Weekend Reading: Should Endurance Athletes Incorporate Strength Training?

This is the time of year when a lot of athletes start asking their CTS Coaches about strength training. Should they? Shouldn’t they? Should they lift heavy or light? Free weights or machines? And what about Crossfit? The answers to the questions vary from athlete to athlete, but let me give you some guidelines I think ENDURANCE ATHLETES should keep in mind:

Time-Crunched Athletes benefit most from sport specificity.
If you want to be a faster cyclist, runner, or triathlete you need to focus on activities that are core to your sport. Cyclists need to ride their bikes, and that’s especially true for time-crunched athletes who have very limited overall time to train. Splitting that limited time between cycling and strength training typically leads to little to no progress in either one. A short 15-minute core workout like the one in mentioned later in this article would be a great addition twice a week, but replacing a cycling workout with a strength workout probably won’t do you much good – on the bike or off of it.


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Be clear about what you’re trying to gain through strength training.
For the majority of endurance athletes, strength training doesn’t directly lead to improved performance in your primary sport. In other words, it’s difficult to correlate strength gained in the gym to increased power on the bike or faster sustainable paces during runs. Strength training may have more of an impact on swimming performance, but even there it would be better to focus limited time on improving stroke technique. In my view, the endurance athlete’s best rationale for strength training is to improve general conditioning so highly-specialized athletes have more options for activities. Some highly-specialized athletes become vritual prisoners within their sports; they’re very fit, but they have limited outlets for that fitness. With more generalized conditioning a day of yardwork, a game of pick-up basketball, or a hike in the mountains won’t leave you sore or injured.

Crossfit can be great or disastrous – it all depends on you.
Crossfit is very popular right now and CTS Coaches are getting a lot of questions about its effectiveness and risks for endurance athletes. In principle there’s a conflict between Crossfit’s philosophy and that of an endurance athlete. You’re focused on achieving high performance in a specific sport. Crossfit’s philosophy focuses on a high level of generalized fitness. Hence, the mantra of “Outrun a lifter, out lift a runner.” On a more practical level, the exercises used in Crossfit are dynamic, full-body movements that incorporate speed, power, and balance, and since there’s no recovery between exercises there’s a sustained aerobic component to the workout after the first 5-10 minutes or so. So, as a supplement to endurance training it can be very beneficial. The HUGE caveat to that statement is that it all depends on you being a smart athlete. The environment and instruction are critical. Ballistic movements performed with improper technique and too much weight will cause injuries, so it’s important to work in an environment where technique is valued more than intensity and where the instructors/leaders know how to teach proper technique for Olympic lifts and ballistic movements. And if you choose to incorporate Crossfit just remember that peer pressure can be a powerful influence. You’re an endurance athlete using Crossfit to have some fun and supplement your sport-specific training. Don’t get sucked into matching or beating devoted Crossfit athletes in their primary sport.

Focus on dynamic movements
If you have the time to incorporate some strength training into your schedule and you understand that the goal is improving general conditioning rather than being a faster endurance athlete, then I’d recommend dynamic movements that feature a balance/stability component and mostly rely on bodyweight, medicine balls, or dumbells/kettlebells for resistance. Unless you just want to look good on the beach, there’s not much reason for an endurance athlete to focus on bench presses. Here’s a video that takes you through a 10-exercise workout I use to maintain core strength year-round: http://youtu.be/lqHmdXVVoL4. I change up the exact movements, but I keep the theme consistent in that most of the movements are done with medicine balls and bodyweight and the whole workout only takes about 15 minutes.

By the way, I’ve made the decision to add 1-2 additional athletes to my personal coaching roster. You can simply respond to this email if you’re interested and I’ll get you more details.

Have a Great Weekend!
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

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