I have been working with the elite endurance athletes for over 15 years. My client list includes several Olympic gold medalists and World Championship medalists in long distance speed skating and cross country skiing.
When I first started working with the Canadian Cross Country Ski Team in 2004, I brought my experience working with elite long distance speed skaters to the table.
What was my approach with a long distance speed skater? It was simple: I focused on technical acquisition in key exercises like squatting, Olympic lifting, and various types of jumps. Once the athletes were technically proficient I emphasized maximal muscular strength, and maximal muscular power or explosive strength.
When I started working with the cross country ski team, the previous approach had been pretty typical of what I see from a lot of trainers who simplistically analyze a sport and attempt to build a “sport specific” strength program:
- They attempted to mimic movements in cross country skiing with seemingly similar looking weight room exercises
- They used high repetition schemes to build strength endurance because skiing is an endurance sport
- They emphasized stability exercises because skiers are often hurt and skiing requires balance.
On all accounts I could not have disagreed more wholeheartedly.
First of all, if you were to measure the muscle activity in the SAME movement done over multiple repetitions, no two movements would be the same! The logic that because an exercise “looks” like a movement in a sport it is inherently more specific and a better way to improve function is ludicrous and unfounded. Apparent similarity between a sport skill and an exercise has nothing to do with specificity in 99% of circumstances.
Second, high repetitions schemes result in considerable metabolic stress, long-term fatigue, and even have the potential to INCREASE muscle hypertrophy! A lot of skiers were baffled that their 8-12 RM approach to resistance training actually had a better chance of increasing muscle mass than 2-3 sets of 2-4 RM.
Third, there is a HUGE difference between training balance and using exercises that require balance. If you want to train balance your environment or connection with the ground needs to be continually unpredictable and random. Once you’ve mastered standing on a balance board, guess what?? This exercise now requires balance it does not train balance!
With that said, I rarely see exercises requiring balance as a suitable way to prevent the overuse injuries that are typically sustained by a cross country skier. A skier typically requires a good soft tissue therapist to keep restricted muscle groups and fascial connections free so that joints can move properly, and balanced muscular strength around joints.
So how do you change a sports philosophy? The short answer: you use science.
I went to the scientific literature and found some great research done out of Norway by a guy named Jan Hoff. Dr. Hoff has published extensively on the effects of resistance training on elite cross country skiers and runners.
Here’s the Cole’s Notes of his research.
Three things go into elite endurance performance:
- Maximal oxygen consumption (VO2Max), which is best trained with intervals done in the range of 2-4 minutes.
- Lactate threshold.
- Efficiency – you measure efficiency by the amount of oxygen consumed at a given workload.
Dr. Hoff took elite skiers and put them through a training program reminiscent of what a shot putter or sprinter would do. Heavy squats, heavy pull ups, and an adapted pull-down movement with a pulley. The loading was anywhere from 4×4 to 3×5 RM with the athletes being encouraged to maximally accelerate the load on each and every repetition (this trains explosive strength).
Here were the findings:
- The athletes who replaced normal training volume with the above mentioned resistance training got stronger and did not increase lean body mass
- The resistance trained athletes improved their time to exhaustion at a given workload by significantly more than the athletes who did conventional high repetition resistance training
- The conclusion: the development of maximal muscular strength improved efficiency and economy of movement for the skiers, which positively affected one of the key determinants of endurance performance!!
Here is a short summary of my philosophy:
- Train what’s on the inside.
- Train what you can’t see (i.e. the neuromuscular system and the connection from the Brain to the Muscle).
- Always design a strength and power program around the physiology of the neuromuscular system and let the sport take care of the specificity!
Now back to my story. I have presented this data at coaching symposiums several times, and the reality is the sale’s job was tough.
Many scoffed at what I was saying and decided to stick with their conventional approach and ignored the science.
A few jumped on board with what I was saying…. one of these athletes, Chandra Crawford, went on to win an Olympic gold medal in 2006.
After 2010, a coaching change brought a very experienced and knowledgeable American coach to Canada.
The coach essentially re-interviewed me for my position.
He wanted to know my philosophy on strength training for elite cross country skiers.
I reluctantly went back over my experience, the science, and my philosophy that elite endurance athletes ABSOLUTELY need to focus on maximal muscular strength and maximal muscular power.
I told him that I envisioned a program that first of all developed technical proficiency in key lifts, structural tolerance, and balanced inter-muscular strength around key joints.
I then told him that I believed in focusing on developing maximal muscular strength and maximal muscular power with jumps, Olympic lifts, variants of the squat, variants of the pull up, and some form of press. I know it’s boring – but it’s what I believe!
I told him I believed the sessions needed to be kept short and focused, and in order to minimize the potential negative interaction with his first priority of training the energy systems, that we should use careful monitoring to track neuromuscular fatigue.
The conclusion of our meeting was music to my ears – he completely agreed with me and told me that if I had answered the question any other way, he would have been searching for another strength and conditioning coach.
After 2.5 years of close collaboration between all of the experts that surround the team the results have started to speak for themselves. The team had over 25 medals at international competition last year.
There is no question that my influence is just a very small part of the big picture and I do not want to overstate the amount I contribute.
But even though strength and power training is such a small part of a skier’s program it has the potential to reek an amazing amount of havoc with training.
Finally, by answering the question of “how do I best train an endurance athlete” with a physiological answer, I think you stand the best chance of really improving performance.
Hoff, J. (2006). Muscular Strength Training Effects on Aerobic Endurance Performance. Proceedings for the 6th International Strength Training Conference. Copenhagen, Denmark.