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.

Eating Disorders in Sports

Eating Disorders in Sports

  • Prevalence rates of Eating Disorders in Sports are not necessarily higher than in the general population.
  • Sport participants are still however at higher risk of developing Eating Disorders than the general population.
  • There is no single cause to an Eating Disorder
  • Subclinical and Partial diagnoses of Eating Disorders in Sport are high!
  • All Sport Participants have a responsibility to be aware of the added risk factors unique to sport that might promote the development of an Eating Disorder.

Its Eating Disorders Awareness week, and I wanted to write a blog with some useful information that might help with raising awareness of Eating Disorders, especially as they relate to Sport.

How common are Eating Disorders in Sport?

When it comes to estimating prevalence, its tricky ground for a number of reasons. For one, the diagnostic criteria of Eating Disorders (ED) has recently changed. Those who were not diagnosed before the release of DSM-V in 2013 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) could now be classified. For example, amenorrhea is no longer a necessary characteristic for the diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa. Classifications of different types of sports, lean or nonlean, aesthetic etc also differ between studies and further the picture.  Consider also, that those who suffer from an Eating Disorder often might not consider themselves to have a problem (think therefore what they might or might not say when filling out a questionnaire).  Individuals also have a funny way of not fitting neatly into one box or another, and can also move from one ED to another. When you look at the research I’ll be the first to admit, there are clear limitations in some of the studies that churn out these numbers, and some quite conflicting information produced.

Some suggest that sport participation seems to have a positive effect on behaviours and attitudes relating to eating and our bodies. In others there seems to be clear patterns where individuals (especially women) competing in lean, aesthetic, endurance sport are more likely to have ED than non-athletes. But before you’ve made up your mind you can find a host of work that suggests quite the opposite, that some athletes are actually healthier, are at less risk and do not have more eating problems than non-athletes.

So do sport participants suffer from more ED than those that don’t do sport? On balance, probably a little. But the same messy research landscape presents itself when we ask other questions about ED prevalence within sport. For example, does the level of competition influence the prevalence? Again, its hard to say. You’d probably think the more competitive the worse it gets - stakes are higher, margins are finer. Eventual Conclusion? More relaxed competitive levels of sport are probably not protective, and elite levels aren’t necessarily predictive of ED.

So where does this leave us? Prevalence rates of ED within sport are variable. Its probably safer to assume that sport is but a microcosm of wider society. Personally, I am not sure that prevalence is of  that great a relevance or use to the general population anyway. For those that have been through them, worked with people with ED or have had friends or family battle against them, the fact that they exist at all is bad enough.  What is important to appreciate is that because the development on ED depends upon a host of developmental, genetic, and environmental factors (i.e. there is no single cause to an ED), we all have a responsibility to be aware of, and manage those risks that specific to our environment.  We know that sport participants are exposed to the same risk factors as the general population, as well as those that come from sport. Although this is not necessarily expressed in higher prevalence when it comes to the development of ‘full on’ Eating Disorder, sport does expose its participants to a greater number of risk factors associated with ED.

What is worrying, that when you drop down to partial or subclinical diagnoses of ED, we are faced with a far bleaker picture. These are the people that we might consider to suffer from disordered eating, or are symptomatic of a greater classification but don’t quite tick all the boxes. I have seen estimations of disordered eating within sport (and particularly those at higher levels of sport) range from 18-46%! Sport participation is often referred to as part of the ‘solution’ to the a worsening picture of global health (obesity, inactivity and chronic illness). I can’t help but wonder what might happen as this discussion continues to evolve. Might we exert further pressure on those in sport who are already symptomatic? Might we be trading one potential health risk for another by directing people towards sport?

Eating Disorders in Sport - What are the risks?

In order to understand, treat and potentially prevent eating disorders is it useful to know the difference between what are the general risk factors we all face, and the additional ones we might be facing that are specific to sport. As I mentioned previously there is no single cause to an eating disorder and their occurrence will come from a multitude of genetic and sociocultural (media, family, peers) factors. We don’t need to avoid sport therefore, but we should be cognisant of, and do our best to avoid/lessen the specific risk factors it brings with it.

Weight/Body Fat = Enhanced performance

This is often taken as gospel, yet you might be surprised to know that the literature is can be quite equivocal when you look at the relationship between bodyweight/fat and performance. I am sure the old school amongst you will be turning your noses up in disgust at this point.  I am not denying that bodyweight is a factor in sporting performance, but neither is it an independent variable we can manipulate without consequence. Pay attention to this next sentence. It is unethical for any individual, coach or practitioner to advise weight loss to an athlete or another individual without specialist knowledge and training. If you don’t have this expertise and have not consulted with health professionals that understand the implications both from a nutritional and psychological perspective, you should not be saying anything. In sport you definitely can do more harm than good. If you work with athletes. de-emphasise weight and know your limitations.

Image of scales
Pressures of Weight Loss

Similarities between a 'good athlete’ and characteristics of eating disorders

The ability to perform despite pain and discomfort, mental toughness, unrelenting commitment and pursuit of excellence are all traits that are associated with what most might consider a ‘good athlete’. These are therefore behaviours that are positively rewarded within sport. These traits however are very similar to several characteristics of eating disorders. The denial of discomfort, asceticism, excessive exercise and perfectionism are all traits that might put an individual at risk of developing an eating disorder. Sport is not black and white, lines get blurred, and nothing is clear cut. Not only might these traits expose certain athletes to greater risk, but the fact that they potentially complicate the identification of a problem should also be considered a risk.

As alluded to above, the positive reinforcement of behaviour symptomatic of an eating disorder is also a big problem in sport. Consider these two examples. Excessive exercise and dieting for weight loss. I’m sure we all know many in the endurance community who might fall into these categories. You may be shaking your head here too, but bottom line is, almost all those that suffer from ED have dieted (often multiple times). For certain people it can be a precipitant of ED, or make their current ED worse. I’ll say it again, de-emphasise weight. If you want to reward and encourage others, make it about things they have done to improve their health, not lose weight (even if these might sometimes be related in overweight individuals). When it comes to excessive exercise, this can be something a bulimic does instead of purging, or to justify eating, or as a result of eating. Its also a common characteristic in Anorexia also. Often one the last symptoms to disappear and one that can cause the persistence of an eating disorder, be careful what you say. Its difficult to identify, especially in ultra-endurance sports but before you next congratulate your friend on their ‘epic run streak’, just stop and think, what else could you say?

image of tape, water and apple
Dieting can be harmful to those with eating disorders

Sport specific expectations, ideals and norms

Each sport has its own subcultural idiosyncrasies. Be aware of these. Pathogenic behaviour relating to cutting weight or maintaining a low weight are common in jockeys, in boxing, wrestling etc. Think of body ideals. Triathlon is a particularly tricky one, as each sport emphasises different ‘ideal’ body shapes. Its impossible to be all three. Are you promoting these ways of thinking in what you say, are others? If so you could be increasing the pressure on an individual to conform. When it comes to pressure relating to shape, weight and body image this is a big no-no!!

While there are other potential risk factors relating to sport  I hope this has provided a bit of insight into some of the more significant and obvious dangers that sport might present with regard to the development of eating disorders. Sport can either pose a direct risk, exacerbate or obscure the identification and delay treatment of full and subclinical  eating disorders.

If anyone has any questions or interested in any references that I have not mentioned, please email me (andy@acboaching.com) or contact me on @acbcoaching through twitter and I’d be happy to discuss. Again, I’d love it you could share this article in the spirit of eating disorder awareness week. If anyone would like to find out more about Eating Disorders, I’d recommend visiting the National Centre for Eating Disorders website.

 

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!