Strength Training for the Endurance Athlete

Runners run, cyclists cycle and swimmers swim. For the most part that’s just how it is: endurance athletes sticking close to their sport of choice, with very few venturing into the forbidden realm of strength training. In fact, if you talk to many athletes and avid exercisers, the two forms of training appear to be totally mutually exclusive.

New scientific findings, however, paint a very different picture. Many experts even point to strength training as a reliable way for endurance athletes, especially runners, to greatly reduce their risk of injury.

The Arguments For

Of course, your musculoskeletal system is deeply involved in everything you do, even when you hardly notice it.

A quick look at the human knee, for example, shows a complicated system of muscles used, not only to move your leg, but also to support the movement. If any of those muscles are weak, it places more stress of the others to compensate.

This effect grows when you widen your lens and look at the body as whole. There are muscles that act as shock-absorbers, muscles that keep you steady and, obviously, those that move you forward. All of these need to be strong enough to meet the demands of your sport and keep you injury-free.

While you could make the argument that running builds the muscles needed for running, that’s only true to a point. Any endurance activity builds endurance. In order to build a more solid support system, strength needs to be developed.

Designing Your Program

To be most effective, your strength training program needs to be tailored to your sport. Although balance training would be vitally important to a runner, it doesn’t mean as much to a swimmer or even a cyclist. Swimmers would likely also want to put more emphasis on their upper-body than runners or cyclists would.

Consider the unique challenges of your sport, then, when deciding on which exercises to include in your program.

Since the goal here is to reduce the risk of injury rather than to cause injury, it’s best to start light on the resistance and work your way up. Body weight training is a perfect modality for endurance athletes since it isolates certain muscle groups, requiring them to bear nothing but the weight you use doing your endurance training. Eventually, additional weight could be added to increase the difficulty of a given exercise.

To keep your progress steady, without interfering with your endurance training, dedicate one day to your strength training each week. If you really have to scratch the cardio itch, you can still do a light cardio cool-down for 10 minutes at the end of your workout.

An example workout, aimed toward a runner, might look something like this:

  1. One-legged Squats – 3 sets of 15 on each leg
  2. Back Lunges – 3 sets of 15 on each leg
  3. Push Up on an uneven surface – 3 sets of 10
    • Place your hands on a pillow or balance plate
    • Modify the movement to make it easier, if you need to, by kneeling
  4. Plank – 30 seconds

Rest for 90 seconds after each set before moving on to the next.


Have They Found the Perfect Interval Formula?

In the fitness world, buzzwords come and go almost monthly. One that seems to have some real staying power, though, is high intensity interval training, or HIIT. Although it’s not really a new idea, HIIT has really gained ground in the past few years with the rise of standardized forms like Crossfit, Tabata and the Little method. Even with these programs, though, a universal formula for an effective HIIT workout has been sorely lacking.

A group of Danish researchers set out in 2012 to define the perfect formula for HIIT and their work produced some intriguing results worth considering.

The 10-20-30 Study

At the beginning of their research, the team, led by Dr. Thomas Gunnarsson experimented with different ratios that are already at use in other HIIT methods.

Starting with 30-second sprinting bouts, which is a common approach, they found that, although this produced powerful results in their subjects, it’s also a very demanding. Eventually, through trial-and-error, the team fell on 10-second intervals.

It’s not really surprising that the 10-second sprints produced benefits but the exact depth of those improvements has caught many experts off-guard.

Over the course of the 7-week study, veteran 5K runners cut a full minute off their time and 1500-meter runners reduced their time by an average of 23-seconds. And these reductions all happened while slicing their weekly mileage by half. As an added selling-point, these highly effective workouts only took about 20 to 30 minutes.

Workout Details

At its core, the 10-20-30 program is modeled after the Fartlek approach by involving short bursts of running with the speed adjusted by how you’re feeling.

A typical workout following this new protocol would look like this:

  1. A 10-minute warmup. The runners in the original study ran just 3/4 of a mile for their warmup, with no regard to time.
  2. Jog for 30 seconds, run for 20 and then sprint for 10. Repeat this same pattern four more times, follow this routine for five straight minutes.
  3. Walk or jog for 2 minutes as an active rest.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3. Cycle through these intervals two or three times. Runners in the study eventually worked their way up to four of these sets.

The original study didn’t list any sort of cool-down but a 10-minute walk is generally recommended to wrap-up your workout.

Because this approach allows you to adjust the speed of each interval, whether it be jogging, running or sprinting, and the number of times you repeat the pattern, it’s easily adapted to your fitness level.

Expert Reception

In general, most experts who reviewed the research found no problems with the study methodology or the program that the study produced. A few authorities have questioned the effectiveness of this type of workout for elite-level athletes.

Others have expressed doubts regarding the trustworthiness of the touted benefits since the subjects used were all experienced runners. These detractors feel that those benefits are to be expected by runners who suddenly shift to an easier training method.

Overall, however, both anecdotal and expert reports have supported the use of 10-20-30 intervals.

Have you been able to incorporate 10-20-30 into your workouts? Please share your experience in the comments.


Athletes: Tips to Stay Fit in the Off-Season

As a runner, I look forward to fall because it’s race season. I train hard throughout spring and summer so I’ll be in peak condition once autumn rolls around. But that doesn’t mean take it easy all winter.

If you’re also a runner - or a cyclist, tennis player or ice hockey player - you may not participate in your sport year-round. But chances are you’ll want to stay fit even when you’re not actively preparing for races or games.

The off season is not a time to exercise too hard, nor to give up fitness all together. Here’s how to stay in shape.

Keep Up Your Fitness

For a competitive athlete, staying fit in the off season is a delicate balance. It’s important to get enough rest so your body can recover from months of grueling workouts. But it’s also key to maintain some level of conditioning so you don’t lose the valuable gains you worked so hard for during the season.

Everyone’s off-season training needs are different. Your workouts will depend on:

-How many weeks you have until the next season starts.

-What physical improvements you want to make before next season.

-Your history of injury, and any advice or recommendations from your doctor, coach or physical therapist.

The Building Blocks of Off-Season Training

While everyone’s specific training will vary, your plan will likely include these essential steps:

Rest up. Before anything else, you need to let your body heal from the demands of a long season. Rest is crucial. Take several days off from exercise. For the next two to four weeks, if you feel like you need to exercise, do short, easy cross-training sessions. If you’re a runner, try walking, cycling on a LIVESTRONG exercise bike or swimming. Then gradually add in short, easy runs. Cross-training and easing back into your sport will keep you fit and injury-free in the long run. If you’re coming back from an injury, don’t return to exercise until your doctor or physical therapist gives you the OK.

Reflect. Think about last season. What were your strengths? What were your weaknesses? Taking some time to figure out what went right and wrong can help you determine what to focus on during the next training cycle.

Enhance endurance. Did you find yourself tiring out half way through tennis matches? Stopping to catch your breath on the soccer field? If so, you need to gain some endurance. Doing interval workouts and gradually increasing the length of your cardio sessions can help you improve.

Gain speed. Speed is a crucial component to almost every sport, and getting faster is possible with hard work. Flexibility training and regular sprint workouts will help make you quicker. It may also be helpful to have a coach look at your form - sometimes even simple changes in your technique can help you get faster.

Get stronger. Many athletes log long hours in the weight room. This is because strength is needed to help you excel in any sport. Talk to a coach or more experienced athlete about what resistance training exercises are best for your sport. Doing lunges, squats, pushups and abdominal work may help you transform into an above average athlete.

Athletes: how do you stay in tip-top shape in the off season?



Potential Benefits of Beet Juice

An ever-growing number of products on the market claim to enhance athletic performance by manipulating various biological systems and functions. A relatively new group of supplements use certain nitrates to improve muscular endurance, and these nitrates - in addition to several other beneficial compounds - are present in high concentrations in beet juice.

How effective is beet juice at increasing endurance, and how does it work?

Role of Nitrates
The nitrates contained in beet juice are converted by the body into a vital gas called nitric oxide. This should not be confused with nitrous oxide, which is laughing gas. Nitric oxide (NO) is produced by the body and acts as a neurotransmitter, meaning that it carries messages from the brain. These messages involve making sure that increased amounts of blood and oxygen reach the areas of the body that need them most.

The way NO operates makes it particularly well-suited for use as an athletic supplement. Picture it like this, as “The Walking Ecyclopedia” suggests: If you were trying to force a large amount of water through a narrow tube using only your breath, you’d probably struggle to provide enough pressure. But if you switched out the narrow tube for a wider one, your job would be much easier.

This is essentially what nitric oxide does. The gas expands and relaxes the blood vessels to increase the amount of blood - and therefore the amount of oxygen and nutrients - that reach active muscles. In addition,  the nitrates in beet juice actually decrease the amount of oxygen your muscles need, helping them work more efficiently.

Benefits of Beet Juice
Several studies have been published since 2009, when the research on beet juice began in earnest, that illustrate a wide spectrum of potential applications. A recent study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise  tested the effects of beet juice on club-level competitive cyclists during time trials. After drinking the juice, the cyclists had a great power output with the same amount of effort, and were an average of 11 seconds faster. This study strongly supports benefits from beet root juice for endurance athletes.

Beet juice may also have uses for non-athletes who have difficulty carrying out even low-intensity activities like walking. Research published in 2010 in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that beet juice reduced the amount of oxygen test subjects needed to walk, and reduced the amount of effort required by 12 percent. These findings suggest that beet juice could be useful for older adults and other populations with conditions that limit everyday activities, although more research is needed to fully understand the effects.

Using Beet Juice
In the above-mentioned studies, the test subjects were given 16 fluid ounces of beet juice to achieve the documented results. As with many other aspects of personal fitness, it’s important to have realistic expectations. If you do use beet juice, you may get different results than you would from commercially available nitric oxide supplements. People with kidney problems or low calcium should talk to their doctor before drinking large amount of beet juice. Also, a harmless but somewhat startling side effect of drinking the juice in large quantities is red or pink urine, so don’t panic if you experience that.

Research continues to suggest that beet juice may provide the nitrates necessary to improve muscular endurance in both athletes and non-athletes whose activities are limited by various conditions.

Have you tried beet juice in your routine? Tell us about your experience!