Top 5 strength training exercises for endurance athletes

Strength training exercises for endurance athletes

In order to find out which aspects of strength training exercises for endurance athletes were really important to the masses, I recently polled the @UKrunchat and @UKtrichat followers on twitter.

The results came out just in favour of exercise selection with 45% of the vote. 40% wanted to know most about frequency/timing and 15% about sets and reps.

I polled @ukrunchat and @uktrichat to find out what aspects of strength training endurance athletes most wanted to know about
I polled @ukrunchat and @uktrichat to find out what aspects of strength training endurance athletes most wanted to know about

Exercise Categories

When it comes to exercise selection for endurance athletes I like to keep things simple and advise each time they strength train, to select one squat, one hinge, one push, one pull and one exercise from the 'everything else’ (hopefully self-explanatory) category.

Rationale

There are many reasons for advising just 5 exercise variations, but primarily it is because I want cover the basic human movements, I want the session to be simple, understandable and adaptable, and because time is of the essence. If I come across an endurance athlete who is willing to dedicate some time to spend in the gym I (and they) need big bang for their buck if they are going to be incentivised to keep returning. Lots and lots of people I come across often make the mistake of confusing simplicity with ease. Don’t. Yes, its just 5 exercises. You’d be amazed how much impact they can have with a good dose of consistency.

There is a place for sport specificity, but at first, time is always best spent developing global movement competency before getting fancy. Most endurance athletes have terrific aerobic engines, but can only move with borderline embarassing levels of dysfunction. I often quip to that triathletes should focus on developing one type of athleticism before attempting to master three! Global and compound exercises completed with good form will create a globally stronger athlete and will increase their capacity for and resilience to greater exercise workloads. This aspect of training, in my opinion must take priority above any attempts to enhance sport performance. While it might seem a more direct and appealing manner in which to train, for almost everyone other than professional athletes, (and even many of those) specificity generally offers less rewards than the more ‘indirect' and generalised exercises.

My top 5 strength training exercises for endurance athletes

So, what 5 strength training exercises do I recommend endurance athletes include in their training and why? Taking one from each category they would be as follows. Caveat: I've added videos of each for illustration, but these are not necessarily how I would coach them, nor do they necessarily represent good form in all aspects, nor do I agree with everything those on the videos say. Always always always, get a qualified coach to show you through these exercise to make sure you can execute them with good form.

Squat - Goblet Squat

For those new to strength training, or those with horrible form, I find there are very few people I can’t get into a good position relatively quickly with a goblet squat. Front loading the squat pattern teaches the athlete to maintain good postural control and awareness, and generally stops them folding like an accordion when you ask them to squat down. If the athlete is advanced and can handle more weight, I’ll move this onto a front squat, but even this can come with complications. There is something remarkably healing about goblet squats, you just feel better after them. Once you can do 3 sets of 5-8 reps with the heaviest dumbbell in your gym, then we can talk about moving on!

Hinge - Single-leg deadlift

This can be a tricky one to teach initially, especially for those with poor body awareness, but it is WELL worth the time invested. Due to bilateral deficit, you’ll find that once your skill level is you can make great gains from adding load. I also know of few other exercises more effective at teaching the athlete to coordinate their body in a number of different ways simultaneously. Its a great stability, anti-rotation, hingeing, strength and rehabilitative exercise all in one. For any athlete with knee/ITB issues this is a go to, as it teaches them to stabilise their knee from the hip/glutes (as they should largely be), not via their ITB/TFL.

Push - Arnold Press

Again, a nice compound exercise that will help improve shoulder mobility and stability as well as teaching the athlete trunk control/core strength. It can be slow to progress, but gets us lifting a weight over our head, which really is a must-have for any exercise routine.

Pull - TRX Row

A simple, scalable and effective exercise to straighten out some of those hugely quasimodo like positions we get ourselves into hunched over our desks all day. Good strength and control through full range of motion here will really help teach the athlete to extend through their thoracic area and open out those shoulders. A vital exercise for the triathletes out there who spend time tucked in a TT position and trying to get their shoulders to touch through almost exclusively swimming front crawl. Good thoracic control is also a vital component of staying tall and having an efficient action during running. As humans, for a lot of reasons, we tend to prioritise the push over the pull, we shouldn’t.

Everything else - Turkish Get up

I just love these. If nothing else its a great assessment tool - if there is something you can’t do, or control, you’ll get found out pretty fast. If you make this look good, and controlled, you can fairly safely bet you are on the right tracks. Its basically everything other than a pulling motion, all rolled into one. At the end of a workout, I find it really locks in all the movements you’ve been working on as you have to coordinate them under control and load. Conversely, its great in the warm up to break off the rust and get you moving like you should.

So there you go. Just 5 exercises, but they’re all big hitters for endurance athletes. Master them and train them regularly, and you will become more injury resistant and I’d wager your capacity to absorb workload will be significantly improved. A total of 15-25 reps of each exercise completed across a session at a challenging load, will take no longer than 45 mins. 2-3x a week. Do it for 4-6 weeks and let me know how you get on, I’d love to hear. Tweet me @acbcoaching or email me (andy@acbcoaching.com). Good luck!

Bilateral Deficit – what is it and how can I use it?

Bilateral Deficit?

So first of all, what is the Bilateral deficit? This is basically the phenomenon whereby the sum of forces produced unilaterally (on a single leg) can exceed the amount of force you can produce bilaterally (on two legs).
Another term that is important to understand in relation to this is Super-Incumbent load - This is the (body) weight above the joint that is being used to lift a weight.
So lets compare a theoretical bilateral (two-legged) back squat and compare it to its unilateral cousin, the single leg squat. For the sake of argument, lets use the example of an individual perhaps your everyday endurance athlete, uhhh, Dave, that weights 75kg.
Lets say Dave can do a nice set of 8x single leg squats while holding just 10kg of added weight. Nice one Dave.
Image of someone performing a rear foot elevated split squat
Not quite the same as a single leg squat, but a rear foot elevated split squat (RFESS) or a Bulgarian split squat can be a great way to make the best of the bilateral deficit. This is not Dave.
The super-incumbent load of this athlete is 65kg. That is, if we chopped his leg off just below the knee, his bloodied stump of a shin, ankle and foot conveniently weights exactly 10kg. We don’t want to count the weight of his shin, ankle and foot because he’s not lifting it, so 75kg-10kg = 65kg.   Add that (65kg) to his 10kg dumbbell and we have 75kg of weight being lifted on each rep, on that leg. So for his set of 8 reps - he’s lifted 600kg on that one leg. WAY. TO. GO. DAVE.
Now, lets say look at Dave’s back squat. The key question is:
 
How much weight do we have to slap on his back to get through the same amount of work as his 1 set of 8 rep single leg squats with 10kg?

Because he’s on two legs, his super-incumbent load is now only 55kg as we have 2x10kg metaphorically bloodied stumps not being lifted and supporting him (75-(2x10kg stumps) = 55kg). Remember, we still need to achieve 600kg in just 8 reps. But this is also PER leg. So assuming both legs do the same amount of work, we need to hit 1200kg across 8 reps. He’s still lifting his super-incumbent load of 55kg for 8 reps, so thats 440kg done and dusted, but we need to find the remaining 760kg  (1200 - 440 = 760kg) in 8 reps. 760 divided by 8 = 95kg.

Don't fall foul of the bilateral deficit. Sometimes there is an easier way
Don't fall foul of the bilateral deficit. Sometimes there is an easier way. This is also not Dave.
Now for an endurance athlete like Dave - this is a no brainer. It will be much faster, safer and easier to get him to work up to a set of 8 single leg squats with 10kg than 95kg for 8 back squat. For example I don’t know many endurance that at around 75kg bodyweight can squat their bodyweight well for 1 rep, much less 1.26x body weight for a set of 8.This would put their 1RM at nearly 120kg or 1.6x their bodyweight.  To be fair, I don’t actually know many endurance athletes that can single leg squat for 1 rep, but with a bit of coaching and practice, this is still a far more sensible and achievable prospect (especially in the short term) than getting a 75kg athlete to 95kg for 8 reps. For a start, it requires much less equipment, no gym membership and can be more easily practiced at home.
While there are other benefits to a single leg work, especially as an endurance athlete, I’ll leave it there for now. Now you know about the bilateral deficit, you can use it to your advantage. If you want to find out more or have any questions, please get in touch with me either via twitter, facebook or my contact page.

Speed training for Ultras

Do I need speed training for ultras?

Another discussion from Twitter, but one I’ve seen discussed several times online and in the ultra running community before

'Are speed intervals as part of training for an ultra necessary? All the plans I've found online don't mention speed work at all #ukrunchat'

Instead of my usual ‘it depends’, this time I’m going to set out my stall early on with a clear cut, ‘almost certainly, probably not’.

A lot of the confusion around this topic comes from the application of the word ‘speed’. If your are training for an ultra-marathon, and your coach has set you something they describe as ‘speed work’ or ‘speed intervals’, I do hope its through a mistaken application of the term, as opposed to a mistaken interpretation of what speed is.

What is Speed?

Let’s start at the beginning. Speed. What is speed? Speed = distance divided by time. Meters per second, miles per hour, kilometres per hour etc. These are all familiar measures of speed. So basic, it hardly seems worth stating.

These measures of speed are common in sport. Every tennis serve on TV seems to be recorded and displayed in the background. You’ll also most likely be able to see the velocity of pretty much every ball bowled in a televised cricket match too. This is because they are useful, sport specific performance indicators. The faster a serve is hit or a ball is bowled, the less time to react and the harder it is to play.

Unfortunately, when we consider performance in running, we adopt a subtly different perspective. We tend to look at the time take to cover a certain distance (min/miles or min/km). You might argue this is the same thing, and when you look at it like a physics equation on paper, it pretty much is. What it means for training, and how you train however, it most certainly is not.

How fast do I need to be able to run?

Lets look the fastest man on the planet - Usain Bolt. As you might imagine, when he ran 9.58 seconds for 100m, there was no shortage of analysis into just what makes him so fast and how he did it. In short, he’s fast because he has what seems to be a pretty perfect blend of muscle fibre type, an ability to recruit those muscles near maximally and efficiently, his body structure (good lever lengths), and of course, all the training and technical skill that allows him to maximize his stride length and stride frequency over 100m. On that day, and many others, all of what I’ve just mentioned meant that he was able to both reach a higher top speed, and also slow down less than his competitors over 100m. Take a look at the graph produced by the Science of Sport for a clearer picture of how that race panned out.

Even world class athletes slow down over 100m!(Credit to http://ow.ly/IH5cT )
Even world class athletes slow down over 100m!(Credit to http://ow.ly/IH5cT )

Ignoring the acceleration, which is also a big part of 100m performance, we can see that in a race the length of just 100m, even world class athletes are actually unable to sustain their highest velocity – in Usain’s case a ridiculous 44.72 km/h! Fundamentally this is because humans will struggle to continue to be able to maintain the required rate of energy production to do so - note the decline in 'total power production' even over 10 seconds.

Graph showing Energy Production in the human body
Energy production in the human body (Credit to http://ow.ly/IH5Eo )

Now maximum speed is pretty bloody important over 100m. But its not the only thing that is important. Speed maintenance, or the ability to endure can be seen to start to come into play. Over 200m, the latter becomes even more important, over 400m, more so. You don’t even need to stretch the race out to 100 miles to pretty much completely remove maximum speed as a limiting factor in performance.

We can look at it another way to prove the point. Take a look at what happens when you take Mo Farah, and Alistair Brownlee (two guys who can by most endurance runners standards can absolutely shift) and put them to a test of speed against a collection of other athletes.

While acceleration, technique and motivation need to be considered, both of them get completely burned by an Anthony Joshua (11.53 sec for 100m) – a man who’s sport doesn’t even involve running! I’d argue he beats them by far enough to suggest that outright speed clearly isn’t what makes Mo or Alistair good at what they do.

Speed requirement in Ultras

Ok, so by now, I hope you are beginning to see how important maximum speed might be in longer distance events (not very). But let’s really drum it home with a specific example. The initial question was posed by someone hoping to take on the NDW 100. Even though the individual’s goals were to just complete, let’s imagine he’s going for the course record - 15:44 for North Downs way. Ignoring nutrition, personal admin etc pacing etc for the sake of argument, (all huge aspects influencing the outcome of this type of event) this theoretically means you need to travel at an AVERAGE speed of 6.35 mph,10.24 kmh or 2.8 m/s over the distance. So, in terms of a speed requirement, if you can travel this fast, you have the raw speed capability to equal the course record. Why not go test it, see if you can run 100 metres in 35 seconds. I believe in you! Whether you can sustain it, is an entirely different question.

We do  know that pretty much everyone fades over 100 miles so its likely that you’ll need to be able to run a little faster than this. But let me stress again top speed is clearly not the problem. Take a look at average speeds of competitors over the SDW100 in 2012 to give you a very rough flavour of how fast people are running.

Graph depicting average speeds of runners between checkpoints during the South Downs Way 100 mile ultra in 2012
Average speeds between checkpoints at the SDW 100 2012 (Credit to Sam Robson and Centurion Running http://ow.ly/IH6tj)

So what about the need for speed intervals when training for ultras?

So this is where the term ‘speed’ is being misused when coaches or athletes refer to speed intervals. I’m assuming that most ultra-runners or coaches aren’t setting their athletes much less than 400m intervals, but even these are not developing maximal speed and should not be called ‘speed intervals’. They are developing an athletes capacity to not go slower. To endure. Not speed.  If 400m intervals developed maximal speed, Usain would be running them. Based on his self-confessed laziness being reason he hasn’t yet trained to competitively run 400m, this might just give you an indication of how much he actually runs that distance!

Don’t get me wrong, increasing your maximal aerobic capacity, your ability to utilize lactate, developing your running economy and the host of other biomechanical, physiological and psychological adaptations that can be improved from systematically running faster than race pace will likely improve your running across most distances. But I must be categorical here – they are not speed training. They are not speed training in that they do not (at least effectively) develop maximal speed. They develop your ability to sustain sub-maximal speed.

To some extent, I feel like this article has just delved into semantics, but I hope I have also made an important distinction for you, and one you can apply to your own training plans. If we misinterpret speed, we leave ourselves open to getting our training wrong too. Next time you hear or see someone stating the importance of speed training for ultras, you don’t have to disagree, but perhaps politely ask them to say what they actually mean, and not just what they think they mean. There is a BIG difference!

The best 30 day challenge for runners

What is the best 30 day challenge for runners?

So, another blog in response to a question from twitter.

What are the best "30 day challenges" for runners? I.e do I really need to be able to wall sit for 300 seconds?

It depends. As ever, it depends (it really does). When you look to construct a robust training plan for a given person, ‘Individualization’, is one of the main requirements you should look to satisfy. I’d like to know a lot more about you (or any runner) before I would answer it specifically (for you) e.g:

In general terms, on your athletic journey, what is our starting point? What is the destination? Specifically - What is your biological and training age? Training history? Current training load? Health status, stress levels, ability to recover?

I don’t mention this to avoid the question, but more to demonstrate that it would be irresponsible to suggest I could offer you a decent answer without such information. I’d like to see how you move, how you run. Only then might it be possible to determine the suitability of any 30 day challenge for you. Taking that into consideration, the likelihood of an arbitrarily designed challenge is unlikely to be that useful for you.  But that doesn’t mean they are completely without benefit either.

Everything that goes into a training plan, should have a purpose. With busy lives to lead, few of us really have the time to be participating in anything that is anything less than something that is fit for purpose toward our eventual goals. Assuming that the specificity of our overall training is also not something that is mutually exclusive from the ability to enjoy ourselves, let’s evaluate the 30 day wall sit challenge in a little more depth and examine its potential benefit to runners.

Image listing the progression of the 30 day wall sit challenge
The 30 day wall sit challenge

So first things first, what is a wall sit exercise? Its an exercise that predominantly works your quads, but also glutes and calves. On the face of it, it sounds like this will be good for running. You definitely use your quads, glutes and calves for running, so thats a tick in our ‘specific for running’ box…..or is it? The wall sit exercise involves an isometric muscle action. What does this mean?  Basically the muscle length doesn’t change and the contractile force is equal to the resistive force, hence you stay in the same place! So what? Well lets look at our quads very briefly while running. They help extend the hip and knee. So actually work both concentrically (where muscle length shortens because the contractile force is greater than the resistive force) and eccentrically (where the the muscle length extends because the contractile force is less than the resistive force) during the running cycle. Ever run fast down a steep hill and had achey legs the next day? This is where your quads experience an exaggerated version of one of their main functions during running i.e. a lot of eccentric loading - (think braking/shock absorbing). As your foot falls further downwards than normal, it effectively increases the resistive forces your quads must absorb. Yet they simultaneously have to contract to stabilise your knee. No wonder they ache after this - I hate trying to do two things at once 😉 So while an isometric exercise like the wall sit this might be useful for downhill skiing or rock climbing, where the sport specific movements require extended and coordinated isometric contraction of the lower limb (holding a static position) - the wall sit does not lend itself well to the more dynamic action of running. Some form of lunge challenge might be a little more specific to a runner.

Moving on from the physical specificity of the challenge, lets look at it from a psychological perspective. I do appreciate that these challenges can be motivating, especially if there is a group of you completing it together. You have target to aim for and a simple plan to follow. In terms of how motivating it might be, take a look at how it fits with the continuum of motivation according to self-determination theory. Where might you put it?

Image depicting The continuum of motivation from self-determination theory
The continuum of motivation from self-determination theory (image from http://ow.ly/IgiS1)

The more ‘self-determined’ your motivation, or so some evidence suggests, the more positive the outcome. If you are going to do a challenge, pick one with meaning for you and your journey.  The 30 day wall sit challenge might be the one for you, but only you know that.

As for the format of the challenge, it is progressive (an important training principle). However, whether the majority of it is enough to stimulate ‘overload’, from which we ultimately adapt is questionable. There is also no opportunity for recovery in it. If it does become too hard, there is little room for manoeuvre. Hence we come back to individualisation and your current training status and ability. Say 120s wall sit was the minimum required to stimulate an adaptation at the outset, you’ve just potentially spent 11 days when you could have been doing something more appropriate to your standard. Say you find 10sec difficult at the outset, the rate of progression is unlikely to be sustainable. The arbitrary nature of the length of the challenge is a double-edge sword. Its short enough, and familiar enough within our mental models to be something that seems achievable and compartmentalised - a nice little package. But our bodies don’t physiologically and physically respond to external stimuli according to where we are in a 30-day challenge. Furthermore, if I wanted to make meaningful gains with an athlete, I’d ask them to set aside 3 months minimum. Worthwhile physical change and adaptation takes time.

For a runner, I’d probably argue 90s in a given position, providing you demonstrate perfect form is enough to demonstrate a bracing competence. After that, progress the exercise in different ways, load, position, amplitude, plane…..The body doesn’t generally work in distinct parts but as a very complex interconnected chain - it should be challenged like that.  Here is a tweet I posted last year from an online Strength and Conditioning Conference, summarising the thoughts of two coaches who know far more than I ever will about training an athlete appropriately (Vern Gambetta and Kelvin Giles) that I think sums it up quite nicely.

Image of skeletal connections linkages and interconnectedness
'Connect,sync,link,then coordinate' (Vern Gambetta) & 'Creating linkages' (Kelvin Giles) From Brendan Chaplin's Online Strength and Conditioning Conference 2014

 

The best 30 day challenge for runners?

So where does that leave us? What ARE the best '30-day challenges' for runners?  Ones that are specifically designed with a beneficial transfer to running in mind, yet appropriate and considerate of the individual undertaking them. Ones that motivate and ‘challenge’ the athlete, and ones that fit into the wider context of their journey from wherever they might be to wherever they are going. And no, you don’t need to be able to wall sit for 300 seconds. 😉

Hope that helps, and of course if you have any questions about this blog or any other general ones please write to me (andy@acbcoaching.com) or get it touch on twitter @acbcoaching.

How do I build confidence after returning from injury?

Returning from Injury

Struggling with own list of blog topics, I thought I’d reach out to the twittersphere for inspiration.I asked @UKrunchat if their followers had any strength and conditioning and running related questions and received several interesting replies. As it turns out, the response I decided to write about was not strictly strength and conditioning related but more aligned with the psychology side of things. As I am currently rehabbing from a nasty knee injury myself (don’t play rugby - its dangerous) and my background in psychology, it really appealed to me, so here goes:

'How do you get confidence back after injury. After the physio. Back to form, but every step is more thought about'

The question sounds as though it comes from someone who has been cleared to exercise again, but is now struggling  perhaps more with certain psychological aspects relating to her running as they are getting back into it.  First, its important to caveat the rest of the answer with the obvious shortcomings of 140 character tweets - It’d obviously be useful to understand more about both the nature and severity of initial injury, length of layout, details of her experiences during rehab, any other psychological interventions etc. These will all play a critical part in the eventual outcome and any exercises that might be suggested as the issues could be rooted in a number of areas. With that said, I’ll try to outline what I would consider MIGHT be some useful techniques and approaches in this situation.

1) Retain perspective and adopt a whole-person philosophy throughout the injury process

Although you have been cleared to exercise again, it is important to continue to retain perspective on the process you have gone through. Remember that you are not your injury, so don’t let it subsume your athletic or even personal identity. When exercise or sport is a big part of your day to day life, it can be a real knock to your sense of self, when your ability to exercise effectively is taken away from you. Any particular injury might cause a given individual to experience a whole range of feelings and emotions - inadequacy, fear, frustration, anxiety etc. throughout the entire journey to complete recovery. Recovery takes time, and patience is required. Understand that these types of recurring thoughts during runs are a frequent and completely normal experience for someone recovering from injury.

Cartoon of glum looking frankenstein-like zombie holding his own arm
It is easy to for your injury to subsume your personal or athletic identity - don't let it!

Try to retain and re-connect with your social support networks - talk to other injured athletes, or those that have had similar experiences. You are not alone in this, and as a person first and foremost, both informal and formal types of support can help improve ongoing motivation and rebuild your confidence. Even just a small conversation, tweet, text or call could be the conversation to help unlock and shake these intruding thought patterns! If they don’t happen to lead to that ‘light-bulb’ moment, over time these connections will help you to appreciate and normalise your current thought patterns. You’ve successfully negotiated your injury so far, this is just another small step in that ongoing process.  Having chatted with friends and fellow runners, next time you go running, try to spot these thoughts as they occur. Acknowledge them for what they are (just normal thoughts), as even the process of noticing and labelling (give them any name you want) can help lessen their salience.

2) Practise thinking differently 

Once you have started to spot these thoughts as they arise, you can then start to implement the process of thinking differently when they do.  The fancy terminology used for this by Sport Psychologists ‘cognitive restructuring’ and the aim is to replace the negative thought patterns with more positive ones. Now, I don’t know exactly what you are saying to yourself or thinking when these patterns occur, but  as an example, instead of thinking ‘I can still feel my injury, its not fixed, I’m never going to run properly again’, you might learn to say to yourself ‘STOP!’ each time you notice your thought patterns running away with themselves, and instead saying 'I’ve done the rehab, these sensations are a normal part of recovery and adapting to running again’.  Choose your own, make it specific, and practise - it won’t necessarily come easily or straight away.

Depitction of cog-like workings of the brain
We learned to think the way we do, so we can learn to think differently too

3) Positive self-talk    

You’ll probably have heard of this. It’s similar to cognitive restructuring, but these are more intentional, pre-rehearsed statements that you can recite (internally or out loud) to help pre-emptively combat negative thoughts. They can be used motivationally or again in a cognitive way. Try both, but I think that the latter would be more relevant to you. Again I don’t know what your injury is, or if it relates to your form, but if it did, something like ‘high hips, light feet, great running’ could be appropriate. Say it to yourself - and mean it, it won’t work if you don’t buy in.

4) Practise asking yourself questions that won’t lead you down the garden path.

If the question you ask yourself is ‘how does my *previously injured area* feel?’, you leave yourself open to becoming lost in a rabbit hole of thoughts to follow. The question is open-ended and general, and can subsequently be interpreted in a multitude of potentially unhelpful and distracting ways. Make the questions you ask yourself offer specific, targeted and useful answers. You might want to develop some highly structured, short-term performance goals and seek out feedback in relation to these. Do you have a checklist for running form? Use this to evaluate your running, as opposed to nebulous and intangible thought-patterns.

Hopefully some of the above techniques and hints will prove useful, and I'd love to hear if any of it helps. Its difficult to be specific without knowing more - please do email me on andy@acbcoaching.com if you have any questions or feedback. If all else fails....

Don't worry, be happy text image
Wise words from Bob Marley

Good luck!