Strength for Endurance: Are Elites Starting Using HWT?

So, a friend of mine contacted me recently about starting up an HWT regimen. He was initially skeptical last year when I proposed HWT for endurance athletes, but had good success with plyometrics and body weight exercises when it came to staying injury-free (this is not the first anecdote I’ve received of athletes self-solving years of nagging injuries). It was a bit surprising to hear that he was interested in HWT, but he mentioned that he heard Steve Magness had worked with Alberto Salazar to improve Mo Farah’s/Galen Rupp’s strength through HWT, so I think that may have convinced him my ideas aren’t totally crackpot. Magness is a pretty progressive dude – I’m guessing that Salazar likes to hire coaches who are willing to push traditional boundaries like he does – and you can find his approach to strength here. To sum up, his approach to strength is very similar to what I talked about last year; it’s about improving muscle economy and recruitment through neuromuscular adaptation. It’s all about being more efficient late in the game. I did find a radio interview with Salazar where he briefly mentions Mo and Galen doing heavy squats, but no further info beyond that in terms of programming or anything. Interesting nonetheless to even hear that the Olympic gold/silver medallists might be doing some heavier weight work…

As for me, I’ve been experimenting with HWT now for about 6 months and I’m still pretty happy. I’ve modified my old routine a bit, though, to play around with some things. In order to work on my hip/thoracic spine mobility, I’ve reduced the weight and increased the depth of the squat. Some of you may remember I maxed out at 385 this summer. As you can see below, I’ve decreased the weight significantly to around 275.
I’m really trying to hit the max depth possible while maintaining a neutral spine, so I’m using a large medicine ball on a little box as a marker. It gets me past 90 degrees, to where my femurs are roughly parallel to the ground. I’d still like that T-spine to arch back a bit more, but I’m working on it. This depth is about right for me…I tried going lower, but felt like I’d need heel wedges to avoid arching the lumbar spine, which is not good form.

I’ve replaced the deadlifts with cleans in order to work on explosive power – more fast twitch recruitment. When I started this fall, I could consistently rep around 135. Yesterday, which was when I took this series of photos, I managed to do a set of four at 185.

I’m not happy with my legs in the sequence above – ideally I shouldn’t have to pop out to that wider stance to get underneath the weight. But using HWT, I have seen signifcant gains. I can rep 6 cleans at 165 now, with great form, no problem. My goal is to be able to do six reps at 185 with rock solid form.

I’ve tweaked the bench as well. I’m back to doing one-armed presses on the Bosu Ball, final sets are capping out at 5 @ 100lb dumbell.

What I love about this vs. the bench is that the core is destabilized by using only one arm while balancing on the Bosu. So I get to work my chest while working proprioreception and core stabilization, all at the same time. I’d recommend this approach for any time-constrained athlete as a means of getting more bang for your buck. I firmly believe that working independent, destabilized movements is one of the keys to building a level of strength, coordination, and proprioreception that benefits endurance.

Right now, I’d say I’m in decent shape, nothing stellar. Last week I did one day where I ran 10 in the AM and 10 in the PM, in some awful conditions – took me 1:25+ both ways. But I was pleased to note that I had no residual soreness, which I attribute to my level of strength conditioning. It didn’t put me entirely in the hurt locker, but I did notice that I was ravenously hungry for the next couple of days. I’m doing a bunch of backcountry skiiing and boarding, as well as the occasional skate ski, so I’m getting a decent amount of cardiovascular work under my belt. As always, it’s a constant give and take with work schedules and other the other fun things I like to do.

Alaska Winters are Funny / Still Not Crossfitting

Two weeks ago, I was running in -20F weather. Last night, I ran home and it was 32F. For fellow Humanities majors, that’s a temperature variation of 52 degrees, and a serious concern for all of us living in igloos (seriously, how dumb do you have to be to think Alaskans live in igloos?). Last week, it got up to 47F. Dude, that’s shorts running weather. Anyway, I love it. This state keeps you guessing, on your toes, and engaged.

So, what else is up?

Before I left, I wrote a bit about Heavy Weight Training (HWT) Protocols for endurance. While downrange, I decided to run a little experiment on myself: Run a fraction of the volume I was doing at home (80M/wk down to about 25M/week), and replace that volume with HWT strength work. See what happens. If you recall, my idea about HWT is that it is the preferred strength training regimen for endurance athletes, as it leads to strength gains without associated weight gain (hypertrophy). There are secondary questions as to whether it benefits endurance through neuromuscular adaptation and recruitment, but I would view that as a distant second to the benefit of getting strong without getting big. So, here’s what I did:

Every other day, as my schedule allowed, I executed the following workout:

1) 4-6 sets of 4-6 x half squat @ 80-90% 1RM

2) 4-6 sets of 4-6 x bench @ 80-90% 1RM

3) 4-6 sets of 4-6 dead lift @ 80-90% 1RM

4) 4-6 sets of weighted pullups @ 80-90% 1RM

After three months of this, I saw no increase in weight. My Squat numbers went from 315lbs t0 365lbs. Bench went from 225 to 240. Dead lift went from 315 to 405. Not bad, considering I achieved all this by simply making better use of the muscle I have, as opposed to adding mass I don’t need. Scientific? Hardly. Trial and error? Absolutely. This confirmed to me that what I see as the primary benefit of HWT is indeed valid, even when I dropped 90% of the cardiovascular work I was doing and substituted strength. At the very least, it blew the idea that strength means mass, absolutely and firmly out of the water.

Also interesting – I found that when I came home and started bumping up the running to previous distances, I didn’t get the usual oh-my-legs soreness I normally get the first few weeks back into normal training rhythms. I’m not sure what’s going on there – anytime I’ve looked at HWT and endurance, nothing has covered secondary aspects like recovery aid, which might be exactly what I experienced.

So, in light of all this, I won’t be doing Crossfit anytime soon. I think it has utility as a bridge program to take traditionally weak endurance athletes and add some functional strength. But I see HWT as a “next level” of strength for those who are truly looking to make themselves elite endurance athletes. The biggest problem with Crossfit (besides how cultish it’s grown) is that it bills itself as a hypertrophic regimen, meaning it promises mass gain. Look at the athletes of the Crossfit Games – how many of those guys do you think are capable of running sub -3:00 for a marathon? Riding a 1:00 40k cycling time trial?  But they sure are good at crushing 12 minute workouts, which I suppose is their point. If you want to be good at something, be good at it, whether it’s checkers or seeing how quickly you can do 40 x power cleans. My point is that if you’re trying to PR in a marathon, win a trail stage race, cycle fast, summit Denali, then Crossfit is not the most efficient use of your time.

But feel free to prove me wrong, of course…

“The Race against Time” by Alex Hutchinson | The Walrus | July 2012

“The Race against Time” by Alex Hutchinson | The Walrus | July 2012.

Thanks to Kev for pushing this my way. This is probably one of the best running articles I’ve read this year, and I’m embarrassed to say it comes from a Tim Horton’s-drinking, long-oh and ‘eh’ saying, Canadian. Actually, I love Canadia. I don’t love how expensive it is there or trying to figure out the math to convert litres to gallons, but whatever. The point is, this is a nice read, and a nice rabbit trail off this Strength for Endurance series. As you read through some of what Noakes is doing, ask yourself this question: “Is it possible through strength training to fool the brain into delaying its shutdown mechanisms?”

Remember some things from Part 2, like time to exhaustion at max aerobic effort and potential neuromuscular adaptation?  What if it isn’t the muscular adaptation that leads to greater performance, but rather, the way those muscles talk to our brains?


Food for thought, peeps.