Foundations: Strength for Endurance, Part 1

Sorry for how long it’s taken to put this out. When I first thought about writing on strength, I thought I’d share some general ideas and the like. However, I’ve ended up going down the rabbit hole a bit, reading the results of studies, and consulting some big brains for ideas. Anyway, I remembered I’m a Humanities major, not a Physiologist, and I’m supposed to write about stuff. So, let’s get it on…

What is “strength?” What does it mean to be “strong?”

If I have one frustration with the idea of strength as it relates to endurance, it’s how arbitrarily we bandy the term about. If someone “looks strong” in a race, we don’t generally say it unless that someone raced well. In all reality, the dude may be a 130lb weakling who couldn’t do a “girl” pushup with a gun up to his head, yet we have no problem calling him “strong.” What’s the deal with that? By the same token, I’ve had people look at me and based on my musculature, tell me I’m “strong as a G-D ox” and I have no need for further weight training. At the time, I was training to break 1:20 for the half-marathon, and I could barely run 7 miles without having to stop and stretch out my lower back due to core instability issues. I would posit that at that given point, I was “all show, no go,” as one of my former troops put it. It means I may have looked pretty, but it wasn’t doing much for me.

Are you starting to understand what I’m getting at here? The baseline, our approach and mindset on strength is all jacked up. It’s informed by a lifetime of crappy cultural inputs (movie stars with chiseled bods who can sprint for miles without breaking a sweat), cultish phenomenon (Crossfit as religion, anyone?),  and poor instruction. Finally, the truth is that there isn’t a big push within the sport to figure out the strength side. As I’ve done some research over the past couple of weeks, I’ve found out there is a reasonable amount of academic literature covering the effects of strength on endurance. But in twenty years of running and reading everything about running, I’ve never seen one of the studies I’ve been reading mentioned in an article, or even a book. What I find in all the training books are blips on “cross-training” that generally reflect strength training methods that went out of vogue sometime during the height of the Cold War.

So, it’s clear our old approaches to strength are generally broke. If strength is not a state of appearance or an indication of fitness, moving forward, here’s how we need to think of strength to effectively integrate it into endurance-related activities:

1) Strength is first and foremost a state of conditioning which enables endurance training to occur while minimizing, controlling, or eliminating injury. Look, the fact is that even 50 years ago, Americans were far less sedentary. People generally had far more active lifestyles and weren’t tied to cubicle and computer. They grew up chucking hay bales, working as mechanics, and *pushing* their lawnmowers (gasp!). They did things outside of running that kept them healthy as runners. These days, we’re what Mobility WOD refers to as “office athletes.” And of course, the sloppiness that goes along with hunching over a keyboard all day bleeds over into running. So, unless you’re reading this from somewhere in eastern Africa, chances are really good you should be doing strength to keep you running healthy.

2) Strength is the ability to generate force, enabled by mobility, over a period of time that matches your pursuit. Whether you run 5ks, ultras, surf epic sessions in Southern California for hours on end, or run big backcountry lines in Alaska; you need to be able to generate the force required to complete those activities successfully in the time allotted. It’s all about fueling your passion, to borrow some sorry corporate jingo. Strength is not the end, rather the means to the end. And it’s not about what someone else tells you should be able to do. If I have to hear one more Crossfitter talk trash about an elite marathoner’s alleged lack of overhead squat capability, I’m going to slap someone with their compression sleeves.

Subjective enough for you?

I hope so, because if it seems a bit vague, then you’re beginning to deconstruct a traditional mindset on strength and search for a new paradigm. Look: strength and endurance are incredibly complex issues, and we’re really just going to scratch the surface with this series. But I think in treating complexity, falling back on general principles gives us the ability to adapt as we learn more, and that is ideal in the face of uncertainty. Soooo, moving forward, here’s what you can expect. Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to cover methodologies, sport-specific approaches, and what I’ve been up to so you can learn from my mistakes and occasional success. Thanks to Kev, Eric, and Megs for leaving some comments requesting some topic coverage – guys, I hope I answer your questions. But feel free to call me out!

7 responses

  1. Bahahaha…

    “If I have to hear one more Crossfitter talk trash about an elite marathoner’s alleged lack of overhead squat capability, I’m going to slap someone with their compression sleeves.”

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  2. Love the setup of the series and Jen definitely highlighted my favorite line of the post! Thank you for doing so much research for this series; I am excited to read all about it!! 🙂

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  3. Matt..Chief Here. As u know, I can’t run, and Recumbent Bike and Discus are my two Rookie Year events. Your thoughts could not be more perfectly timed, as we are just coming off the Warrior Games and my focus Has turned to how can I get stronger in my events beyond traditional Physical Therapy type things. You know my history, I know my way around a weight room, but I’m not sure that is the answer. What I really had going for me this year at 47 years old was my amazing flexibility. I need strength in two completely different spectrum sports, both core heavy, without losing flexibility. Try and find advice for that in Men’s Fitness! Ain’t gonna happen brother! So… Think you can pull a non-runner into the fray and help out?

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  4. Matsu, good intro. I look forward to your findings. I am trying to step up my running a bit more lately (have been hobby running for about 2-3 years now) and strength has become a problem whereas it never was before. I was picking up a variety of muscle pulls/etc. With some focus on drills, a variety of plyos, push/sit/pulls, I’m back in action. Enough testimony… In your effort to find the “answer”, I will suggest you speak with the new AF distance coach Juli Benson. She recently coached Jenny Simpson to a 1500m world championship and has had similar success that Coach Stanforth with the cadets during his tenure. She’s regarded as one of the best middle distance coaches in the country. I talked with her and her athletes last month at the reunion and they incorporate plyos/flexibility/strength in ways that we did not during our day. Anyway, could be worth the phone call. Eddie

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  5. Thanks for sharing, Ben’s brother suggested looking up Pedro 66 as we were posting rememberances for the 6 year anniversary

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