Friday, February 24, 2012

Best Exercises For Distance Athletes

In the course of my strength training career I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of distance athletes.  When I say distance athletes I’m talking mostly about swimmers and runners, but cyclists (and triathletes) can be thrown in there as well.  Some have been to the Olympics, some are well on their way, but most are normal high school students or soccer moms that still like to run a 10k of half marathon from time to time.  In that time I’ve noticed a few exercises that most distance athletes will respond well to.

Often times distance athletes downplay the importance of proper strength training in their workout regimen.  It is usually the genetically gifted athletes that can get by and be successful without so much as picking up a dumbbell.  And since the modalities of the successful are usually followed strength training takes a back seat.  Most, however, are not in the genetically gifted category and need a strength training program to gain a competitive advantage.

In fact, strength training can take any distance athletes game to a whole new level.  The goal of strength training for the distance athletes is NOT to create lifters who can squat 500 pounds, bench press 300 pounds, and dead lift a house.  The purpose of strength training for the distance athlete is to make the activity easier.  Here is an example:

Athlete A and Athlete B have identical body types and compete in the same event (let’s say the 1 mile freestyle swim).  It takes Athlete A 45% of the maximal force she can generate to complete a stroke (arm stroke and kick combined).  Because of a quality strength program, it takes Athlete B 25% of her maximal force to complete the same stroke.  Who do you think will tire faster?  Who do you think will eventually win?  All signs would point to Athlete B being the winner due to the higher efficiency of her stroke.  When it gets down to the end of the race she’ll have much more energy to tap into to give her the extra boost she needs to finish the race strong.  And on the flip side of that, if she knows that she can swim the entire race performing each stroke at 45% of her maximal force her 45% stroke will be much stronger, and cause her to travel more distance per stroke than Athlete A’s 45% stroke.

This article is about strength exercises but it should be mentioned that a distance athlete’s best friend is going to be a soft tissue and mobility program that is done on a consistent basis.  Without proper mobility and soft tissue quality all the strength exercises in the world won’t be of much help at best, and at worst will only accelerate overuse injuries.  So if you are a distance athlete you better know your way around a foam roller and lacrosse ball.

Exercise #1: Goblet/DB Front Squat

I’ve become a huge fan of this exercise in the last year or so.  On top of the total body strength benefits it helps teach athletes the proper squatting position.  Having the weight to the front of the body forces the core musculature (abs, obliques, and spinal erctors) to engage hard to prevent the chest from falling forward.
The proper squatting position it pushes athletes into distributes the force of the movement more toward the gluteals (butt).  Many athletes need all of the gluteal work they can get as this area is often tight, weak, and very underdeveloped.

Exercise #2: Reverse Hyper Extension

This is another one for the glutes.  Another reason I love the reverse hyper is that it can really help keep your low back strong and healthy.  Your low back has musculature in it just like everywhere else on your body.  When those muscles get worked they’ll fill with blood and feel tight.  DO NOT mistake this as low back pain. 

Getting all of the muscles that hold your posture in place stronger is going greatly improve posture, especially if you feel upper or lower back pain during races.

Another awesome benefit of all this glute work is that it will help to relieve imbalances through the hips.  Many distance athletes have tight hip flexors and quads and weak and tight glutes and hamstrings.  The tight quads and hip flexors will pull your pelvis forward creating an anterior tilt.  This tilt will pull on the hamstrings and glutes causing them to feel tight when they are actually in a “lengthened” state.  When a muscle is lengthened stretching it IS NOT the answer.  The muscle is already longer than it should be and making it even longer will only further the problem.  Stretching and rolling out the front side (quads, hip flexors) and strengthening the backside (glutes, hamstrings) is the best course of action.

If you don’t have access to a reverse hyper then weighted glute bridges with a dumbbell or barbell are a good substitute.

Exercise #3: Inverted Rows

Inverted rows are one of the best upper back exercises out there.  They are extremely versatile in that there are a ton of variations and can be modified for any strength level.  It’s essentially a pull up but in the horizontal direction.

The horizontal rowing action of the inverted row targets all of the often neglected muscles of the upper back which include the rhomboids, subscapularis, trapezius II and III, rear deltoid, teres major and minor, and the lats.  These muscles are essential for proper shoulder health and function which is especially important for swimmers who perform a lot of work with the front side musculature (pectoralis major and minor {chest}, anterior and medial deltoid {shoulder}, biceps, and triceps).

When the front side of the shoulder girdle is over worked those muscles will become tight, a lot like the front side of the hips.  This will cause the upper arm (humerus) to rotate into an unnatural position inside the shoulder socket.  When the humeral head sits in an internally rotated position this can cause a lot of shear force on the small muscles that make up the rotator cuff and the labrum.  Anyone who has had these injuries can tell you how painful they are and that it would be best to avoid them.

Exercise #4: Band Pull Aparts

These are another excellent upper back exercise.  They aren’t going to make you strong strong, but they go a long way to keeping your shoulders healthy.  An ounce of prevention yaddayaddayadda, as the pundits and grandmothers are so apt to say.

Much like the inverted rows band pull aparts get all the muscles of the upper back firing.  If you are weak to begin with back there the first time you try band pull aparts will be a very humbling experience.  The motion is simple, hold a band at arm’s length with your hands about shoulder width apart.  Keeping your arms straight and your back tight pull your hands apart until the band touches your chest.  Keep the band under constant tension as you bring it back to the start.  Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy, right?  Wrong.  Do fifty and tell me how the pump in your lats and rear deltoids feels.  And then I’ll tell you that’s what getting better feels like.

The upper back can generally recover pretty fast.  These and the inverted rows can and probably should be done 2-3 times per week especially if your shoulders round forward or if your mother has ever told you to stand/sit up straight.  Posture, posture, posture.

Exercise #5: Plank Holds

Solid as a rock.
Plank holds are definitely my favorite core exercise.  They require zero equipment, can be done anywhere, and the tougher variations project how strong you really are.  The reason why your core (which includes all of the musculature from just above your knees to just below your armpits, not just your abdominal wall) is so important is that all energy is transferred through it.  If your core is weak you will leak energy worse than Yugoslavian cars leak oil. 

If you are a swimmer and you are trying to get as big of a push off the blocks or walls but fall apart at the midsection your streamline will stink.  If you are a runner and have a weak core and cannot resist upper body rotation then you will be wasting energy with every stride.  Same goes for cyclists.  If you are preoccupied with what your upper body and midsection are doing you are not focused on what your legs are doing.

On to the planks.  Planks are extremely simple to perform.  Body stays in a straight line, elbows stay underneath your armpits, forearms and toes are the only thing touching the ground.  Holding for extended periods of time (more than a minute) can be beneficial in some instances but I prefer to do more sets with shorter work times while making them harder.  To make them harder all you need to do is lift a foot, an arm, or both off the ground.  You can also wear a backpack with some books in it to add some weight to the equation.  I also really like the RKC version where you try to pull your feet and elbows towards each other thereby creating as much tension through your midsection as possible.  Give some different variations a try.  Planks are like pushups in that there are a ton of different options to keep them interesting.

Exercise #6: Rope Chop Variations

As I hinted at in the plank hold section, the main duty of the abdominal wall, spinal erectors, and obliques isn’t to initiate movement, but instead to resist it.  They also promote movement where movement is supposed to happen (thoracic spine) and stability where stability is supposed to happen (hips and low back).  Rope chops mimic this perfectly by having the rope pass in front while you turn at the mid back and shoulders and resist movement at the low back and hips.  Often times with distance athletes the opposite is the case when moving freely.  The thoracic spine and hips have diminished mobility so the lumbar spine (low back) picks up the slack.  This is a recipe for back pain.

Having poor mobility through the thoracic spine makes breathing in the water more difficult since more of your torso needs to turn to get your face out of the water.  If your thoracic spine is stiff when you run oftentimes your traps and upper back will be the first to fatigue.  Not only that but you’ll leak energy through your hips since they will have to twist more to compensate for the lack of mobility above them.


Adding these exercises to any distance athlete’s strength training program will not only promote strength increases but also enhance the mobility of the athlete.  When a distance athlete is both strong and mobile then each stride, stroke, and pedal are extremely efficient and use 100% of the energy put into them.  Poor strength and poor mobility are the cause of energy leaks and premature fatigue.  Premature fatigue means shaking your competition’s hand after they get their gold medal.  Be strong.  Be mobile.  Be a winner.

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