).  The problem with this is that at almost no point in life is one exclusively using one type of muscle fiber for any single event.  It’s true that primary muscle fibers vary for different events and activities but having strong muscle fibers of both types is extremely important.  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 cardiovascular system and endurance of the muscles involved absolutely need to be well developed, 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. However, speed will ALWAYS have some benefit from increased strength no matter the distance, and a good resistance training foundation will aid in reaching the fast times you are capable of.

 

Overuse Injuries

 

The other important benefit of strength and conditioning in an endurance training program is injury reduction.  Stress fractures, swimmer’s elbow, patellafemoral pain syndrome, low back issues and other endurance training related injuries often stem from overuse of the related muscles and body parts during training. More miles without proper musculature balance means compensation at every step.  Compensation leads to (and is often caused by) poor movement patterns, which can equal pain and ultimately lead to injury.  The simple way to avoid overuse injuries is to reduce the actions that cause them, i.e. balance the strength of the muscles involved, fix compensations that are often related to poor movement patterns, etc. 

 

It is important to note that most endurance activities take place in a single plane of motion (more or less).  Running, biking, and swimming occur in the sagittal plane. That is to say, a vast majority of every motion is going forwards or backwards with little lateral movement.  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 that the human body is not uniplanar and the muscles that help us move in other planes also help to stabilize the body. 

 

A great example is the gluteus medius muscle, located on the posterior lateral section of the hip.  When this muscle is strong enough and activated properly, it helps to stabilize the hip during movement and maintains the knee in a more biomechanically safe and stable position. However, the glute medius is often undertrained because it has little to no activation in the sagittal plane. In order to effectively strengthen this muscle and maintain hip and knee mechanics, one must train in the frontal and rotational planes of motion.

 

You may be asking how proper hip strength and activation can possibly play a role in the health and efficiency of the knee, but the thing to acknowledge is each joint has a huge effect on the joints immediately above and below.  Many athletes 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.  Similarly, the hip effects the overall health of the lower body, i.e. 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. 

 

What Does This All Mean?

 

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 take home is that there are significant advantages from a proper resistance program when applied in conjunction to your existing cardio program.  Not only can one improve speed and lower times (especially in shorter distances), but also maintain more efficient mechanics and reduce the chance for injury. Next time you find yourself in the last half-mile of a race and you are able to finish hard and strong, you will be happy that you worked on your squats and deadlifts. 

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