Endurance is a difficult beast to tame.
The common belief is that there is really only one way to get fast – and that is to train the house down.
Of course, I have talked many times in the past about how this is simply not true. From my “10 Rules For Becoming An Ancestral Athlete” article at Mark's Daily Apple website…
…to my “10 Ways Ironman Triathletes Can Avoid Chronic Cardio Self-Destruction” at Robb Wolf's website…
…to my brand new “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life” book…
…I have outlined that rather than thinking about the skill of running, riding, or swimming fast as the result of having more fitness, we should think about it the same way we would think about having more skill at each of these activities.
So how can you do this? You're about to learn how. In today's post by Andrew Read, a Master Russian Kettlebell Instructor with 20 years of strength coaching experience, an Ironman triathlete and a author of the book “Beast Tamer“, you're going to discover one potent tool and three simple exercises to gain massive amounts of endurance with minimum training.
Finding The Sweet Spot For The Combination of Strength and Endurance
There’s a very good reason why even elite cyclists, with off the chart VO2 scores, can’t match top runners – they’re not good enough at running despite having incredibly impressive engines.
Building the skill of an activity takes time, and in some cases specialist coaching. No one would argue that swimming isn’t highly technically based, and these days more and more people are beginning to understand that running has its share of important technical details too.
So where does lifting weights fit into all this?
And for endurance athletes, what is the best way to get strong for our sport?
One of the big problems with training for endurance is…training for endurance. All those miles add up and can take a big toll on the body. Swimming can be hard on the rotator cuff. Riding can lead to stiff backs or bulged discs. Running can lead to any number of problems ranging form small aches and pains to full-blown tears of the Achilles tendons or plantar fascia.
In fact, the injury rates for running are so high that it’s not a matter of if you get hurt, but when you get hurt.
But then we start looking at strength, and there’s a large continuum there. Perhaps the problem is that strength covers everything from performing a single heavy rep that you couldn’t possibly repeat. This personal best lift is generally termed a 1RM or one rep maximum. On the other end of the spectrum we have an act like riding an Ironman bike leg which requires thousands and thousands of partial leg presses done with relatively low force.
So from maximal strength to strength-endurance, we have everything in between. And somehow, we lose sight of the fact that we don’t have to lift super-maximally all the time, or spend all our time at the other end of the spectrum doing hundreds of reps with tiny little Barbie weights.
However, on the continuum from one rep maximum to Barbie weights, you pass through a rep range that is very important for endurance. Between 3 and 5 reps, you can gain strength while keeping your body weight the same. The increases in strength at this range come primarily from neural adaptations, which is the Central Nervous System (CNS) learning how to fire the muscles more forcefully, rather than from changing the muscle at a cellular level, such as you get from long distance training and the increase in fatty acid utilization within the cell.
Why You Need To Create More Force
While many endurance athletes shy away from straight strength work there are a growing number of studies to show that even ultra endurance competitors can benefit from some applied work in the gym. For example, Norwegian scientists conducted two studies on experienced athletes, one on long distance runners (Storen et al., 2008) and the other on cyclists (Sunde at al., 2010). These athletes were put on a strength program – 4 x 4RM front squats ( a weight that could be squatted 4 times only before needing a rest, so relatively very heavy), performed three times per week, in addition to their normal endurance training.
Eight weeks later the athletes not only got stronger and more explosive – but without gaining any weight, they improved endurance in their sport. Their movement efficiency improved and the time they could last to exhaustion at maximal aerobic power increased.
In his book “Lore of Running“, Tim Noakes makes a point that traditionally, runners competing in marathons were not as explosive as those competing in shorter events such as the 800m. However these days we are seeing more and more runners, even at the marathon distance, who can put in world class times over shorter distances. Haile Gebrsellasie is a classic example of this emerging breed of runner. This new breed of runner is someone who has high levels of power output and has learned to maintain it for long periods of time.
The stronger the muscle, the less it has to contract to produce a given amount of force. Your nervous system measures the amount of neural drive going to the muscles and the muscles send back messages about the level of tension needed, speed of movement, and the distance covered. The brain is continually comparing the intensity of nerve force with the outcome and determines the degree of effort required.
Basically, a strong muscle requires a lower neural drive to generate a given force, because the force represents a smaller proportion of its maximum capacity. So a fatigued muscle represents a higher neural drive to generate a given force, because the force represents a higher proportion of its maximum capacity.
Given that the difference between an elite runner and a typical age-grouper can be as little as 0.1 sec in ground contact time while running, it makes sense to keep force production as high as possible so that we can maintain our “springiness” while running. The stiffer are able to keep our body the less effort needed, the lower our ground contact time, and the faster we run.
Where To Start
So we know we need to strength train, but where to start?
Modern gyms seem filled with every known contraption to mankind since the Spanish Inquisition. I cal it the Noah’s Ark method of setting up a gym – just buy two of everything and pray that you have all the bases covered.
I have to be honest and say that most gyms, just like most supermarkets, are filled with complete crap that’s bad for you. Just like you should know to only shop the edges at the supermarket for all the good stuff, the same is pretty much true in the gym – you really only need things that aren’t bolted to the floor, and they’re generally kept in their own private area these days.
It’s called the free weight area.
There’s far more benefit in performing exercises where you have to balance the load compared to a machine that does all that for you. Despite what exercise equipment manufacturers will tell you no one needs any form of exercise equipment that allows you to perform any exercise locked into a particular path.
But lets’ face it, as triathletes we probably don’t have much spare time. Training for three sports takes up a lot of time and your garage is likely already full with one too many bikes to fit big pieces of gym equipment inside too.
And this is where kettlebells come in handy.
Far from being a recent fad, they’ve actually been around for about 300 years – longer than both barbells and dumbbells. What makes kettlebells great for those training at home is their versatility and the small amount of space they take up. You could have enough kettlebells to train for your entire life, and it would take up as much space as an exercise bench.
Because they’re so versatile, kettlebells can be used for all types of exercises ranging from those with a really big payoff to the sort of thing Jillian Michaels does. (And by the way, please ignore everything she has ever demonstrated with kettlebells – it's just awful).
For a very good introduction to kettlebells, read this article or listen to this “How To Use Kettlebells” podcast by Ben Greenfield.
Using Kettlebells for Endurance
So what are the best kettlebell exercises for the endurance athlete, and what kind of rep ranges should we be doing with them?
First, let’s classify kettlebell lifts into two main types – ballistics and grinds. For ease of reference let’s call ballistics anything that has a high speed of movement, and is swing based. For grinds, just think of slow strength moves like the squat and press – most normal gym movements are grinds.
Because strength can be thought of as the application of force. If training for force production we need to remember that we can achieve this in two ways – via high loads, or via high speeds. So we need to use both ballistics and grinds if we’re hoping to get the absolute most out of our strength training.
Let’s look at some common problems for endurance athletes and then come up with which exercises will best address our needs.
-Spending too long hunched over a bike – compounding the problems caused by sitting at work all day long.
-Possibly injured from running so need an exercise that has similar properties to running, including the speed of movement, which is normally untrainable in a gym setting.
-Shoulder stability to deal with multiple pool sessions.
-Stability on single stance leg for running, and hip drive for hills.
-Core strength to ensure we can swim and run powerfully.
Believe it or not, we can get all that from just three exercises.
In the videos below I’ll show you how to get the most out of the swing, get up, and single leg deadlift, as well as put it together for you so that you’ve got a ready-made strength plan. People often think they need to throw the kitchen sink at their training, and make things overly complicated. But the truth is that in every training session there is part of it that gives you the most benefit – the Pareto principle – with 20% giving 80% of the result.
These three exercises are the 20% of exercises that every endurance athlete should be doing.
When it comes to selecting what size kettlebell you should start with it’s fairly easy – men start with a 16kg and women with a 12kg. Yes, I know they come in sizes much smaller than that, but they’re useless for the most part. My 72 year old mother, who only weighs 52kg, can do swings with a 24kg kettlebell.
So you have no excuses not to be using at least a 12kg. One of the best resources for kettlebells (and other very good free weight exercise tools to turn you into an endurance beast) is Rogue Fitness. Have fun over there.
What you’ll find is that if you do these exercises as shown they’re incredibly powerful and allow the whole body to work together as one unit – and that’s what functional force training for endurance is all about.
Shoulder Mobility and Stability
Exercise 1: “Shoulder Savers”
Single Leg Stability and Hip Extension for Running
Exercise 2: “Single Leg Strength Series”
Fix Your Posture and Run Faster
Exercise 3: “Kettlebell Swing”
Do you have questions, comments or feedback for Andrew or me about building endurance by getting stronger with kettlebells? Leave your thoughts below, and remember to check out Andrew's excellent book “Beast Tamer” and go shopping for your kettlebell at Rogue Fitness!