How To Improve at Endurance Athletics

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She had put triathlon training on hold. <This IS a post about improving at endurance athletics, I promise. Stick with me.> Her focus was on being ‘pain-free’ and having a ‘fit & healthy body composition’. While working on those goals, Kristi went on vacation & jumped in for a fun triathlon her family has done every year when they take that same vacation. And she got the results she listed in that text above. Without training for it. Seriously, she didn’t train. She really did not run more than 4 miles in the last 6 months, and her other endurance workouts were a secondary focus to her two main goals.

What HAS Kristi done in the last 6 months to make her capable of completing a triathlon stronger than ever? She fixed her limiters – in her case this meant activating muscles that simply weren’t firing at any capacity. And – she strength trained. Hard.

When Kristi was first back in to train after her vacation, she went on about how STRONG she felt swimming, that she’d never felt that strong before. Ah. I love that. These moments, the ones when the client I’m working has that “it works!” moment, these are the ones I love the most. When they go out, perform, and realize that there is another way. That they’ve learned a better way. That they’ve gotten better. Because when we’re in the gym training, at least initially, they’re going on trust. Which I value immensely. To be given that trust. I’ve worked hard for 11 years to earn the trust and prove that I can be trusted to get my clients to where they want to go. But once they have a moment like the one Kristi had?…well, there’s no going back. What is proven cannot be unproved:

Getting stronger is The Key to getting better at endurance athletics.

Going to put this here so we can just get it out of the way: please stop thinking that you’re going to get so big from lifting weights that your athletic performance will suffer. You won’t. It won’t. I promise.

Most endurance athlete training programs go about ‘getting better’ via more cardiovascular activity. Different types of runs. Perhaps adding some brick workouts. Those work up to a point for creating greater work capacity. More miles only gets you so far though. At some point, you’ve got to make the machine itself stronger. You’ve got to make it capable of putting out more horsepower. And the way to do that is to get stronger, physically-like-within the muscle, within the bones…your “house”…it has got to be stronger.

You’re going to have to cover the same distance as everyone else when you do an endurance event. You’d be well-served to have the ability to contract your muscles with greater force & efficiency, thereby allowing you to generate greater speed & power. In addition, ideally, you’d be able to cover the same distance and expend less energy than your competition so that you beat them (or if you’re not the competitive type, that you improve upon your previous race times.) To do either of these things, you must be stronger.

My friend James, who is really good at finding studies that tell us interesting things, found the following: a study showing the type of muscle fibers that develop in powerlifters (powerlifting is a strength sport, specifically, competitors compete by performing the squat, deadlift, and bench press at their best attempt maximal weight) and extrapolated what that means for endurance athletes.

You’ll notice that the powerlifter muscle is made up of large amounts of both of the fiber-types that would be beneficial for endurance performance.  This is what we want — muscle that can produce force, has fatigue resistance, and can efficiently utilize fuel substrates.  We should look to develop a similar profile as endurance athletes, only we will train and use the muscle differently afterward.

Lifting heavy weights with a varying volume (but still relatively low compared with conventional recommendations) dependent on the specifics of your training program will provide the stimulus required to create this muscle composition.

What’s the take-away? People who lift heavy weights, with intensity, had an ideal muscle fiber make-up for being good at longer-distance running. Pair that with the cardiovascular strength that endurance athletes build up with the time spent cardio-ing, and you’ve got a winning combo. Kristi is down the path of ‘winning combo’ training and she’s only going to get better from here. I canNOT wait for that!

So what’s the point I’m getting at? Stronger. You need to be stronger. As an endurance athlete. As a human.

In the coming blog posts, I’m going to be diving into more on what strength training for endurance athletes coming into season needs to look like. And to kick that concept off, I’m going to drop this thought right here: your strength training time is STRENGTH training time. Not glorified cardio time via circuit training and high-repetition exercises. More on that later though.

For now, if you’re an endurance athlete looking at their in-season training program…take a really hard look at where you can swap things around so that you can fit (more) strength training into your program. Once a week isn’t going to benefit you as much as twice a week will. And despite time being a quickly diminishing factor in everyone’s lives, if we can coordinate you so that you’re getting a strength stimulus in 3x/week in-season? Yep yep yep. That’d be legit.

And if you'd like some help figuring out what your in-season strength plan should look like, drop me a line on my Coaching Page. We can work on it together.

8 thoughts on “How To Improve at Endurance Athletics

  1. Karen Hollander says:

    Great Blog, Kate! Very interesting, for sure! I’ve been strength training lately (since I can’t run, bike, or even swim hard) And it has helped me feel stronger and better. Knee is getting replaced April 29th and then I’ll be hitting the strength hard…as well as the other aspects. I can’t wait to get this behind me. But this Blog was VERY inspiring….Thank you!!!!

    1. Kate Galliett says:

      Karen! I’m so glad to hear you’re motivated for the future of your body! BEST of luck with the surgery and I am pumped to see what you do with the new hardware! 🙂

  2. Carrie says:

    This article is soooo true. I had a significant hip injury from the Chicago marathon due to weak glutes, and probably other things. The injury was horrible and meant that I would not run for at least 3 months. What then? I swam, and swam and swam, and 2 weeks after the marathon started a very focused strength training program to address all my weaknesses. I have been very consistent about this strength training, and it has improved all aspects of my training: swimming I am stronger all around and setting records for myself constantly. Biking was strong last year and the strength training only made it stronger … I am pushing out bigger watts now and can how a higher avg wattage over longer periods of time. And the big question mark, running. I had to start slow, but I was really surprised and after 3 months, I did not loose much fitness in that area. I am stronger, running fasters, and am much better equipped to handle hills.

    Strength training, Strength training, Strength Training!!!

    1. Kate Galliett says:

      HELL.YES. Carrie!!

  3. Coach Rut says:

    Good work !

    100% of the time someone we get an ‘endurance’ athlete in our practice we dramatically improve their performance and typically they set PR’s.

    This is accomplished by taking out at least one worthless junk workout and adding in strength training.

    Genius right?

    1. Kate Galliett says:

      Coach, you KNOW I already know you’re a genius. 🙂 You guys do good work down there! Which, I’m looking forward to checking out in person in just a few weeks!

  4. Chuck says:

    I have definitely noticed the same benefits! Great post Kate and I’m looking forward to your subsequent articles on endurance training

  5. Kate Galliett says:

    Awesome Chuck! More are coming, promise!! We’re in season so we gotta keep all you athletes strong and healthy!

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