Strength training and endurance sport have been dichotomized for a long time. And although times are changing, still many endurance athletes are skeptical of strength training for fear it will add unnecessary muscle bulk and slow them down. Some also believe that strength training is only worthwhile if high repetition, low load schemes are followed. Both of these mindsets are equally flawed. Through practice and research, it is shown that strength training for endurance athletes can be crucial to their success, especially over the long term. This population is no different than any other when it boils down to the overall plan of strength development. Their programming must begin with a General Preparation Phase (GPP). And this phase must include, as it should with all athletes, a focus on injury prevention and transferring strength gains directly to performance.
The strength training plan for the endurance athlete during the GPP must address the neuromuscular (NM) system, whereby adaptation should be predictable and prescription purposeful so as to improve upon existing levels of intra and inter-muscular coordination. This NM system refers to the communication highway between both the brain and spinal cord and the muscles responsible for producing and controlling movement. Addressing the neuromuscular system through a systematic and movement based strength training plan elicits a different adaptation from traditional or more specific forms of strength training, where athletes may lift weights to gain mass and maximum strength.
Neural adaptation is used to describe several adaptations in the muscle systems:
- Alterations in recruitment
- Synchronization of motor units
- Reflex potential
- Co-contractions of antagonists and synergists
The GPP phase is about facilitating movement patterns that will have the most functional relevance for the athlete, thus improving performance and decreasing potential for overuse injury (Bott and Keller 2008).
Details of the GPP Plan
Following a period active rest, at the end of the competitive season, the athlete begins the first phase of training all over again. Or, perhaps the athlete has been an avid endurance athlete for many years, but has never entertained the idea of strength training. Nevertheless, both athletes should begin in this phase. It is the length of the phase and the dose within the phase that you will have to determine based on the principles governing periodization. During the general preparation phase these strength objectives must be addressed:
- Work on balancing strength of extensors and flexors
- Work unilaterally to balance strength left to right side of body
- Perform three to four times the volume on antagonistic muscles
- Strengthen joint stabilization muscles
- Improve proprioception and intrinsic foot strength
The plan must ensure the athlete covers a high number of exercises, challenging all three planes of human motion. Rigorous and high load strength programs will develop muscle fibers quickly at the expense of underdeveloped connective tissue, which takes much longer to adapt. Ligaments and tendons must be “seasoned” so they are ready to withstand the strain of heavier loads. Plus, most endurance athletes are not used to load in the first place, so introducing it gradually will help with the buy-in process of strength training altogether.
The duration of this phase of training will depend on the athlete’s functional screen results and training background. Athletes with a limited strength training background (which is less than 90 percent of all endurance athletes) obviously require a longer general preparation phase. Generally and according to the periodization experts, inexperienced athletes need eight to 10 weeks of general preparation. It is recommended endurance athletes following a general adaptation program two to three times per week during this phase of the annual plan. Strength training during this phase should make up approximately 20 percent of total training hours. If an athlete is completing two, back to back training sessions, one with strength and the other aerobic, the strength training session, during the GPP phase, must precede any energy system work.
GPP Program Goals
1. Improve Neuromuscular Control and Imbalances
High levels of neuromuscular control are absolutely necessary for dynamic joint stability. When an athlete is suffering from lack of control or a neuromuscular imbalance , essentially he/she has a muscle activation pattern that leads to an increase in joint load. Increasing joint load can lead to all kinds of overuse injuries such as patellar tendonitis, tibial stress syndrome and hip bursitis. Neuromuscular imbalances will limit the effectiveness of the active muscular control system in working synergistically with the passive joint restraints (ligaments and tendons) to create dynamic joint stability.
Neuromuscular imbalances can present themselves in three forms:
- Ligament dominance – When the ligaments absorb a significant portion of the ground reaction forces (impact) versus the lower extremity musculature
- Muscle group dominance – An imbalance between opposing muscle groups, i.e.: quads and hamstrings, where strength and/or firing speeds are very different
- Unilateral limb dominance – A side to side imbalance in muscular strength, flexibility and coordination. Over-reliance on the dominant limb can place greater stress on that limb or place greater stress on the weaker limb.
“Identifying or perhaps more importantly, anticipating neuromuscular imbalances may offer the greatest potential for intervention in the endurance athlete” (Keller 2008).
When prescribing the GPP training plan, an athlete should be exposed to movement patterns that encourage dynamic joint control of both the core (trunk) and the extremities (knees, hips and ankles). In essence, we are developing protective spinal reflexes and multi-joint neuromuscular engrams which are muscle memory cards. These memory cards help to more effectively manage the ground reaction forces during running. Proprioceptive training also teaches athletes to develop a feed-forward mechanism, which is essentially an anticipatory response where stabilizing muscles pre-set themselves to increase stability of a joint on contact. This mechanism helps to decrease joint motion and protect the ligaments from high stress loading.
2. Rehearse optimal movement patterns with changes in velocity, direction and load
Assuming that many endurance athletes do not have “perfect” biomechanics and instead present with postural deviations, plus indicate weaknesses in frontal plane stabilizers and posterior kinetic chain prime movers, a well prescribed strength training program must begin with creating a heightened awareness of optimal versus sub-optimal movement. In the GPP phase, movements must be rehearsed and practiced to replace any trained aberrant pattern with the new corrective and stable movement pattern. The athlete must learn how to elicit motor control around the joint. It is important to note, this often requires active release of tissues that are inhibiting the desired movement, such as tightness of the piriformis, adductors and iliotibial band, prior to eliciting the motor response of the weak muscle, in this typically shown example: the gluteus medius. Based on Beever’s Axiom, we know that isolated strengthening of the gluteus medius will not be an effective means to establishing joint stability or a corrective NM response when the body is in motion (Keller 2008). Once the athlete is able to initiate the desired motor response about the joint, such as stabilized hip abduction, the NM system must be challenged further to support appropriate CNS response by adding changes of velocity, direction and load or force surrounding the joint(s) in question.
3. Prescribe Transferrable Exercises
It is insufficient and misleading to profess a sound GPP program is a “sport specific” training program. It is a foundational program. As you have learned, identifying and anticipating imbalances is what is important in the GPP phase and perhaps even into maximum strength and power phases. The repetitive, cyclical, linear movements an endurance athlete undergoes can be the root of all kinds of overuse manifestations. By prescribing exercises that are of high quality and transfer, a strength coach can give their clients the most bang for their buck. Below are three suggestions for implementation during this phase with recommendations to further increase or decrease the complexity for the client. These exercises are performed with bodyweight only and referring back to point two, velocity can be increased to “overload” the client long before load should added.
Adding load in subsequent strength training phases is also critical and part of the long term development process. Athletes must be diligent and practice the patterns associated with the exercises listed here, plus others that share similar benefit. Once those patterns are mastered, then load may be added and improving absolute and relative strength levels become the focus of the off season training plan. If we can do our part, as practitioners, to sell the importance of strength training in a “non intimidating” manner to this population, they are certainly some of the most dedicated and loyal clients you will ever have the pleasure of coaching.
1. Split Squats with Single Arm Tracking* Progress to Split Squats with front foot on a mat or balance pad
- Feet in a lunge stance position with knees slightly bent (progress to placing the front foot on a mat or balance pad)
- Engage core and rear glute, keeping hips square
- Maintain short foot stance on the front foot with both feet facing straight ahead
- Raise the same arm as the forward leg ahead of your shoulder
- Actively pull yourself down so that both legs form a 90 degree bend at the knees
- Weight should be in the front heel and rear ball of the foot
- Hold the bottom position and horizontally abduct the arm away from the body on an oblique angle
- Keep hips and shoulders squared and try to keep the body stationary as you track arm movement
- When you bring the arm back to the midline, drive the floor away, engaging the rear glute and front quad to return to the starting position
- Try to distribute the weight evenly on both legs as you pull yourself down
- Ensure that the front knee is tracking directly in line with the middle two toes by creating tension through the hips
- Pretend there is a brick wall in front of your face to keep you upright and not leaning too forward
- Keep a neutral spine by keeping shoulder blades set, chest open and core tight
- Movement is slow so that you can maintain alignment while the varus force is applied
2. Single Leg Balance to Hip Hinge, with SB on back
- Stand with feet together and a stability ball supporting your back, just below shoulder blade level
- Engage your core and set your shoulder blades (see Scapular Sets). You should feel support from the SBall in this position
- Raise one foot off the floor so that you are in single leg balance (see SL Stance). The glutes on your support leg should be engaged
- Begin to hinge equally through both hips, actively pulling down through your hip flexors
- Continuing to engage through your gluteals, extend through your hips to raise back into the start position
- The point of support that you feel on your back with the SB should remain constant. The SB should not roll up and down your back if you are properly hinging through your hips
- The stability ball is meant to provide you with support and feedback so that you can learn to control for rotation through the pelvis and trunk. When the SBall is not available, this exercise may be done by placing your thumbs on your lower ribcage and fingers on the front of your pelvis to ensure these two points remain a constant distance apart and that no rotation occurs during the movement
- Keeping your core engaged and your ribcage a constant distance away from your hips will help you maintain control of your trunk.
3. Single Leg Squat to Single Leg Stance with Side Pull
- Tie a resistance band to a pole just below shoulder height (or have a partner hold one end).
- Hold the free end of the band, locking both hands around the handle with arms straight out in front of the body.
- Position the body so the tubing is creating a direct pull from one side of the body.
- Stand tall with feet together and shoulder blades set.
- Stand on one leg and extend the other leg back as you hinge at the hips.
- Hinge back with a simultaneous knee bend until you feel a strong stretch on the hamstrings.
- Drive back up into single leg stance using the glute of the support leg.
- If you can’t perform the single leg squat movement without touching the back foot down, then lunge backward instead.
- Ensure that the front knee aligns with the middle two toes and that the hips don’t hike or drop as you hinge back.
- During the single leg stance, make sure you maintain short foot stance to avoid scrunching your toes and that the leg drive is straight up. You will need to use your hip flexors for this and not let the leg and hips “open” to the side.
- When trying this exercise, treat it like pulling a lawnmower cord: take a couple warm up pulls before the explosive pull. Step back a couple times into a reverse lunge until you are feeling that you have the pattern down and then hinge back with no back foot touch.
- Make sure you get back in your hips or the front knee will come well over the toes and cause a lot of stress on the knee joint.
- Keep the core engaged and shoulder blades set in neutral throughout the movement, avoiding side bending and twisting of the torso as you move in and out of the squat.
- Think about the whole chain when performing the movement: intrinsic foot muscles not allowing the arch to collapse, tension up the outside (lateral side) of the legs, stability through the hips, core stabilized, set shoulders blades, and neck in neutral.
- Bott, C. & Keller, T. (2008) Building a Strong Foundation: Training the Endurance Athlete in the Gym. http://www.humanmotion.ca/home.php?cat=15&catexp=15
- Hall, S.J. (1995). Basic Biomechanics. St. Louis, MO. Mosby-Year Book, Inc.
- Houglum, P. (2005). Therapeutic Exercise for Musculoskeletal Injuries (2nd Ed.). Windsor, ON: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
- Lephart, S.M. & Fu, F.H. (2000). Proprioception and Neuromuscular Control in Joint Stability. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
- Medvedew, A.S. (1983). Periodization of training in weightlifting: Preparatory plan for a base mesocycle. Soviet Sport Review,18(4), 157-161.
- Novacheck, T. (1998), The biomechanics of running. Gait and Posture, 7:77-95.
Images taken from Building a Strong Foundation: How to Train the Endurance Athlete in the Gym