Strength Training for Your Sport

by Exercise Physiologist, Rod Cedaro

I often tell athletes that you train a 100m sprinter and a marathon runner in exactly the same way: the principles are identical, it's just the emphasis and application that change. Strength training is no different.

Many endurance athletes shy away from strength training at the gym for fear of getting 'big and bulky' or losing speed. Sure, if you train heavily with a low number of reps and split routines focusing on mass gain, chances are that's what you'll get. On the other hand, if you 'periodise' your strength training and phase it correctly, it can bolster:

(a) general conditioning,
(b) overall strength,
(c) speed, and
(d) strength/resistance (which I'll use interchangeably).

The application of these principles is key, so I'll answer a few common questions and then provide the basic details of how to compile a strength training program.

What characteristics of a sport need to be considered when designing a training program for strength, conditioning and resistance?

Sports differ immensely in the physiological demands they place on the body. These demands can include agility, speed, aerobic endurance, strength, power, flexibility, balance and coordination. Strength and conditioning programs need to identify and prioritise the importance of each of these athletic qualities and adjust accordingly. This should reflect both:

a) The demands of the sport, and
b) The weaknesses of the individual athlete.

An understanding of the physiological and biomechanical demands a sport imposes on the athlete is crucial. Most sports involve all three energy systems (aerobic, lactic and ATP-PC) to different extents. For example, even though an ultradistance triathlon has an aerobic emphasis, but there will be times when the lactic and ATP-PC energy systems will be called upon.

Strength training is not only important from a performance perspective: it can act as preventative medicine. Used correctly, a well rounded strength/resistance program can pre-condition any areas that are prone to injury. Core stability is important for endurance athletes as poor stability through the pelvis and shoulder girdles can lead to a plethora of overuse injuries.

What do I need to consider when designing a training program for young children, teenagers, and/or more mature athletes?

The two most important characteristics of any athlete are age and experience. Mature and experienced athletes can tolerate fairly intense strength and conditioning, but more caution is required when designing programs for young and/or inexperienced athletes.

With younger/less experienced athletes, the key is to start conservatively and focus on weaknesses. If an athlete loses 'form and efficiency' later in an event, they need a strength and conditioning program that will help them 'hold their form' for longer. This involves utilising their body weight in combination with high repetition of more sustained exercises.

A more experienced athlete has already achieved this efficiency so can afford to focus on developing additional strength and power with specific gym-based exercise. This exercise should focus on specific muscle groups - something the younger athlete can progress toward.

In short, to fully answer this question it's necessary to know an athlete's strength-to-body-weight ratio, training history, body composition, aerobic and anaerobic fitness levels and injury history (hence sites that may require special attention). It's also necessary to know the demands of the sport.

Neuromuscular adaptation to strength training occurs in the first six weeks. Hence when it comes to training the inexperienced athlete, significant gains in strength and skill can be made with little change in body composition as the muscle fibres fire more effectively. In the more highly trained athlete, these basic adaptations have already occurred.

Finally, when working with younger and less physically mature athletes it's important not to impose excessive training loads (strength or endurance) as they can disturb growth. Chronological age isn't an accurate indication of an athlete's 'readiness to train' as some 11 year olds have the physical maturity of 15 year olds and vice versa. It's important to tailor training loads to the individual.

Running is running, triathlon is triathlon - shouldn't all strength training programs be similar for a given sport?

No. If we use the example of a triathlete, a sprint distance specialist needs to develop strength, power and speed, so a greater emphasis should be placed on anaerobic conditioning. An Ironman specialist needs 'sustainable speed' and 'strength endurance' hence more emphasis on aerobic conditioning.

These physiological differences need to be reflected in all aspects of the training program. Many champion athletes have stepped up in distance with the expectation that they'll dominate immediately only to falter - sometimes for a few years - before their training and preparation is altered. Chris McCormack is one of many examples.

Is functional stability important for all athletes?

Yes, and it's even more critical for multisport events such as triathlon because after the swim, the other two disciplines are completed in a partially fatigued state. If form is lost in the swim it impacts the bike leg, and by the time the athlete approaches the run, efficiency is completely lost. Lowered efficiency means slower times and an increased chance of injury.

Success is geared around midsection strength and flexibility. A triathlete must be strong in the trunk to apply force against water when swimming, a crank arm when cycling or the ground when running.

With this in mind, it's important to work on core stability daily as the trunk is the platform around which all multi-joint movements occur. Exercising with a weak or dynamically unstable platform is like running on sand - it's out of control and off balance. This increases the need for compensatory motions in adjacent joints, and these are often the motions that cause overuse injuries.

Summary

All sports differ in the relative importance of physiological demands such as agility, speed, aerobic endurance, anaerobic power, strength and aerobic power. A well structured strength and conditioning program accommodates all of these factors.

Any factors that can potentially impact upon an athlete's ability to train need to be included in the exercise prescription before designing a strength/resistance training program. These factors can include age, maturity, body composition, muscule strength, cardiovascular endurance level, training history and injury/medical history.

Muscle groups in the mid section and shoulder girdle, commonly referred to as the 'functional stabilisers' or the 'core', should be included in all strength training sessions.

After any hard workout (including strength training), athletes should:

(a) cool down,
(b) stretch, and
(c) consume carbohydrate-rich drinks and foods.

All of these practices, along with therapeutic techniques such as massage and ice, are useful in speeding recovery.

Our Peak Performance Program testing incorporates a strength and flexibility assessment to maximise your athletic performance. To book call 07 3234 2600. Read more training tips.