If you observe playgrounds as closely as I do when I go running by, you can hear this familiar boast of youth. They are the words of boys comparing the size of their biceps, showing them off to the girls during break time. School cafeterias turn into venues for arm wrestling, where boys challenge one another at the lunch table, the winner getting his opponent’s sandwich. Even as children, we are fascinated by our muscles.
At first glance, endurance activities don’t seem to have much to do with big, strong muscles. After all, when was the last time you saw a big, muscular distance runner or triathlete? Indeed, the best distance runners in the world are quite small, with slim legs and arms. As an endurance athlete, you can still benefit from speed, strength and power training, as long as you don’t start looking like your sprint athlete counterpart. It’s not what your muscles look like but rather what they do that matters.
What Factors Enable You to Become Faster?
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For endurance athletes, the answer can be divided into two categories: cardiovascular factors and muscular factors. Cardiovascular factors include those that affect the volume of blood your heart pumps (i.e., stroke volume and cardiac output) and the transportation of oxygen to your muscles, which is influenced by the amount of red blood cells and hemoglobin. Muscular factors include the ability to use the available oxygen and your muscles’ ability to contract (to produce movement).
Of course, it’s a lot more complex than that, but in order to cover a distance faster, you must increase your stroke volume and cardiac output along with your red blood cell and hemoglobin concentrations and your muscles must contract faster with more force. Speed is the product of stride length and stride rate in runners. For cyclists, it’s the product of RPM and resistance (gear). Strength is the maximum amount of force muscles produce – it’s dependent on muscle size, type of fibres and movement speed, among other factors.
Power – perhaps the most overlooked trait for sports performance – is the product of speed and strength. While an increase in speed, strength, or both increases power, the more important characteristic is speed, since most movements in sports – with the exception of Olympic-style weight lifting – occur too quickly to produce maximum force.
It is far more important to produce force quickly. While improving power may help you run or bike faster, endurance activities are primarily limited by the delivery and use of oxygen. Therefore, the bulk of your training should be aerobic and this must include a progressive increase in training volume.
Training for Speed
“The fastest way to improve speed and power for endurance activities is, unsurprisingly, to train at faster speeds”
The fastest way to improve speed and power for endurance activities is, unsurprisingly, to train at faster speeds, which is best accomplished through tempo and interval training. For long distance events (e.g., marathon, Cyclo Sportives), tempo training, in addition to increasing training volume, is most important, while for shorter distance events (e.g., 5K/10K running, 400-metre/800-metre swimming), interval training is important.
Tempo training improves your lactate threshold, the fastest pace that you can sustain aerobically and above which acidosis occurs in muscles and blood. You should do tempo runs at lactate threshold pace, which is 20 to 25 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace for runners, with the workout feeling ‘comfortably hard’ (see Sample Speed Workouts for Runners).
Interval training allows you to do more intense work by alternating the work with periods of recovery. There are many versions of interval training, from short periods of fast running/cycling/swimming with long recovery periods, to longer periods at a slower speed (but still faster than normal) with short recovery periods.
Which type you do depends on your specific goal, with the former improving speed and your muscles’ ability to buffer acidosis, and the latter increasing cardiac output (the volume of blood your heart pumps per minute), muscle aerobic enzymes and the maximum rate of oxygen consumption (VO2max).
Training for Strength
Every time your muscles work against a resistance greater than normal, they are stimulated to change. Strength training can come in many forms. There is nothing special about lifting a metal dumbbell off the ground. Your muscles don’t know the difference between a dumbbell, a litre of milk, or a suitcase. The resistance could literally be anything, as long as it causes fatigue.
While speed and power training can improve endurance performance, the benefits of traditional strength training (lifting light to moderate weights 10 to 15 times per set) are questionable. There are no studies showing that strength training improves oxygen delivery from lungs to muscles, which is largely dictated by the cardiac output.
While some studies have found that traditional strength training may lead to improved endurance performance in previously untrained people or in young, inexperienced athletes, other studies have shown it to be ineffective. Experienced, highlytrained athletes are less likely to benefit from traditional strength training and may even be hampered by it, especially if it’s performed at the expense of more sport-specific training.
Training for Power
“So, if you want to improve your endurance performance, add some speed, strength, and power training to your endurance training”
While endurance is primarily enhanced through improvements in the cardiovascular factors previously discussed, maximal and power-type (explosive) strength training and plyometric training have been getting increased attention as a means to improve endurance performance. Studies on runners and X-country skiers have shown that economy (the oxygen cost of maintaining a specific speed) improves when plyometric training (jumping exercises) and/or explosive weight training is included in subjects’ training programs.
In a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, runners performed short sprints (5-10 x 20-100 meters), jumping exercises and lower body weight training with low loads between 0-40% of one repetition maximum moved with fast speeds. The researchers also found that the runners’ 5K time improved in the group that combined endurance and power training but not in the group that only performed endurance training.
Two other studies published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine Science in Sports and Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, in which subjects performed three to four sets of five to six repetitions with heavy loads (85-100% onerep max) and fast speeds, also found improvements in economy. Power training and may improve economy through a neuromuscular mechanism, by improving the speed at which muscles can produce force.
So, if you want to improve your endurance performance, add some speed, strength, and power training to your endurance training. If you train correctly, you’ll get the fastest muscles on the track, road, or in the pool, which will prompt you to say to your competitors, “I bet my muscles are faster than your muscles.”