Why is strength training beneficial to endurance athletes? Part 2


In this blog I want to discuss the concept of rate of force development (RFD).  With runners and cyclists we have a limited amount of time to interact with the ground or pedal with each propulsion phase.  That is when our foot hits the ground we want to push through our feet and leave the ground behind as quickly as possible for a given step.  That way we reduce our ground contact time, which is a very common statistic that a lot of runners love to focus on when they download their runs to strava.  The more time our foot stays on the ground, the less efficient we are as we run, the more likely altered movements occur with our feet, which can lead to a range of injuries such involving the plantar fascia, achilles and peroneals to name a few.  Additionally, with reduced propulsion with each step we run slower and with reduced efficiency, so we spend more valuable oxygen on wasted movement patterns.  Running or cycling well over a long distance is all about improving your economy or effeciency of movement.


In my previous blog I discussed how increases in strength can occur with endurance athletes without an increase in muscle mass or size with the addition of resistance training.  If you are able to increase your strength as an endurance athlete, without an increase in muscle mass or size, this is beneficial as you are able to impart a greater force or propulsion through the ground or pedal with every stroke, this in turn reduces your ground contact time, reduces the compensation occurring in numerous muscles around the inside and outside of the ankle and foot and maximises the natural spring of your calf and achilles to propel your forward.  Additionally, it could be argued that an increased RFD allows for a greater muscle relaxation phase between contractions to allow for an increased time for blood flow to come into the working muscles.  If this occurs, it allows oxygen rich blood to provide essential nutrients and energy to the muscle and prevent the onset of fatigue through numerous pedal strokes and steps that are seen in endurance athletes.


So, some practical tips to help.  Firstly, endurance athletes must consider adding in strength training to their regime to help them.  As with all resistance training a key focus on form and technique is vital in the initial set up phase.  Once this is achieved and your technique is sound, you must think about progressively overloading your weight training, in the same capacity as you would in preparation for a marathon or Ironman event.  If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.  To maximise an increase in your RFD you must consider gradually learning to lift heavier loads as this enhances your nervous systems capacity to turn on your muscle rapidly when your foot hits the ground.  I want to stress that plyometrics (jumping and landing tasks) are an effective way to teach your body how to improve your RFD.  However, you need to be careful with the implementation of these exercises.  If you lack strength, your capacity to do this will be low, therefore you will fatigue quickly and your form will suffer, especially if your volume of jumps is too high for your current fitness or capacity.  An essential tip is that you must strengthen key movements patterns prior to moving into this form of training.  In fact in weaker athletes strength work will improve your RFD more than plyometrics and at a reduced risk of injury. 

Ross Kinsella