Strength = Speed
If you want to be fast, you first need to be strong
All athletes want to go faster. From sprinters to ultra-marathon runners, our sporting performances and achievements are largely quantified by how fast we have been and how fast we want to go. And whether we like it or not, professional and age group racing is getting faster all the time.
With the ongoing advancements in technology and research, equipment and clothing, companies are constantly finding new ways to go faster. However, while there are obvious benefits gained through better kit and faster ‘set-ups’, a large percentage of athletes are missing one of the most crucial dictators of speed – strength.
How does strength training make you go faster?
In short, the stronger you are, the less energy and effort you will need to move your body. Very much like how aerobic training improves the efficiency of our lungs and heart, the same can be applied to strength training and the improved efficiency of our working muscles. You may have heard the term ‘running economy’. Well, ‘movement economy’ – whether it is during running, cycling or swimming, describes the optimal way in which we can move while avoiding any unnecessary body movement and reducing the effects of fatigue.
It is easy to think that if we want to run, ride or swim faster in a race we just need to run, ride and swim faster in training.This theory is a simple one, yet one that is very hard (if not impossible) to execute alone. We know that getter faster isn’t achieved overnight – it takes time and patience to see the results of the hard work that you put in.
If we look at sprinters and how they train, we’d see a lot of time spent in the gym, working on creating maximal force and power. Strength training done correctly, can also improve the speed of an endurance athlete through a number of factors (as follows).
If you’ve ever stood on the sidelines and watched an endurance event, particularly a triathlon or half marathon race, you will have watched the deterioration of people’s form towards the latter stages of the race and with this the slowing down in pace.
The ability to withstand these ‘form changes’ when fatigued comes through creating a balanced, strong and stable body. By improving your structural strength (the strength around your joints) and any imbalances from side-to-side, you will be able to hold a better form for a longer duration and therefore, maintain a faster pace throughout.
Training Tip: Single, side strength exercises are essential to even out any imbalances. This will translate across to race day performances by maintaining a strong, balanced body especially when fatigued.
Strength training: Tim Van Berkel in action at the gym – where the real work gets done.
More force produced
Cadence or turnover is a hot topic within the endurance community, with strokes per minutes, revolutions per minute and strides per minute being key areas of measurement in training. But a great turnover won’t do anything if there is no force behind it. A stronger muscle is able to exert more force and, therefore, someone with an optimal cadence coupled with great force will travel much faster and further over the ground compared to an athlete who just has a quick cadence. But remember, to be able to apply this force, we first must have the foundations of strength to develop it.
Commonly we hear coaches saying that these improvements in force/power can be achieved through your ‘sport specific’ training. However, this is often at the expense of a lot more time, mileage and with the risk of overtraining. Doing “strength” sessions while on the bike, running or in the pool will have its benefits, but it won’t create the same results as strength training. To create power and speed, we must look to developing our bodies through specific training of the muscle tissue through functional, full body movements. This is a much more time and energy efficient way to gain power.
Training Tip: The ‘power’ exercises you may have seen across the media often show the plyometric style of strength training such box jumps. This is great under the watchful eye of a trained professional, and on the condition that you already have a solid base level of strength. Developing the essential foundations of strength through bilateral and single side movements where your feet remain on the ground is fundamental before moving on to these more explosive movements.
Get it right: Forget bodybuilding exercises, the strength needed by an endurance athlete is often more evident on the inside.
Strengthening not ‘Bulking’
The old school belief was that strength training would make endurance athletes bulky, and in turn, this extra mass would make them slow. However, we now know that it’s quite the opposite.
These misconceptions came about because when talking about strength training, people would automatically think of bodybuilders. If you train like a bodybuilder, yes, of course, you will bulk up. But we need to remember the goals of a bodybuilder and an endurance athlete are very different. Training to get ‘big’ is very different from training to build stability, resilience and structural strength. Research has proven that strength training improves times in endurance performance (cycling and running) without increasing body mass because endurance exercise blunts the process of muscle hypertrophy.
We also know that resistance training will burn fat in a much more effective and efficient way than doing hours and hours of cardio. Endurance training is actually catabolic, which means it breaks down our muscle, not ideal when we want all the muscle we can get to perform. Therefore, by strength training, we can safely and effectively achieve a leaner, lighter athlete who is also strong and resilient.
Training Tip: The above only applies if your training is on point and specific to your needs. Make sure that your focus is on developing strength and stability rather than aesthetics.