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.


Kettlebells – New Life to an Old Workout

kettlebellIt seems like every week someone in the fitness industry is touting a new magic bullet; some new diet or workout or gizmo that is guaranteed to give you amazing results in no time at all.  It’s understandable, then, that people have become skeptical of this sort of claim.

But now comes the ancient kettlebell workout — with its attendant claims of superior improvements in strength, balance and cardiovascular health in shorter periods of time. Can these claims be true? A growing body of scientific research suggests yes.

What is Kettlebell Training?

The kettlebell is a medieval-looking weight that closely resembles a cannonball, but with a flattened bottom and a thick, rounded handle. Although the precise origins of the kettlebell are a bit cloudy, the two most likely possibilities are that it was developed in either the Scottish Highlands or Russia in the 1700s, when the word first showed up in a Russian dictionary.

The shape of the kettlebell allows for a unique set of exercises that feature fast, swinging movements and typically incorporate multiple muscle groups at once. (Gerard Butler used kettlebells in preparation for his role as King Leonidas in “300.”) A prime example of the dynamic nature of kettlebell exercises is the single-arm swing, which works the hips, legs, shoulders and lower back all in one move.

To perform this exercise, place the kettlebell on the floor between your feet, which should be about shoulder width apart. Squat down, keeping your back and trunk straight and grab the handle with an overhand grip. Pick the kettlebell up so that it is hanging slightly above knee level and dip down to place the weight under your hips. Straighten your body and extend your legs to generate enough momentum to swing the kettlebell above your head. Control the return swing and allow the kettlebell to go behind you again.

From here, you can either perform another rep or slowly place the weight back on the floor from a squatting position.

Does it Work?

The promises of strength and balance improvements are fairly straightforward and there’s every logical reason to assume that a kettlebell workout would hold true in those respects. Compound movements, like those used in kettlebell workouts, will naturally build strength, and strength training will improve balance. The swinging motions of kettlebells will challenge, and as a result improve, balance more than traditional weightlifting techniques.

But what about the weight loss and cardiovascular benefits associated with kettlebells? Science seems to largely agree with these claims, according to an independent study conducted by the American Council on Exercise. The focus of this study was to challenge and test the claim that exercisers didn’t have to spend 30 minutes lifting and 30 minutes on the treadmill if they spent just 20 minutes working with kettlebells. To do this, ACE recruited 10 volunteers who were experienced with kettlebells and subjected them to an intense 20-minute workout and monitored their heart rate, lactic acid levels and calories burned.

At the end of the workout bouts, the subjects burned an average of 400 calories in those 20 minutes through both aerobic and anaerobic channels. This result is roughly equivalent to running a six-minute mile. The subjects’ heart rates also shot clear up to about 93 percent of their maximum. To put this number in perspective, consider that a typical workout is performed at about 70 percent maximum heart rate.

Based on their findings, ACE researchers concluded that a typical kettlebell workout met all of the qualifications to achieve improvements in both strength and cardiovascular capacity, meaning that it could be an effective method of weight loss.


Although this all sounds great, remember that there is no such thing as a magic bullet. No one approach to fitness is a cure-all and some of the claims attached to kettlebells — such as that they can increase running speeds and cause drastic changes in body composition “in just minutes a day” — should always be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The nature of kettlebell training can leave plenty of room for injury if your form isn’t perfect or if your muscles are weak. To limit the risk of injury, work with a qualified professional to learn the proper form and you may need to work your way up to kettlebells with other types of strength training. Even once you have begun your transition to kettlebells, start slow and stick with light weights.

Have you worked with kettlebells? Please share your experience with us 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?



How to Use Periodization Training in your Cardio Workout

There are many potential stumbling blocks that may pop up as you pursue your fitness goals. Plateaus, overuse injuries and even plain old boredom can all slow your progress and eventually impede your performance in competitive events.

A common piece of wisdom, heard in gyms all around the world, says that variety is the key to avoiding these pitfalls, and periodization training provides an organized way to inject that variety into your workouts. This can appear difficult for endurance athletes, whose chosen activities(such as running or cycling) seemingly leave little room for changes. But periodization can be utilized in even these sports to round out your training and keep you engaged.

What is Periodization Training?

Periodization training is, in the most basic terms, a goal-oriented training program. It works by dividing your athletic season into a series of cycles, the largest of which is the “macrocycle,” which will typically end with your event. For example, a marathon runner will set his race as the end of his macrocycle, and divide the months leading up to the race into smaller training blocks called “mesocycles.” Each of these mesocycles will ideally focus on a different skill needed in your sport, such as speed, strength and endurance. An active rest cycle is generally incorporated as the last phase before the event in order to prevent exhaustion. This use of cycles allows you to focus on several smaller objectives that together will lead you, step by step, to your larger goal.

Periodization for Endurance Athletes

We don’t always think of cardiovascular exercise in its most detailed terms. Many people who decide to train for a race, for example, will simply run. They may focus on increasing speed or distance, but rarely use a standardized approach. Strength training is sometimes totally overlooked. The truth is that all of these components work together to finally carry you across the finish line, and by working on each one individually, you can build a more complete cardiovascular unit.

While the exact construction and length of your mesocycles will vary based on your personal training schedule and sport, we’ll consider a 6-month macrocycle for runners as an example of periodization training.

Example Program

Mesocycle 1 – Active Rest (3-4 weeks)

Because this first cycle is typically either coming after your last race or a period of inactivity, it’s important to start slowly. This active rest period will keep you moving while giving your running muscles a break. Cross-train with light cycling or swimming. Small amounts of jogging are allowed, but try to spread them out, and don’t push yourself. Even household chores like yard work can be used to fill in this cycle. The goal is to build and maintain a healthy cardiovascular base while not exhausting your muscles.

Mesocycle 2 – Endurance (8-12 weeks)

At this stage, your real training begins. Focus on long, steady runs with a focus on volume. Tempo runs or slow intervals can also be used for variety, but be careful not to focus on your time. Your goal in this cycle is to build an endurance base; you’ll improve your speed later.

Mesocycle 3 – Strength (6-8 weeks)

During this cycle, use hill runs to increase the strength in your key muscle groups. Schedule faster intervals and more difficult tempo runs. Your focus should  be on increasing your intensity while maintaining the same mileage.

Mesocycle 4 – Speed (4-6 weeks)

Continue to use more intense tempo and interval runs during this phase, while lowering your total mileage. Adequate rest is vital during speed training so that, even when fully exerting yourself, you maintain good form and allow your muscles time to recover. Your concentration now should be on increasing your speed and decreasing your time.

Mesocycle 5 – Competition

By now, race season has arrived. The length of this period will depend on how many races you plan on running, but it will typically last between four to six weeks. Run early in the week using a high-intensity, low-distance formula so that you can fully recover by race day. At this point, you should be able to give the race your maximum effort.

Periodization training can take some time at first, as you lay out a long-term schedule, but the benefits will be well worth the extra effort.

Have you using periodization in your cardiovascular routine? Do you have any tips to share?

DOs and DON’Ts of Cardio

The many benefits of cardiovascular training are well recognized and understood. But despite the simple appearance of this mode of exercise, there are several common mistakes that people make in their cardio routines that can cause injury or prevent proper recovery. There are also many techniques that could help you enjoy your workout more and provide faster results that you may not have yet put into practice.

DO Eat Before

A myth has crept into the exercise realm that you can lose more weight by exercising without eating beforehand. There is no science to back up this claim. In fact, a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism directly contradicted this assertion. The findings suggest that a light meal with little-to-no fat will cause you to actually burn more calories for up to 24 hours following your workout.

DON’T Perform the Same Workout Everyday

It’s a fairly well known fact that your workout should vary from day to day. Too often, though, this does not translate to cardio and people commonly practice the same form of cardiovascular exercise every day. This can lead to muscular imbalances and overuse injuries, ultimately being counterproductive. If you’re a runner, for example, consider mixing biking, swimming and other cardio activities into your schedule.

DO Be Choosey About Your Equipment

Not all cardiovascular equipment is created equal. Equipment that is poorly made could not only limit the effectiveness of your workouts, it could also increase your risk of injury. If your favorite form of cardio is running, it’s worth investing in the best treadmills for running. The best equipment also allows you to vary your workout with a variety of adjustable speed and incline levels.

DON’T Skip Your Warm-up

Exercisers are often pressed for time and habitually cut their workouts short. One of the first things to go is usually the warm-up, but skipping your warm-up could both decrease your performance and lead to injury. A brief warm-up, between five and 10 minutes, increases the temperature and blood flow to muscles and connective tissue, preparing them for the demands of your workout.

DO Set Appropriate Goals

Unrealistic goals can leave you discouraged and feeling as though you’re wasting your time. Although cardiovascular exercise targets the heart and lungs, several other biological systems contribute to your overall performance. Hormone levels, illness, medications, joint injuries and even mood can all affect your workout either positively or negatively. For this reason, it’s important to set goals based on your individual capabilities. Consult with a fitness or medical professional for help in setting goals that are achievable but still challenging for you.

By avoiding some of these DON’Ts and incorporating these DOs, you’re bound to enjoy exercise more and see faster results.

Have you identified any mistakes you were making with your fitness routine? How did you remedy them? What gets you excited to work out?