Periodisation: strength training is a vital component of your endurance programme
When sequencing your fitness training pay specific attention to the development of strength and power
If you’re an endurance athlete, should the general-strengthening phase of your training really come before special and specific strengthening? Should you work on your VO2max first and then your lactate threshold – or vice-versa? Is it best to follow convention and build up a vast reservoir of distance work before tackling speed training, or is it better to develop strength and speed first and then begin hiking up the volume?
These are the kinds of questions which must be answered correctly if one wants to put together the best-possible training programme, yet there is little scientific research to guide one to the right answers. The rather lengthy scientific investigations required to respond appropriately to these queries would need to include fairly large numbers of endurance athletes who could closely follow the guidelines of the research (i. e., train exactly as the researchers specified, without throwing in their own preferred workouts) for extended periods of time – while staying injury-free.
Unfortunately, most research projects last just six to 12 weeks, which is great for satisfying the ‘publish-or-perish’ demands that are placed on exercise physiologists and is also fine for keeping injury rates low and adherence to the research protocol high – but terrible for endurance athletes and coaches who are looking for answers to the ‘big’ questions about training. You can’t find out much about optimal long-term training if your investigation has to close down after eight weeks.
One of the biggest victims of the ‘eight-week-and-out’ mode of scientific investigation is research concerning the proper sequencing of training. Sometimes called the periodization of training, sequencing refers to the coordination and ordering of various modes of training over time. The way in which training is sequenced has a huge impact on the long-term development of fitness, yet almost nothing is known about the subject. It’s true that several books on periodization have been written, but these tomes deal mainly with various theories of sequencing and offer little real-life support for the training concepts they advocate.
There are just a few studies in the scientific literature which provide valuable information about sequencing. These investigations don’t come close to answering all of our big questions about the periodization of training, but they do offer endurance athletes a few clues about what to do. In one study carried out at the University of Alberta and the University of Victoria in Canada, experienced male rowers were divided into three groups; one group of eight rowers carried out endurance training for five weeks and then embarked on high-velocity resistance training for the following five weeks, a second group of seven rowers did just the opposite, placing the explosive strength work before the endurance sessions, and a third (control) group of eight subjects simply carried out their normal training (‘Sequencing of Endurance and High-Velocity Strength Training,’ Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Science, vol. 13:4, pp. 214-219, 1988). All of the rowers were fairly fit (average VO2max was about 52 ml/kg.min-1).
Endurance versus strength training
Why did the Canadian researchers carry out such an investigation? They completed their work at a time when many exercise physiologists were wondering whether strength and endurance training were ‘mutually incom-patible’, that is, whether embarking on a strengthening programme during a period of aerobic development would decrease the ability to adapt aerobically and vice-versa. Some of the arguments for this contention were fairly sophisticated, but it was common for coaches and athletes to contend that strength training would ‘bulk you up too much’, and that endurance training would keep you from getting really strong.
Today, this argument seems silly (there is little doubt that functional strength training is beneficial for the endurance athlete, for example) but in the 1980s several different research groups spent a lot of time looking at the relationship between strength and endurance training to see if they really were incompatible. Overall, this research concluded that when athletes simultaneously combined endurance and strength training, the strength training had ‘no negative effect’ on the development of aerobic capacity and overall endurance – but the endurance training did have a negative impact on the development of strength. As a follow-up to this, the Canadian research team (working with the rowers mentioned above) wanted to learn whether strength and aerobic training could be separated (sequenced) in a way which would minimize the ‘harmful’ effect of endurance work on strength development and which in fact would optimize gains in both strength and endurance. Naturally, they wondered if one of the forms of training should be put before the other in this sequence.
Although the Alberta-Victoria study was a very interesting piece of work, one of its key drawbacks was that only one kind of training was completed at a time: the ‘endurance-strength’ group, for example, conducted only endurance-type training for the first five weeks of the study, with no strength training at all, and then embarked on their strength work for the following five weeks, with no traditional endurance training to accompany the strengthening activities.
Thus, the overall programme utilized in the study failed to represent ‘real’ training, in the sense that very few endurance athletes would ever condition themselves with a total time separation between endurance and strength work – and with no endurance training carried out for a five-week span of time. It would have been much more interesting – and realistic – if the researchers had altered the emphases of the two types of training over time, instead of completely separating them.
For example, one group of rowers might have started with a heavy emphasis on strength building along with light endurance work and then progressively lessened the strength training and expanded the aerobic training over time, while the second group could have begun with lots of endurance training and then gradually added in strength sessions. Nonetheless, the Canadian research produced some interesting results, and those findings allow us to predict what might happen in more realistic situations.
What the training involved
The actual endurance training was simple and straightforward. Five days a week for five weeks, the endurance trainees clambered aboard Concept II rowing ergometers and worked at an intensity of 85 to 90 per cent of maximal heart rate. Initially, the subjects exercised for 40 minutes per session, but workout duration increased by five minutes each week until the athletes reached 60 minutes of rowing per session during the fifth week. Thus, during the first week of endurance training, the rowers worked for 200 minutes, but by the fifth week they were up to 300 weekly minutes.
The high-velocity strength work, carried out for the first five weeks in the ‘strength-endurance’ group and for the second five weeks by the ‘endurance-strength’ rowers, was actually circuit training, with all exercises performed on variable-resistance hydraulic machines. The strength workouts were completed four times a week for five weeks, and twelve stations were utilized to exercise the major upper- and lower-body muscle groups involved in rowing. At each station, the athletes carried out two 20-second work intervals, with a 20-second rest in between, and 60 seconds of rest were allowed between stations. Upper- and lower-body stations were alternated during each circuit, and fast movements were emphasized at all times.
For the first two weeks of the study, the rowers completed two circuits per workout; for the last three weeks they did three. Overall, the athletes were involved in a general strengthening programme, carrying out exercises which advanced the strength of the biceps and triceps muscles in the upper arms, the shoulder abductors and adductors, the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, and the hip abductors and adductors. Since many of the exercises were performed in a seated position at the machines, the training was also somewhat specific to rowing, although no effort was made to create exercises which very closely replicated rowing biomechanics.
The utilization of circuits by the Canadian researchers for the high-velocity strength work was an interesting choice, since circuit training – even when all of the included routines are classic strengthening moves rather than bouts of rowing, running, cycling, or swimming – tends to have a fairly strong aerobic component because of its continuous nature. Thus, circuit training has the potential to improve aerobic capacity, and circuit training has also been shown to have a positive effect on lactate threshold. Circuits are becoming increasingly popular as an initial kind of strength workout, i. e., a strength session which can be used fairly early in one’s overall progression of training. Regular readers of Peak Performance know that we often recommend circuit training as the first ‘leg’ of an endurance athlete’s overall strengthening plan, and that we in fact call for circuits BEFORE one has built up a large ‘mileage base’.
And the results?
So how did the two groups – strength before endurance and endurance before strength – look (and more importantly perform) after the 10-week protocol was over? First, we have to say that the sequencing of strength and endurance training did make a difference; the two groups were not identical after the 10 weeks of training. The key dissimilarities revolved around blood-lactate levels during exercise (and thus lactate threshold) and VO2max. In both cases, the strength-before-endurance group tended to have an advantage.
Basically, after 10 weeks blood-lactate levels during tough but submaximal rowing exercise (i.e., with heart rate at around 175 beats per minute) were no different than they were at the beginning of the study for the endurance-before-strength group (the athletes who trained for endurance for five weeks and then switched to strength training for the following five weeks). Rowers in this group had lowered lactate concentrations after the first five weeks of the study, when they were doing endurance work, but lactate climbed back up to pre-study levels during the strength-training period. By inference, their lactate thresholds were no better after 10 weeks than they were before the research began.
In contrast, lactate levels nudged down a little (although not significantly) after five weeks for the strength-before-endurance rowers. Their big lactate move came, however, when they followed the strength sessions with endurance work: lactate plunged by an additional 20 per cent, producing an overall lactate drop of 27 per cent over the full 10-week study (in contrast with the 0-per cent change in the endurance-before strength group).
The changes in VO2max proved to be even more interesting. That oxygen-processing variable climbed by 7 per cent after five weeks in the endurance-before-strength group and then stabilized at that level over the next five weeks of strength training. Meanwhile, VO2max ascended by 7 per cent after five weeks of circuit training in the strength-before-endurance group (remember that circuit work has a decent aerobic component, even when the exercises are seated routines carried out on machines). It then shot up by another 9 per cent during the endurance phase of training, producing a total climb of 16 per cent – over double the increase garnered by the endurance-before-strength group during 10 weeks of training!
What was going on? Why did strength-before-endurance seem to produce more sizable gains in aerobic capacity and lactate threshold, compared with doing endurance work first and then tacking on strength training?
Drawing our own conclusions
The researchers were somewhat tight-lipped about the possible mechanisms underlying their findings, instead preferring simply to summarize their results with the following general recommendation: ‘Thus, if the goal… (is) to elicit improvements in peak torque, VO2max, and submaximal endurance…, the optimal sequence, based on the present results, would be high-velocity resistance training PRIOR to endurance training’ (emphasis added).
How’s that for going out on a limb?(!)
Although the Canadian researchers were reticent, we won’t be. For endurance athletes, one of the key positive effects of strength training is that it enhances fatigue resistance during endurance exercise. This is probably partially a result of the improved economy and lactate dynamics which are associated with gains in strength, but it is also important to remember that strong muscles simply tire out less easily than weak ones because they are always working at a lower percentage of their maximal strength output, compared to their weaker brethren.
For that reason, we believe that the rowers who put strength training before endurance work were probably able to work a little harder during their endurance phase of training, possibly because they sustained their intensity of effort more effectively toward the ends of their workouts (remember that the researchers only asked the rowers to be within 85 to 90 per cent of max heart rate during their endurance workouts; there is a big difference between 90 and 85 per cent of max heart rate in terms of the quantitative adaptations produced. In addition, if some of the pre-strength-trained rowers strayed a little above 90 percent during their endurance workouts, it’s doubtful that the researchers would have been too concerned). It’s quite possible that a higher average intensity of endurance work, triggered by the pre-endurance strength training, created the larger gains obtained by the strength-endurance rowers. (Personal note: In a similar vein, while coaching a large number of individuals over the last two years I have noticed that runners who embark on a very vigorous strength-training programme prior to building a base of endurance through mileage advancement always do better with their base training than those who simply step into the base work without a fine foundation of strength).
What about gains in pure strength? Amazingly, the strength-endurance rowers also tended to be slightly stronger than the endurance-strength athletes at the end of the 10-week study, even though the endurance-strength athletes had just completed their strength work and the strength-endurance people hadn’t completed any circuit workouts in five weeks! Given the overall results, it’s fair to say that the Canadian research suggested that it would be wise for an endurance athlete to focus rather intently on strength training during a very early part of the overall training cycle, instead of waiting until after an ‘aerobic base’ had been constructed. It’s logical to think that such strength training would allow subsequent endurance training to be of higher quality (compared to without the prior strength training) – and would also decrease the risk of injury, particularly if the strength training is specific to the sport in which an athlete is engaged.
Another way of sequencing
In a related study, researchers in the Human Performance Laboratory at Kennesaw State College in Marietta, Georgia, made things more realistic by allowing athletes to carry out strength and endurance training concurrently. Unfortunately, they failed to change the emphases of the two types of training over time, and they didn’t make the strength training particularly specific to the sport involved in the study (running).
However, they did include female as well as male athletes in their research and also addressed the very interesting question of whether it is better to conduct a strength workout before a running workout – or vice-versa – on days when both kinds of training sessions are carried out (‘Are Adaptations to Combined Endurance and Strength Training Affected by the Sequence of Training?’ Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 11, pp. 485-491, 1993).
One group of 15 subjects trained three days a week for seven weeks. On each training day, two workouts were completed – a strength session followed by a bout of endurance exercise. The strength workout lasted approximately 45 minutes, included both free weights and Universal equipment, and involved two sets of three to 12 repetitions using 50 to 90 per cent of one-repetition-max resistance (‘one-rep-max’ resistance is the resistance great enough to permit just one repetition to be completed).
There were four lower-body exercises (leg press, leg curl, leg extension, and heel raise), five upper-body exercises (bench press, shoulder press, arm curl, lateral pull-down, and triceps extension), and one ab exertion – the ubiquitous sit-up. As the subjects became stronger, resistance increased; for example, after seven weeks the subjects were bench-pressing over 100 per cent of their original one-rep maxes for more than three reps per set (that was of course because they were getting stronger and had new, higher one-rep maxes). Immediately after the strength workout was over, the subjects carried out their endurance workouts – 20- to 25-minute runs at an intensity of 60 to 90 per cent of max heart rate.
The second group ran first
A second group performed exactly the same workouts and raised the intensity of their strength sessions in the same way – but completed the running workout prior to the strength session. Both groups were thus training twice a day on three days per week and completing six weekly workouts (three strength sessions and three endurance ones). The only difference was that one group did their strength work just prior to running, while the other group waited until after running to lift, press, and curl. A control group maintained normal training and activity during the seven-week span.
After seven weeks, both groups increased VO2max by the same amount – 6 per cent. Thus, it didn’t matter whether the running workout came before or after the strength session; the gain in aerobic capacity was the same in either case.
There were some subtle differences in strength development, however. Basically, the individuals who ran before their strength workouts tended to increase strength to a greater extent (14 to 24 per cent), compared to individuals who lifted and then ran (12- to 17-per cent gains). While most of the differences were not statistically significant, one disparity – in shoulder-press strength – was so, with the running-before-strengthening athletes having the advantage. So much for the idea that running tends to interfere with the strengthening process!
Note that the strength-gain differences were counter-intuitive (one might expect that the running would have tired out the subjects and made it harder for them to get a good strength workout), but in fact the running workout – being fairly non-taxing in nature – represented a fine warm-up for the strengthening work. After running, the subjects were really loose, flexible, and warm – and ready to work hard with the weights. It was only natural that running helped advance strength.
In contrast, the strength-before-running people had to sit down at their weights while they were stiff, cool, and non-aroused, so it’s not surprising that their workouts were not as productive. Incidentally, since the strength workouts were not circuit (and thus not ‘semi-aerobic’) in nature, they didn’t do much to prepare the individuals for their endurance running in the strength-endurance group (and thus didn’t give running capacity a boost in the way that running helped strengthening for the ‘endurance-strength’ group).
One weakness of this study was that the subjects were relatively untrained at the beginning of the seven-week period. Better-trained people might have been able to carry out a more exhausting strength or endurance workout which would have made it hard to complete a subsequent training session of the other type. In that case, strength training might have actually hampered the development of endurance, and vice-versa.
Mixing is devastatingly effective
In addition, it’s certainly dangerous to draw too-broad inferences from such a study. This investigation really just
indicates that a good warm-up can really enhance the quality of a strength session – and thus potential long-term gains in strength. It doesn’t really tell us that on days when we are carrying out both strength and endurance training, we should always do the endurance work first, even though the data suggest that. In fact, it is likely that some strength workouts, especially ‘neural’ ones (i. e., sessions which highly activate the nervous system and develop its ability to control the muscles in an efficient and coordinated way), are ideally placed just before a quality endurance workout, since such strength sessions will prepare the nervous system to coordinate the most economical and powerful movement possible. In addition, ‘mixing’ running, cycling, swimming, rowing, or cross-country skiing with strengthening, i. e., doing some endurance work, then some strengthening, then endurance activity, then strengthening, etc. within a single workout can be a devastatingly effective way to improve lactate threshold and efficiency of movement.
So what’s the bottom line? Periodizing and sequencing of training remain poorly understood topics, but we can be sure of one thing: if you are planning to embark on a rigorous endurance-training programme, it makes tremendous sense to devote lots of time in the early phases of the overall training to functional strength work. Strength training will actually make you stronger while carrying out your sporting activity, not just while attempting to perform the exercises you are utilizing.
Advances in strength will make it possible for you to exercise in a higher-quality way during the training which follows, whether that involves building a big aerobic base or just sharpening up physiologically in order to compete in some races. The strength increases can also be used by the nervous system to produce more powerful (faster) movement throughout your entire training cycle, and there is little question that strengthening will lower your risk of injury and allow you to train much more consistently.
Taken form Peak Performance Journals