BE THE HAMMER! When you read that, chances are you imagine an athlete lowering their shoulder and trucking over someone on the field, driving them into the ground like a hammer drives a nail into wood. But, now let’s add a layer.
What if I told you to be the hammer, but you have to drive down 46,112 nails...and you have to do this as fast as you can? Would you hit each nail as hard as you could? Would you swing the hammer as fast as you could every swing? Maybe, but unless you are Thor: God of Thunder, you’re probably going to get tired pretty quickly.
Welcome to the world of endurance sports, where it’s not about who’s the strongest or most powerful at any given moment, but rather who can be the strongest over time. The connection between the Power Athlete Methodology and endurance sports may not seem clear right now, but in this article I will breakdown how the Methodology, specifically Bedrock, is the missing link to maximizing the performances of endurance, or aerobic, power athletes.
The Upside Down World: Endurance Sports
Picture this: a world where bragging rights come not in the form of #howmuchyabench, but from running 100-mile weeks. Not how many kilos you had on the bar for your clean, but how you were averaging 0.1 watt/kg of body weight more than your buddy.
This is not your casual Couch to 5k fun-runner; we’re talking about the “20-mile long run on Saturday morning” runner, who’s battled through stress fractures, blizzards, dogs that got off their leash, and a thousand other obstacles so he or she can toe the line one morning for a three and a half hour long gut check. The stringy 22-year old kid who spends his Friday night riding a couple more hours on his indoor trainer instead of partying with his buddies, because he knows that if he can hold 30 watts higher in his Zone 4, he will finally qualify to be a Cat 2 and maybe start making some money. And if that doesn’t make any sense to you, that’s the point.
This world has been foreign territory to strength coaches, much like the weight room has been foreign to these athletes. But, in this world lives some of the most intense athletes you will ever see. You’ve just got to meet them first.
Citius, Altius, Fortius...Potentius
The olympic motto translates to “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. While many of these athletes have, or had, hopes of living the Olympic dream, the motto is still at the heart of their competitive drive. Almost all of them see the first term as the most important, but we know it’s the last term that makes it possible. Actually, I would have to add a fourth term “potentius”...more powerful. Regardless of the distance being covered, the athlete who generates and utilizes the most power over the duration of the race is going to be the fastest. In endurance sports, they care about Critical Power or Critical Velocity.
This is the power or velocity that an athlete can maintain, theoretically, forever. When cycling for over 100 miles, peak power doesn’t really matter, but critical power does. While the type of power needed to be successful is different than that needed for an offensive lineman, the building blocks are the same: moving external loads quickly. By increasing their traditional power and strength numbers, you will then DECREASE the percentage of power and strength required for their sustained work.
Think of it this way: if they increase their 5RM on back squat by 100lbs, then their submax strength and power will also increase. So they can either use less energy moving at the SAME speed or increase their power per stride/stroke and move faster at the same RELATIVE speed. Their 70% turns into what their 80%, or maybe even 90%, used to be.
Right now you may be thinking, “Alright, bang weights and we’re all good.” But, if we look to our Bedrock program, there is one other equally important component: SPRINTING. What does sprinting have to do with a 100 mile bike race or a marathon? One (German) word: endspurt.
Despite these races being hours long, the top spots often come down to one final “kick”, where athletes sprint to the finish. If you’re a biomechanist, you could have a laughable hayday at watching these walking mitochondria turn on the gas. The arm swing, the tense face and neck, the chin reach, these all are examples trained responses. To attack these limiting factors, they need to have opportunity in their training week. Enter: Intensity and Volume Sprints.
On the one hand, we are enhancing their ability to hit top speed and recruit maximally with proper posture and position, while on the other we present an opportunity to practice that technique under fatigue. And, in this population, fatigue is almost always present.
Running on Empty
Like I mentioned, despite their tiny frames, these athletes tend to be absolute savages. They will take training to the extreme, regardless of what they’re body is telling them. As we talked about a while ago, this can mean big trouble for their hormonal balance. Not only can it drive cortisol through the roof, but they will see a decrease in the almighty testosterone in doing so (1). That means bad things, in terms of muscle function and repair. But, there is an easy fix...bang weights.
Adding resistance training has been shown to actually depress the cortisol response to training (2, 3), potentially mitigating the negative effects seen with prolonged elevated levels. Adding strength training to an endurance athletes program isn’t only going to protect them from negative physiological outcomes, it can also keep them in the fight by building armor around an otherwise frail body.
Clydesdales and Quarter Horses
As someone who spent the better part of a decade coaching endurance athletes, I know you’ll hear a common response pushing back against adding weights to their program: “I’ll get too heavy.” While we may scoff at this statement, remember...these athletes are moving for hours, so it’s a valid concern. Valid, but ultimately unfounded.
For the same reason a 300lbs power athlete won’t win an endurance event, a 135lbs ultramarathoner isn’t going to pack on slabs of muscle. Their combination of genetics and lifestyle, the same ones that make them great at their sport, will be their limiting factors in packing on their meat suit. But, what will happen is that they will get multiple opportunities to move under forces greater than they will ever see in their event.
And, in following the Power Athlete principles, we’ll be able to call upon their posterior chains which go largely unutilized in these types of sports. This will strengthen the internal structures responsible for force reduction, ultimately resulting in less overuse injuries. Their fear is that they will turn into a clydesdale. Big and strong, but slow. The reality is they will be a quarter horse. Maybe a bit bigger than a gazelle, but much faster and able to generate more force per stride.
Just to be clear, to be an elite marathoner/cyclist/etc. you must put in the time. But, if you are training endurance-based athletes, you are doing yourself a great disservice by simply training in that sport’s domain. If you want to avoid injury and maximize your performance, you must include heavy resistance training and sprinting. And, if they’ve never participated in a strength and conditioning program before, then all you need to do is establish a base level of strength...and that's what Bedrock is all about.
- WHEELER, GARRY D., et al. "Endurance training decreases serum testosterone levels in men without change in luteinizing hormone pulsatile release." The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 72.2 (1991): 422-425.
- Bell, Gordon, et al. "Effect of strength training and concurrent strength and endurance training on strength, testosterone, and cortisol." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 11.1 (1997): 57-64.
- Bell, G. J., et al. "Effect of concurrent strength and endurance training on skeletal muscle properties and hormone concentrations in humans." European journal of applied physiology 81.5 (2000): 418-427.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.