145 POWER TRAINING AND ENDURANCE SPORTS

INTRODUCTION

In the last few years we have seen quite a number of publications on the subject of power training for endurance athletes. The most striking conclusion in all of them was that power training for endurance athletes had great benefits, which was contrary to the common belief that endurance athletes should stay away from heavy power training. One of the disadvantages was supposed to be the fact that muscle mass made the athletes heavier. Scientific investigations have proved that this gain of weight was very limited and did not negatively influence performance level. On the contrary, the athletes who had gone through a program of power training performed better than those who had not done so. Their maximum oxygen uptake VO2max, the decisive factor for endurance athletes, had increased. But there is more. There are some endurance sports in which the bodyweight of the athlete is supported. Cycling is an example; swimming is an even more outspoken one. When the athlete’s bones are not stressed enough (think of astronauts who return to earth) the bones may suffer from osteopenia*. In a power training program this phenomenon will be tackled by putting enough stress on the skeleton so that osteopenia will not occur. Another positive effect may be that acidosis is likely to occur at a later moment. By contracting the muscles up to more than 15% of their maximum strength the capillaries within them will be squeezed so that they cannot deliver enough oxygen to the muscle cells. Whenever maximum strength goes up this 15% will also go up so that the moment of constriction will come later. The last advantage we can mention is the fact that the athlete’s coordination will improve. Though it is not the biggest factor coordination is indeed one of the motor skills that decide performance. Especially when weight training is performed with the weights in free space the inter- and intramuscular coordination** will improve.

*Osteopenia = mild osteoposis, too low density of bone mass.

**intermuscular coordination = the synergetic cooperation of two or more different muscles, whereas intramuscular coordination = the cooperation of the various fibres within one muscle.

VARIOUS TYPES OF CONTRACTION

When supplying strength muscles contract. This will not always mean that they will become shorter though in textbooks it is often represented as such. There are distinct differences in the types of contraction and each of them has its consequences for the weight training program. Summing up:

  • Concentric contractions; the muscle gets shorter. E.g. when you contract the biceps in your upper arm your forearm will go up.
  • Excentric contractions: the muscle is tightened but it will get longer, on the contrary – it will get longer. E.g. when you have a certain weight in your arm in the previous example and you let it go down again in a controlled manner you biceps will get longer and deliver strength at the same time. Excentric contractions cause more damage to the muscle than concentric contractions. Think of a muscle soreness in your quadriceps after a (too) strenuous workout. You will probably feel it when going up the stairs and even more going down. Going up is concentric, going down is excentric. The consequence for weight training programs is that excentric contractions have a larger influence on strength gain.
  • Plyometric contractions: a combination of two successive types. An excentric contraction is immediately followed by a concentric contraction. E.g. pushups: going downward is excentric and going upward is concentric.
  • Isometric contractions: the muscles may contract maximally but there is no change in length, e.g. when you try with all the strength that is in you to push a complete building away.

So far for the most common types of contractions in programs for endurance athlets. For the sake of completeness a few others:

  • Isokinetic contractions: the muscles contract performing the same movement in the same range of motion repeatedly. They are usually done on machines in the gym with a constant speed and a constant resistance. As they are not particularly useful for endurance athletes they will not be discussed in more detail.
  • Auxotonic contractions: the muscles contract with increasing tonus. E.g. when an elastic cord is stretched the resistance will be more at the end so that during the process the muscle tonus must adapt. Auxotonic contractions are not used very much in power training programs for endurance athletes.

VARIOUS TYPES OF POWER TRAINING

Power training workouts targeted at improving strength stamina. These are the classic power training programs. The loads are rather light and the workout goes on for a considerable time span. This type of workout is called “Low Force High Velocity” or in short LFHV. In these workouts the actual movement of the specific sport is approached as much as possible with the speed and range of motion as practiced in the sport itself. It can be done with light weights like dumbbells or the sport itself is done under heavier conditions. E.g. swimming with hand paddles or in a T-shirt, running while wearing heavy clothing, running uphill or on a treadmill with a certain angle of inclination or cycling uphill with a heavy gear. The advantage is that these workouts are very specific and they can be done anytime and anywhere, but you will not gain extra muscle mass.

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Dumbbells
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Hand paddles

Power training workouts targeted at improving maximum strength or muscle mass. These workouts come with heavy loads. Therefore the number of repetitions will be limited and speed is not the decisive factor. They are called “High Force Low Velocity” or in short HFLV workouts. There are some types of these workouts:

Based on isometric contractions. These workouts do increase maximum strength indeed. The muscles are contracted as to supply maximum power but there is no movement. The above example of moving a building can be elaborated on endlessly so that all the desired muscle groups are trained. An advantage is that, apart from strength gain, they can be done anytime and anywhere and no special equipment is needed. But there are disadvantages: the muscles will be trained specifically remaining at the same angle. Coordination will not improve either. An exception to those disadvantages are the so called planking exercises in core stability workouts. The objective of that type of workout is to stabilize the core of the body so in that case isometric contractions are specific again.

Full bodyweight workouts: the overload in these workout consists of the bodyweight of the athlete himself. An example is pushups. Exercises that can be done are squats, lunges, calf raises, burpees, pushups etc. The advantage is that they can be done anywhere and at any time and no special equipment is needed. If the athlete loses weight in the course of his training program this can be compensated with dumbbells or even two bottles of water. Coordination is even more addressed when the exercises are done on a foam mat standing on tiptoe. The overload should be heavy enough consisting of a large part of the bodyweight. E.g. crunches may give you a nice six-pack but they will not take you much further for endurance sports, sit-ups would be better but what is the use of sit-ups anyway?

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Push-ups
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Squats
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Lunges
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Calf raises
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Burpees

Weight training: the heaviest of the power training workouts. They are mostly done in the gym with the help of barbells as an extra workload. In order to assess the weight an athlete can handle it is best to establish first how much an athlete can lift in one single effort; this is called the One Repetition Maximum test or in short 1RM. Then the workouts can be done at a certain percentage of this 1RM; in series of 10 repetitions. E.g. front squats: 2 series of 10 reps at 80% 1RM. If the weights are handled in free space coordination is also trained. Exercises that can be done are back and front squats, lunges, calf raises, good mornings, leg presses etc. Again: if your target is improving endurance capacity you should see to it that large muscle groups are involved. E.g. wrist curls are useful enough in themselves, but they will not improve your stamina.

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Good mornings
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Leg presses

 

An example from everyday life. Before the turn of the century I met a group of triathletes during the weekend races. Judging from their suits they probably all had the same sponsor, a fitness centre in a neighboring town. It was striking that they all performed very well. Being a triathlon trainer/coach myself I was curious to know how they trained and I must say that I was rather puzzled at the time. There was one rule that prevailed then: an endurance athlete should stay away from weight training with heavy loads. But there was also another and quite contradictory rule No 1: the winner is always right. They trained twice a week in the fitness centre with heavy weights. They did so apart from their “normal” endurance workouts. If I recollect correctly their program consisted of two series of 10 repetitions at a least 75% 1RM (there were variations in percentage for each individual). The program comprised calf raises, squats, lunges, leg presses and power lifts and perhaps an exercise more that I forgot. Before these workouts they did a warming up of about 5 minutes of light cardio on one of the machines in the centre followed by about 10 minutes working with light dumbbells for the muscle groups that would be addressed later. In the light of what we know today: they were ahead of their time thus confirming the rule: the winner is always right.

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