In last week’s blog, we explored quantifying overtraining and avoiding submaximal training. This week we are turning our focus to the Performance Pyramid for endurance athletes.
When training for a race, endurance athletes often focus on building stamina and not at all on improving strength and speed. While stamina obviously matters for these athletes, it is just as important for them to develop their strength, speed, and basic movement proficiency. Why?
The more strength an endurance athlete has in relation to their body weight, the more energy-efficient they can be. By improving their strength-to-weight ratio, these athletes can increase their stride length along with their capacity to propel themselves further with each step (or with each swim stroke in the pool or each pedal stroke on the bike)—all while using the same amount of energy.
Energy Capacity Versus Energy Efficiency
Many endurance athletes invest significant time and energy trying to raise their VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen the body can circulate to fuel the working muscles.
Why is VO2 max important?
If runner X has a VO2 max of sixty liters per minute, for example, this means they can deliver sixty liters of oxygen to their muscles per minute while they’re running. Meanwhile, if runner Y is the same weight as runner X and has a VO2 max of 90 liters per minute, they can potentially create one-and-a-half times that amount of energy to fuel their activity.
Though increasing VO2 max can improve performance for endurance athletes, our NeuFit® team has observed that the benefits tend to be limited when focusing exclusively on endurance training and VO2 max. This is because we are only as strong as our weakest link, and most endurance athletes have already developed their oxygen delivery systems, so they can only make relatively small, incremental improvements.¹
Instead of focusing exclusively on VO2 max training, we’ve found more opportunities to improve performance by focusing on improving overall energy efficiency (also known as local muscle endurance, or LME²). At NeuFit, we use the metaphor of a car to explain our training approach: if increasing VO2 max is the equivalent of increasing the size of a gasoline car’s engine, increasing overall energy efficiency is similar to improving the miles per gallon.
In other words, if we’re working with a fixed amount of energy, how can we make the most of it? By increasing overall energy efficiency, we help runners channel as much energy as possible toward forward propulsion—and waste as little as possible on internal resistance.
The more a runner learns to relax their muscles, and the better their intermuscular coordination, the more energy efficient they become. The results? Dramatically improved race times and dramatically fewer injuries, as Talaya’s experience below illustrates.
How the Performance Pyramid Helped an Elite Marathoner Achieve a Personal Best
As an elite long-distance runner, Talaya Frazier had already completed eight consecutive Boston marathons by the time she started training with NeuFit.
When she started training for her ninth Boston marathon, her schedule got even busier than usual. As time went by, it became more and more challenging to balance her training with her work for Cheyanna’s Champions 4 Children (CC4C), the nonprofit organization she founded to help children in Texas with rare or undiagnosed conditions.
As her work with CC4C intensified, Talaya realized she could only put in half the time she usually did to prepare for the race. With these time limits in mind, we designed a training program for her that incorporated all the elements of the performance pyramid: strength, speed, and quality of movement, along with endurance and energy efficiency.
In the three months leading up to the marathon, Talaya cut her running mileage by about half. She substituted those miles with two to three NeuFit sessions per week.
In the end, she was amazed at the results. Taking a neurologically focused, energy-efficient approach to training not only helped her streamline her race preparations, it also helped her beat her personal best marathon time by several minutes and maintain her requalifying times for the next two years—with half the amount of training.
Strength and Speed Training for Endurance Athletes
What does speed training for endurance athletes involve? Though the specifics vary from sport to sport, basic plyometrics exercises like the squat or lunge landings are an effective speed-building tool.
Short sprint intervals are another useful speed-building exercise. For long-distance runners, in particular, workouts that include several six- to eight-second sprints with a full recovery in between are a good thing to incorporate into a training regimen. With these short sprints, endurance athletes improve their intermuscular coordination, which directly supports their energy efficiency.
Going back to the car metaphor, if a driver is hitting the brake and the accelerator at the same time, the car is going to waste energy trying to overcome the resistance from the brakes. In the case of endurance athletes, improving the coordination of opposing muscles is the equivalent of taking the foot off the brake to release the tension.
Basic Movement Proficiency for Endurance Athletes
Chronic injuries are a common problem for many endurance athletes—as well as an indicator that something might be off- balance in their basic movement proficiency.
Therefore, having the right type and amount of joint mobility is so crucial for endurance athletes. Take a marathon runner like Talaya, who had been putting in dozens of miles a week. If something in her stride is off by even a fraction of an inch, that fraction of an inch gets compounded over tens of thousands of loading cycles. This can lead to irritation in various body tissues that can cause pain, stiffness, and eventually serious injury.
Though all the joints need mobility, we prioritize basic movement proficiency on the feet, ankles, knees, and hips for long-distance runners. When working with triathletes and/ or swimmers, we pay particular attention to the shoulders.
The best way to assess whether an endurance athlete has the joint mobility they need for optimal performance is to work with a physical therapist or other trained professional. How- ever, there are two simple self-assessments for joint mobility that can also be helpful: the deep squat and the ability to reach overhead. These two movement patterns date back tens of thousands of years. (Before modern toilets, we had to squat to defecate. And our earliest human ancestors used to hang from tree limbs.) Unfortunately, many modern humans are losing the ability to move their joints in these ways.
In next week’s blog, we will continue our focus on endurance athletes with a look at breathing and fatigue and we will discuss considerations for team sport athletes too.
Let’s charge forward (with strength, speed, and stamina) to better outcomes!