So, I am giving a talk to a group of runners this week. Our subject is the role of strength training and cross training and how to avoid injury and improve performance. Since endurance sports are some the easiest to participate in with busy schedules hampering our ability to join team sports, this is a very important subject for all of us.
When participating in endurance sports, strength and conditioning with cross training is of paramount importance. With endurance events, motor patterns are performed thousands of times. Think of your foot strike when running or your stroke when swimming. These highly repetitive motions are going to lead to imbalances of one kind or another. There are the ways to correct those and keep your body healthy and feeling great for the next event. Here is the big picture and my major tips to follow for strength and conditioning (without regard to the training of the sport itself):
Stabilization: Joints need to be in sound stable condition to be able to do the thousands of repetitions that move our bodies over land or water. The neuromuscular system of the ankle, knee, hip complex along with the shoulder and shoulder girdle should be able to balance and support us in unstable environment in multiple planes of motion for us to perform injury free.
How? Perform exercises in an unstable environment. A bosu, single limbed, balance boards, and even cushions and pillows are ways to create this with normal every day strength training exercises such as pushups, lunges, and squats.
Planes of Motion: The body has three basic planes of motion: sagittal (front/back), frontal (side to side), and transverse (twisting). In order to move our bodies through space (locomotion), each joint has it’s favorite way to move. In endurance events, with so much of the same repetitions of movement for the muscles surrounding these joints occurring, the muscles and tendons may become inflamed or neuromuscularly shorten because of this repetition (even if movement is as mechanically optimal as possible). Doing exercises that move the body in the opposite planes for each of these muscles will give them a fresh stimulus and keep them from having the aforementioned issues.
How? For all the classic movements, simple do a version that moves a different direction than usual. Ex, the side lunge or curtsy lunge. Side to side pushups. Pulls and throws in different directions for upper.
Core: “You can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe!” This is the best quote to exemplify why we need core strength. The rest of your limbs cannot function optimally if they are pushing off of an unstable body. The core, as we are going to define it, is made up of the deep muscles that support the spine and the pelvis.
How? Positions that challenge your body to hold that position are best to isolate these deep muscles. Planks, leg raises, and standing rotation are all example of exercises that try to force your body to change position while your stabilizers have to work to keep it. However, the most forceful contractions in these muscles occur in our heavy, full body lifts. Squats, deadlifts, presses, pulls, and weighted gait movements accomplish this.
Posterior chain: The posterior chain is made up of the muscles starting at the back of your head and ending at the bottom of your feet. Since these all work together neurologically for locomotion, I like to think of them as one big muscle. These muscles are primary in moving us whether running, biking, or swimming. Heavy low volume work on these muscles will give them strength for pulling you across land or water.
How? Simple-The hip hinge exercises (deadlifts, stiff legged deadlifts), and pulls with a challenging weight for 5 or less repetitions for 3 or less sets each exercise.
Flexibility: Last but certainly not least is flexibility. As muscles move in short ranges of motion with very high repetition, the neuromuscular system begins to think that these muscles need to be short. Also, the tendons around the muscles can have inflammation as well as wastes from the high level of activity. Certain muscles, especially the ones most active can become tight and cause mechanical disadvantages leading to injury.
How? Full body stretching with mindful attention toward the shortened muscles. Use both static, dynamic, and contract/release techniques as well as myofacial release (foam rolling, massage).
Happy running, biking, and swimming!
Jason Root, CSCS