Now, without failure, as soon as you start talking about resistance training for endurance athletes, people’s hackles go up. “OMG, you can’t weight lift, you’ll get all big and bulky!!!” or “If you want to get better at a sport, you should only do that sport and nothing else!!!”. I’m not sure if it’s because some folks are scared of being forced out of their comfort zone, but introducing weighted exercises to an endurance training program just sets some folks off.
As we discussed in the first entry to the Better Adventure Racing series, there simply isn’t enough time in the week for most of us to spend getting in a lot of training volume. I have to fit in all my training to about 10 hours a week, give or take, so this means I’m not always hitting the single track and almost never getting out onto the water for some paddling. I do, however, have access to the gym in my garage every day. Spending 45 minutes getting in a smartly programmed resistance training workout twice a week helps bridge the gap between what I wish I could do (3 hours of single track biking) and what I actually can do. And because AR has so many different types of demands on the body when compared to a single-mode sport like ultrarunning or enduro mountain biking, resistance training allows you to directly incorporate the demands you’d see out in the woods and bring them into the gym. I don’t have the time to go kayak for a few hours (and why would I want to when I could run or bike instead), but I do have the time for 4 sets of 12 TRX rows. Not the same, of course, but it’s a worthwhile substitute and for all the reasons listed above, far more practical.
Overwhelmingly, resistance training isn’t about making you a faster adventure racer or substituting weight lifting for sport-specific training. That’s what base endurance is for. Resistance training is about making you a more resilient adventure racer. Muscle keeps you in the game past when you otherwise would have tapped out or gotten hurt. And as any veteran racer will tell you, it’s often not the fastest racer who wins, but the one who can keep going despite it all. It also helps to know how to read a map…
Random note – Go watch the Expedition Alaska film to see exactly what I’m talking about. That brutal course tore racers apart. Tecnu pulled off the win in large part by just willing to continue when others couldn’t or wouldn’t.
The reasons adventure racers should be doing resistance training are legion:
- Armor Plating. Adventure racing involves (sorry, MANDATES) falls, slips, and other injuries causing risk to the body. The stronger you are, the less likely you will get injured, and if you do, the less severe the injury will be. Muscle is what encases all that soft, mushy stuff inside you and keeps it safe. On top of that, your recovery is quicker thanks to the higher metabolic rate of muscle tissue. You WILL get knocked down. Muscle is what gets you back up.
- Variety. Because adventure racing typically involves 3 sports, and some races up to 6, the ability of your body to accommodate the different types of demand placed on it from multiple sports is a strong determinate of who wins. Resistance training teaches your body to get uncomfortable by forcing it to struggle through manipulating external loads. Furthermore, resistance training helps add a bit of spice to your programming, breaking up the inevitable long slogs we have to do when working on our base endurance. This keeps you excited and prevents overtraining.
- Improved Performance. Muscle tissue readily stores glycogen, the primary fuel for the body and brain during anaerobic efforts. More muscle mass gives your not just a stronger athlete, but an athlete with a larger gas tank. Additional muscle mass help ensures continue proper mechanics for extended periods of time, helping fight the battle against fatigue. On top of that, the venous return of blood to your heart is helped along by on muscle. So more muscle means more help pumping blood through the body.
- Exposed Weaknesses. Resistance training, when done correctly, quickly place athletes into positions that when combined with an external load, reveals their imbalances. Tight calves, a common attribute in endurance athletes, are easy to spot when doing 225 lbs barbell back squats. Far better to spot these weaknesses in the gym and adjust programming to compensate and correct (like some slow eccentric calf raises) then to find yourself wondering why your legs are on fire a couple hours into the race.
- Strength is King. The ability to exert force is the dominant fitness attribute. Endurance is a subset of strength, as it is that same exerted force, just spread across a large period of time and space. A stronger athlete is recruiting a higher number of motor units, extracting more muscle fiber contractions in the same period of time as a weaker athlete. The more motor units recruited, the more force exerted, and the more force exerted, the faster you go. Strength begets speed.
One of the biggest benefits to resistance training (and weight training in particular) is that it helps expose, and then subsequently shore up, weaknesses. One of the best ways to do this is to conduct omnidirectional and contra-lateral exercises. What are those fancy words? They mean you should move in more than 1 direction and in more than 1 method, something the vast majority of endurance athletes fail to do.
Endurance athletes are horribly biased towards forward movement (sagittal plane). We like to see where we’re going, so we participate in activities that are all about going forward where our eyes can best observe. We pay more attention to how the front of our body looks (gotta have those sick abzzz) than our back. All this attention to a specific direction and side leaves us exposed to injuries from the other side. You may be great at running forward, but when you suddenly have to leap sideways, snap!, there goes the ACL. When compared to our road-running compatriots, trail racers are naturally exposed to more lateral movement (frontal plane) from all the twists, turns, roots, and rocks, but are nevertheless still biased towards forward movement. Obviously, it’s good to be good at moving forward (I’ve yet to see an AR that requires everyone to run/bike/paddle backward), but while we need to focus on forward movement, we can’t allow that focus to be all-consuming. This is where resistance training can help. Here’s an example:
The X-band walk, a wonderful resistance exercise for building strength in muscles that typically don’t get much focus, like the glute medius.
Smart programming can address these biases and counteract a lot of the imbalances we see in endurance athletes. Bounds, lateral squats, balance work, and connective tissues focused exercises provide the much-needed attention to the other parts of the body that get ignored and under-trained. An under-appreciated fact of the body is that most connective tissues (ligaments, tendons, bands, etc.) have 1/10th the metabolic rate of muscle tissues. Meaning that a crucial ligament like the ACL only goes through the same GAS cycle as the muscles around in the time those muscles go through 10 times. So all our favorite season-ending injuries like plantar fasciitis, Achilles tears, ACL/MCL tears, etc. are often the result of strong muscles working beside weak connective tissue. Yet another reason that the 1-4% increase in difficulty/stress is the road to success, as it limits the growth of musculature so that they don’t outpace the surrounding connective tissues. The fact is that as an adventure racer, you will inevitably be going sideways or backward during a race. Hopefully by choice (side-stepping down a steep incline, quickly leaping over logs, etc) but also inevitably not by choice (head over heals over the bike handle bar). The amount of armor plating you’ve built on your body is the difference between a bruise and a race-ending injury. Strength coach Dan John says it best – “strong people are harder to kill”. Higher density of muscle directly corresponds to the ability to absorb more damage. And in adventure racing, there’s ALWAYS plenty of damage to go around.
Complementary vs. Competitive. One of the major traps that endurance athletes can get snared in is making the mistake in their resistance training programming that they try to replace and/or replicate their base endurance training inside the gym with weighted exercises. This normally takes the place of the “high rep, low weight” workouts where athletes do tons of repetitions of light weight exercises. The reason this is so dangerous is that if you’re actively training your base endurance (which you pretty much ALWAYS are), then trying to plug in additional endurance workouts in your schedule is going to take your body well outside the 1-4% additional stress per week that you should be accumulating. If you’re training Type I muscle fibers during your resistance training instead of Type IIa and IIb, you’ll never be able to recover in time. It’s equivalent to the “junk miles/gray zone/black hole training” we discussed in Base Endurance post. You’re not actually getting better at anything, you’re just piling on more stress that can’t be accommodated. Now, there may be a time and place, like if you’re nursing an injury and can’t go for a run/ride, but by and large, resistance training should be kept to complementary style programming. It should be reinforcing your endurance workouts, which will always remain the cornerstone of the overall training program.
Okay, got it, resistance training makes sense. What should I do? Well, there is extremely dependant on a number of variables like current fitness, schedule, access to facilities, etc. So I’ll ignore the question and instead answer by telling you how I do it. I break up my resistance training into three distinct training blocks over the course of the year. This allows me to program in blocks that have a narrower focus than just “get better” and instead lets me target specific goals.
Phase 1 – Base: The base phase occurs at the beginning of the offseason from adventure racing (typically October/November time frame). The focus of the base phase is maximal strength, aka get as strong as possible. The reason for this is two-fold. First, you’ve just finished the race season. You’re probably pretty burnt out of long endurance events. Physiologically, your type I muscle fibers are extremely developed, while your type IIa and IIb are underdeveloped. Because of the busy competitive schedule of the summer and early fall seasons, you’ve become physically weak in exchange for stamina. Focusing on maximal strength gives your central nervous system a nice break while training your body at an aspect of fitness that has been recently neglected. Secondly, maximal strength sets the stage for a successful season. By getting STRONG early, training efforts later in the year that focus on relative strength and muscular endurance will be far more successful. The stronger you get in the offseason, the better training you’ll experience as we enter later training phases. Remember at the beginning of the article where I said strength is king? I meant it.
Let me now quote from Alex Viadra, strength coach extraordinaire, of Complete Human Performance and author of The Hybrid Athlete, who has written far more at length than I on the subject of resistance training for endurance events: “By training with higher loads for lower repetitions (singles, doubles, or triples), the body is forced to recruit more muscle fibers (through enhanced neuromuscular adaptation) in order to move the heavier load. By training the body to fire more muscle fibers at one time, the net result is increased power and force production each time the neurons in the brain send a signal to the neurons in the muscles. Perhaps most importantly, however, training muscles to fire maximally, and fire quickly, improves efficiency- there is less energy wasted as the muscle fibers respond to nerve activation. This means that when you need to kick it into high gear, your body will be able to call upon more muscle fibers to contribute to power production to get you up that hill or to that finish line, and can do so with less wasted energy.”
Boom. Mic Drop.
What’s this look like? For me, I lift twice a week. Each lifting season includes a compound, multi-join movement under heavy load, like a barbell deadlift, front squat, weighted lunge, back squat, etc. I’ll do 4-5 sets of 2-3 repetitions. The focus is to accrue incremental improvement (remember that 1-4% improvement I spoke about in the first article?) that stress the body to repair muscle fibers and nail that sweet spot in the super compensation cycle. On top of that, I’ll add in some upper body specific exercises that are more muscular endurance focused, some core exercises, and a few mobility exercises. The base phase is intentionally simple because with the focus being maximal strength, doing excessive work distracts from the primary effort, which is moving a heavy weight twice then resting so I can do it again.
Here’s a standard workout:
Circuit 1 (4 sets)
Barbell Deadlift x 2 (start at 225 lbs, work up to 285-315, depending on how I feel)
Pullups x 7
Russian Twist x 10 (with 35 lbs plate)
Circuit 2 (3 sets)
Pistols x 8 (each leg) – Because the deadlift is hamstring dominate, I use the second circuit to offset the muscle demands by using an exercise that hits the other side, like Pistols, since they are quadricep dominate
TRX Rows x 8
Hanging Leg Raises x 8
I’ll continue the base phase for 4-5 months, typically into February. You may notice that the base phase for endurance training and resistance training are the same. This is intentional. They are meant to be mutually beneficial, as the volume-focused, low intensity (MAF threshold) training of the base endurance training is done beside the maximal strength focused base resistance training. In essence, you’re training the opposite ends of the spectrum – low intensity, high volume cardiovascular fitness and high intensity, low volume maximal strength.
Phase 2 – Build: In the build phase of resistance training, I’m feeling very strong, but my muscular endurance is crap. Basically, I can lift a heavy thing a few times, but my body quickly loses out after an extended period at higher intensities. I’ve intentionally avoided efforts that push the threshold of my comfort zone, neglecting things like lactic acid threshold training or high-intensity training. Now we start to sprinkle that into training.
The build phase is meant to last about 3 months, from February-ish to May-ish. I divide this phase into 3-week training cycles, which allows me to follow a semi-organized pattern, accruing gains in fitness at a specific training demand then rotating them in order to maintain the challenge. The first two months focuses on relative strength, which is simply maximal strength but at a lower weight for a few more repetitions. So instead of 2-3 reps, I’ll do 5-6 reps. This necessitates lowering the weight on the bar so I can successfully lift correctly. So my deadlifts drop from around 300 lbs to maybe 250 or 225. This shift may seem small, but the changes that occur in your muscle is significant, as the adjustment in volume sends signals that your type 1 fibers now need to start helping out with the lifting.
For the third month, I’ll shift to lactic acid threshold training, which is the same lifting routine (5-6 reps), but going very slowly. I’ll typically do 4-5 seconds lifting the weight up, and 4-5 seconds lifting the weight down. I’ll cover lactic acid threshold training more in depth in the next article, but it’s a game changer. The short reason is that the slow lifting speed teaches your body to remove the lactic acid that accumulates in the muscles in order to more readily convert it to additional glucose.
So a typical workout looks like this:
Circuit 1 (4-5 sets)
Deadlift x 5-6 reps (185-250 lbs)
Immediately followed by 8 jumping lunges
Pushups x 20 reps
Weighted situps x 10 reps
Circuit 2 (3-4 sets)
Overhead Squat x 8 reps (95 lbs)
Chinups x 6 reps
Pallof Press x 8 reps
Finally, I’ll start to introduce “grinders” once every 2-3 weeks. Grinders are done on a third lifting day, only when I’m feeling like my body is capable of absorbing a bit more stress. They are 10-20 minute work capacity training events, focusing on teaching my body to adapt and get comfort with discomfort. Grinders involve exercises that aren’t strength focused, but rather are a blend of cardio and strength. Exercises include weighted step ups, tire drags, hill sprints, farmers walks, sandbag getups, etc. They aren’t as crazy intense as a Crossfit workout, but rather a sustained output at a moderately high intensity for a short period of time. Their purpose is to simulate the really crappy times that can occur in a race, like a hike a bike up a mountain side or towing a teammate. Just be sure to not go all out, otherwise, you’ll end up wrecking the rest of the week’s workouts.
The sandbag getup. Courtesy Rob Shaul and Strong Swift Durable. Do this for 10 minutes. Then enjoy the profoundly new outlook on life you now have.
Phase 3 – Perform: The perform phase lasts three to four months, typically June through September. This is peak race season, so now it’s time to show off all the awesome benefits you’ve received from resistance training. This phase is noticeably volatile, as the density of competitions can cause the training efforts to slacken or completely halt in order to allow for recovery. When you’re racing three weekends in a row across multiple sports, it’s far more important to go for a recovery walk then it is to try and get a few more squats in. Nevertheless, we build a model for this phase in the instances where you have a 2 week or longer break between races, or if some of your races are just for fun and not for serious competition, we just regard them as long workouts.
The perform phase focuses on maintaining the gains achieved in the base and build phases to the best of our ability, training at only a moderate intensity. To be clear, you won’t be getting stronger in the phase, at either the maximal or relative phase. At best, you won’t get weaker. Primarily, the resistance training will be to introduce just enough stress in the body to make the body respond by repairing muscle tissue in an effort to fight against the inevitable wasting of muscle tissue that occurs from frequent endurance efforts. On top of this, we add a good amount of athlete drills and dynamic efforts to promote power, speed, and explosiveness. These drills help stave off the shrinking of Type IIa and IIb muscle fibers, helping preserve your ability to perform sudden bursts of effort like jumping over roots, avoiding bike crashes, etc.
A typical workout in Phase 3 looks much like Phase 2, but without the strain for 1-4% improvement. You’re looking for 0% improvement. If you haven’t achieved your resistance training goals in the past 9 months, it ain’t coming now. Now is the time to taper, So do the workouts with a bit more rest than last month, a bit less weight, and a few less reps. I’m intentionally vague because it needs to be very situationally dependent and not strictly scheduled. You’re harvesting nourishing movement, helping recover from last weekend’s brutal race or feel loose and ready for next weekend’s. If you have a decent break in the schedule, or you only have “B” and “C” races and are looking to ramp up for an “A” race, then conduct a 3-week long cycle from Phase 2.