The importance of Strength and Conditioning for endurance athletes
The demands of endurance races and events have increased steadily throughout time. Coaches and athletes continue to identify and improve the elements of training that allow athletes to deliver faster times over longer distances and in more extreme conditions. As a result, Strength and Conditioning (S&C) has developed into a vital component for today’s competitive athlete.
The 3 reasons every athlete should include S&C in their weekly training schedule, whether competing seriously or simply riding for fun are outlined below.
The most important reason to have an S&C program in place is to reduce the risk of injury in training and competition. Athletic performance requires adequate muscular strength, balance, power, endurance, neuromuscular coordination, joint flexibility and good body composition. An athlete who follows a well-designed S&C program will prevent or eliminate muscle imbalances, strengthen connective tissues and address flexibility issues which will lead to fewer injuries.
For example, strengthening the muscles around the knee joint through a progressive and exercise-specific S&C program will ensure knee stability during training and competition thus reducing the chance of skeletal or soft tissue injuries.
Every sport involves the application of force. Most people don’t realise that getting an athlete’s lower body stronger though exercises such as squats and lunges is the quickest way to make an athlete faster. A lot of athletes can pedal as fast as a top-level sprinter, however they are unlikely to be able to apply as much force with each pedal stroke. Adding off the bike work exploits the training effect of weight bearing exercises resulting in an increase in power on the bike.
Making an athlete faster is a simple concept but a complex process. Improvements are not made from running yourself into the ground. All sporting skills are complex; something that appears simple such as running or cycling is actually very technical. It needs to be broken down into the key elements, learned, practiced and then applied. Strength and conditioning ensures that the correct improvements made are specifically applied to the discipline.
I have never seen an athlete who can cycle efficiently without first being taught how to do it. Most coaches think that pushing an athlete until he or she throws up is the best way to make an athlete faster. However, I view running an athlete in the same way that I view swinging a golf club. Cycling efficiency is very technical and requires hard work to promote improvements. The program should address conditioning and power work so that the athlete’s newly developed speed transfers into power on their bike.
The addition of S&C has also been shown to improve your cycling efficiency. This translates to how well you produce and use energy. The improvement is similar to results found in running where strength training has been shown to improve running economy. A recent study examined the effect of eight weeks of strength training on competitive cyclists and found an increased rate of force development, increased work efficiency, increased cycling economy and increased time to exhaustion. Besides physiological changes due to S&C, the coordination, balance and recruitment of the right working muscles also improves which directly improves your pedalling efficiency.
Every S&C intervention will be different for every athlete. This will vary depending on a number of factors including: individual goals, the nature of cycling, your stage of development and structure of your competitive season. All S&C programmes will look to address and improve one or all of the following:
- Postural correction
Research has suggested that the addition of strength training to an endurance program improves performance by improving the economy of movement, delaying fatigue, improving anaerobic capacity and enhancing maximal speed (Ronnestad and Mujika, 2013). Athletes should be doing 2-3 S&C sessions a week alongside their cycling training to see improvements in their performance.
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Raj and Dillon