It was March 2020 when the rapidly-spreading coronavirus turned the global endurance event calendar on its head. And 2021 started in a similar vein.
Organisers have already postponed major races like the Absa Cape Epic and IRONMAN African Championships, while iconic events like the Momentum Medical Scheme Tankwa Trek presented by Biogen and the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon have deferred their races to 2022.
Use your time wisely
The bottom line is that endurance athletes still have some time to wait before the racing season resumes. The question is, will you use that time wisely.
Faced with this reality, endurance athletes should use this downtime productively to become better athletes.
But if all you are doing is ramping up your mileage, then you’re doing it wrong!
While this is the default approach for endurance athletes at every level, exploiting this lull in racing is the perfect opportunity to address your weak points or those areas endurance athletes commonly neglect.
Focus on functional strength
According to internationally-renowned strength and conditioning coach Wayne “Tails” Taylor, the most commonly neglected elements of a holistic training plan among runners, cyclists and triathletes are the strength and functional training components.
As the High Performance Director at the Biogen-backed WT Human Performance, based in Johannesburg, Wayne has worked with a range of professional, serious and recreational athletes.
In his experience, athletes across the board tend to drop strength training when they ramp up their mileage.
“More time spent on the road leaves less time for the important strength conditioning work, specifically the functional exercises that are universally applicable to all endurance athletes.”
But with races off the radar for the foreseeable future, Wayne says it is the perfect time to become a stronger athlete.
“Our primary aim at WT Human Performance is to build stronger all-round athletes, no matter what sport you participate in.”
According to Wayne, most exercises he prescribes to his clients address pelvic instability and core strength.
“A weak core or poor glute activation generally means the body can’t handle the power that the legs generate.”
This biomechanical dysfunction can cause pain and increase injury risk. “For example, many cyclists live with back pain, which they think is normal. However, that is usually a sign of pelvic instability due to weak glutes or poor glute medius activation.”
Other common issues that cyclists experience stem from the amount of time they spend in a position of hip flexion.
“As a result, powerful hip flexors like your iliopsoas get tighter. When combined with weaker hamstrings and glutes, this biomechanical imbalance tends to cause an anterior pelvic tilt, which inevitably leads to back pain.”
As such, Wayne usually combines strength training with mobility and flexibility drills to address these underlying structural and biomechanical issues.
“We also work to retrain weak postural muscles. These exercises enable athletes to get into and maintain anatomically correct positions. They also create healthy movement patterns while training and racing. This can significantly reduce an athlete’s injury risk and makes them more efficient.”
Get into position
Wayne’s workouts typically include functional movements, such as squats and deadlifts, as well as unilateral or single-leg exercises that take the body through full hip extension.
“I tell my clients that they must execute every exercise with impeccable form. This often requires technique training and skills development before adding weight. Athletes generally advance too quickly without getting the basics right, which creates and reinforces poor movement patterns.”
Athletes who simply go through the motions, with little or no attention on their body position perform sloppy work that yields poor results or, worse, causes injury.
Wayne stresses that you must remain mindful of how your body moves at every point to derive the full benefit from an exercise. “Never train your body to generate power from bad positions.”
The various elements in this regard include proper joint alignment, moving through a full range of motion, and activating the target muscles.
“Eventually, an athlete should hold the perfect shape throughout the contraction (concentric) and lengthening (eccentric) phases of every exercise.”
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Meeting these standards with every rep will deliver the biggest strength gains to boost your overall performance as your body starts to generate more force with every pedal stroke or foot strike.
“You need to generate force to move your mass. Increase the magnitude of that force and you’ll get faster, or produce the same output using less energy. In essence, you become more efficient.”
Athletes who combine functional strength with an appropriately planned diet to lose weight while increasing their strength and power output will get an even bigger performance benefit by increasing their strength-to-weight ratio, explains Wayne.
The lockdown plan of action
According to Wayne, these are the exercises that every endurance athlete should include in their program:
- Squats, including variations such as TRX pistol squats
- TRX or stability ball hamstring curls
- Single-leg Romanian deadlifts
- Reverse lunges
- Eccentric calf raises
- Upper body push and pull exercises
- Various core exercises, including straight-leg sit-ups, plank variations with movement, rollovers and lateral planks
“These exercises don’t need to be complex and you don’t need to go to the gym to get the work done. Use bands to create resistance and leverage your body weight with suspension trainers at home or outdoors.”
Wayne’s fundamental form tips include:
- Maintain your body shape during every exercise – chest up, shoulders down and head in a neutral position for proper posture.
- Generate force from the ground with your legs without losing body shape.
Aim to perform a combination of these exercises and various mobility drills at least three times a week while the racing season remains in limbo.
“Sessions don’t need to be very long – 30 minutes is sufficient. But don’t forget a pre-workout warmup or activation drills.”
Getting back to racing
When the racing season resumes, you can drop your strength training frequency to one strict session a week. However, Wayne says two sessions would be preferable. “Obviously, that would depend on your racing schedule. I would also recommend getting your toughest session done earlier in the week.”
And don’t neglect regular body maintenance in the form of foam rolling, mobility, adequate sleep and active recovery sessions, like dynamic movements in a pool after every hard session or race.
“The harder you train, the harder you must recover. In general, issues arise when people train harder than they recover. Also, differences in your ultimate performance generally correlate with the number of times you were able to train at 100% in your buildup.”
So, don’t waste this opportunity to refocus on the type of training that will make a significant difference to your performance. A lack of time is no longer a valid excuse. And, hopefully, this renewed commitment to the accessory work will instil new habits in your training regimen.
“If you are serious about training, then there are no little things. Everything matters. While specifics may vary, if you focus predominantly on the functional fundamental exercises that form the foundation for every human movement, you’ll be a better athlete when racing finally restarts.”