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How To Improve Endurance Without Losing Strength Power & Speed

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 25 February 2019
Hits: 1316

Ask anyone who plays in sports like AFL football and basketball how tough it can be to train for speed and power, yet at the same time try to improve your fitness endurance capacity. Many sports demand that you have high levels of strength and power and be able to sustain these repeated bursts in games that last between 2-3 hours. Physiologically the two processes of building strength, power, and speed versus endurance are completely opposed to each other and training both methods at the same time cancels out their effectiveness. This is the equivalent of trying to be a 100m sprinter and a marathon runner at the same time! All good strength coaches and elite athletes are aware of this principle and know that to improve performance these two opposing methods are best trained on their own which is known as periodization. Unfortunately, sporting codes that run for several months of the year do not allow for this perfect recipe to be adopted. Compromises must be made, and usually, it is strength, power, and speed sacrificed for fitness and endurance. But is there a way you can minimize the losses of strength and power by adopting smarter implementation of your fitness training? This is the question we explore in this article and provide you with some simple ideas you can implement into your training that could be a real game changer.

What Is The Difference Between Strength & Endurance?

Of all the amateur and elite athletes in sports I have worked with for over 14 years the most common problem they wanted help with was to improve their explosive speed and power. Very rarely did they have a problem with endurance and overall fitness and most were already incredibly fit. The thing they lacked was the elusive speed and ability to move faster. When I examined their training it was obvious where their problem lied for it focused far too much on endurance. We had to educate them on the basics of quality over quantity, timing, longer rest intervals between sets to be able to have any chance of reaching their goal.

Many times we had to define exactly what the difference between strength, speed, and power versus endurance to help them appreciate the distinct differences between the two training methods and the effect each has on your body.

Strength, Speed & Power – To increase muscle strength we need exercise in short bouts at close to maximal effort to increase protein synthesis, producing improvements in strength and muscle size (hypertrophy).

Endurance – Endurance exercise is long-duration exercise performed at a submaximal effort. This type of training improves the muscles’ ability to use oxygen to produce energy in the form of ATP and is a big factor in improving your overall fitness needed for sporting performance.

The reason it is difficult to build both at the same time has a lot to do with the enzymes that produced from each type of exercise. AMPK leads to improved endurance and mTORC1 increases strength. The release of AMPK blocks the activation of mTORC1. This means that there is a block to improving both our endurance and our muscle mass and strength at the same time. Ask any body-builder what ruins adding strength and muscle and they will tell you endurance cardio. A bit like kryptonite to Superman.

Reference: Peak Performance Strength Training

The Dilemma Facing Sporting Athletes

We know that explosive movements such as sprinting, jumping and change of direction require a strength base. The strength base allows for speed and power to be produced. In contact sports like rugby, football, and even basketball a certain degree of muscle size is a requirement in order to compete effectively in close quarter contests and collisions. Certain positions like a tall marking forward or ruckman in AFL football demand that these players have considerable strength to have any chance of competing in marking duels. Even smaller midfield football players need some size for tackling and to ensure they do not simply bounce off of their opponent and lose in the contest for possession. You can read more about exercises we use for AFL football here - Strength Training For AFL Football.

With basketball, power forwards and centers also need a huge degree of muscle size and strength to compete for rebounds and hold their ground defensively in the post. And again the smaller guard positions also need strength to create speed and power for an explosive change of direction and jumping. You can see more about exercises for basketball positions here - Strength Training For Basketball

If you trained just for strength, speed, and power on its own you may develop the necessary muscle size and explosiveness you are looking for in your chosen sport but it will come at a cost to your fitness. This means you may be able to get the ball faster than anyone but due to your poor endurance and fitness capacity, you fatigue very quickly and only be able to sustain short bursts of play. You may not even finish off the game.

On the flip side of this is the person who has incredible endurance and fitness. These players will be much leaner and have a greater VO2max (maximum oxygen uptake capacity) to be able to recover very quickly between these repeated bouts of work. However, their great endurance comes at a cost to their speed and power. This results in them constantly chasing as they are unable to win possession of the ball because they were too weak, or too slow to be first to the ball.

This is the dilemma I struggled with for a long time as a basketball player and again years later as a trainer helping up and coming athletes in our sports program. It is still a problem faced by many sporting athletes and coaches every day trying to balance the two opposing methods at the same time. Breaking your program into various phases (periodization) is great in theory and works perfectly if you are aiming for a tournament or a specific event at a certain time of year. But for season-long sports this is not going to work.

What you tend to find is that as athletes are afraid of the potential muscle soreness in their legs from strength training that will prevent them from running, they avoid leg exercises completely relying on running as the only source of leg strength. It is fair to say that football players are some of the weakest players I have worked with in terms of leg strength for this very reason. It is not the strength training that is the problem, it is the way that it is implemented that is. A great video that explains how you can train all through the season is below.

And the second mistake is that the two methods are used at the same time with no structure and just a "more is better" approach. This helps to explain why many athletes easily fall into the trap of over-training and develop chronic injuries due to the excessive demands of their workouts. Planning is vital to prevent this from happening and I encourage you to read our full article that explains exactly how to structure a training week - How To Avoid Over-training & Maximize Your Workouts

Of the two disciplines, the one to be compromised more is strength, power and speed. It makes more sense to be able to finish a game out and hope you have enough strength and power reserves to compete. It must be remembered that the game itself and training sessions for skills are very much endurance based. For example, an AFL football game takes 2-2.5 hours to complete and many players train 2 times per week for 60-90 minutes. Therefore, the game and skills training alone may be enough to sabotage any strength gains you may have made during the week. Endurance and fitness are the easiest to improve as it does not have a high priority with regards to technique. And for this reason is easily abused and I have seen countless people have their sporting careers ruined by excessive endurance training.

Read our article - The Truth About Endurance Training & How It Can Ruin Your Health

Does this mean you just give up if physiology is against you? The good news is you can do something about it.

Apart from adopting periodization principles which we know is not ideal, the secret lies in adjusting several key factors to give your body every chance of adapting to both training methods. Let's examine what these are and in the order of what I have found to be most effective.

1. Include Power Exercises In Your Training

This sounds pretty simple and it is, yet it is amazing how little people understand what power exercises even are. Activating fast-twitch motor units is the key to improved strength, speed and power and you need the right training to do this. Unlike slow-twitch motor units, which are responsible for sustaining slow and long periods of work the fast twitch muscle fibers work with a short amount of work and at extremely high speeds.

In simple terms, power is the ability to generate force quickly; it is defined mathematically as force x velocity.

Power initiation relies heavily on deceleration skills, both in terms of muscular strength and body mechanics. This means you must know how to move correctly to load up the right muscles into position to accelerate. Exercise technique is critical and why we will constantly say MOVEMENT IS EVERYTHING! Watch the video of an assessment we use in our sports program to evaluate this.

Power initiation is dependent on the legs with a reliance on triple flexion to put the body into a power position. Initiation begins with the legs, triggers at the hips, transfers through the core and ‘shoots through’ the arms to the fingertips. With all jumping activities, you will find the squat and hip hinge movement from the deadlift is the preload movement you need. The squat shares the exact timing of a jump which is why someone's squat form is a great predictor of jumping ability and also landing ability.

If squats are the key to jumping and acceleration then rotational power is the key to throwing. With throwing sports like Baseball, Golf, and Tennis you will find the foundational movement pattern will be more of a lunge or lateral movement with rotation and the ability to provide power from the legs into the core via a weight transfer.

The most popular sports conditioning weights exercises, like the squat, power cleans and box jumps, are performed in a linear fashion and do not reflect the way power is generated for rotational sports. Using woodchop exercises with the cable machine and other various rotational strength training exercises are great for building strength within the movement pattern but they DO NOT increase power. Why? The timing is too slow. Developing the ‘wind-up-and-rotate’ velocity for these sports through weight training is impossible especially if the weight is too heavy.

This is why it is important to use medicine balls that are not too heavy. The speed of the movement is more important than the load.

A great video that explains this in detail is below.

Plyometric exercises are great power training drills to use. These are like stretching out a coiled spring to its fullest extent and then letting it go. This provides immense levels of energy to be released in a split second as the spring recoils. Plyometric exercises develop this recoil or, more technically, the stretch/reflex capacity in a muscle. With regular exposure to this training stimulus, muscle fiber should be able to store more elastic energy and transfer more quickly and powerfully from the eccentric to the concentric phase. You will notice that these are often completed as body-weight exercises for if any load was applied it would slow the movement down too much and make it about maximal strength. The timing is more important in executing this perfectly.

2. Train Endurance First Thing In The Morning & Strength

The reason behind using endurance first is all to do with the enzymes of AMPK and TORC1. If endurance exercise is performed first thing in the morning and glycogen is reloaded by eating good nutrition immediately after the training session, then the enzyme AMPK will be low later in the day when you complete your strength workout. This means it has less chance of blocking the activation of TORQ1 enzyme that is crucial for adding much-needed muscle for strength and power development.

This is something I did not know when I was younger and I wish I knew this as my problem was never endurance fitness but trying to add muscle. This would have been a game changer for me as I have seen first hand the results of many clients adopting this principle the last few years in our sports program.

The beauty of completing the strength workout last is the athlete will also be able to maintain the TORQ1 enzyme at high levels for at least 12 hours as they have time to eat, rest and sleep until the next morning. As opposed to completing the strength workout in the morning and only having 5-6 hours before the endurance workout. The extra time is massive for allowing the body to put the anabolic process of build and repair to work.

The only concern I have with this approach is it can be risky completing complex strength exercises such as deadlifts or Olympic lifting if the person is fatigued too much from the endurance session earlier in the day. The risk of a bulging disc is extremely high if the nervous system is fatigued. The fatigue can also reduce the overall effectiveness of the strength workout. If the athlete has a great understanding of perfect technique and has no injury I will choose the endurance training first. However, if they are not 100% with their technique or dealing with an injury I may choose to do strength first to minimize the risk of further injury.

There is always a compromise, you just have to be smart in deciding which is best for you.

3. You Must Eat Quality Nutrition At Key Times

Without a doubt, nutrition and recovery are often the most neglected part of a training plan with many amateur athletes. They are so fixated on finding new training techniques, exercises, and methods they forget the value of nutrition and recovery. Nutrition becomes even more important when trying to combine endurance and strength workouts. More specifically the timing of when you eat.

There are a few key things you must do to maximize your nutrition intake.

  1. Eat a meal or snack with a high carbohydrate content within an hour of completing your endurance training is important to refuel the lost glycogen stores and more importantly to turn off the AMPK enzyme.
  2. Have a drink or eat a snack that contains 6-8g of protein before your strength training workout to help deliver amino acids to the working muscles. Since blood flow is increased to these muscles, they will see more amino acids and assist your body with the activation of mTORC1 enzyme resulting in maximal strength gains.
  3. Eat a protein- and carbohydrate-rich meal within 30 minutes of completing training which increases insulin and amino acids in the muscle. This step is critical, for the first 30 minutes after the workout the body is in a frenzied search for amino acids found in quality protein to begin the repair and rebuild process. This is why you see body-builders walking around with protein shakes when they train.

Great articles to read on protein and nutrition are below

4. Keep Strength Sessions Short Working With Low Reps

This relates closely to step one where we spoke about including power exercises. It is important to keep your overall session short and of high quality and also that your strength and power exercises don’t last too long. This is a mistake many amateur athletes make believing that more is better. Below is a video where I explain why cutting drills used for change of direction speed must be kept short.

There are a few reasons for keeping your workouts short which I will explain.

  • Keeping your sets with low reps of 4-8 reps promotes maximal strength gains that transfer to power and speed more easily. Normal hypertrophy training would involve 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. We would advise 4-6 sets of 4-8 reps instead with a combination of strength and power exercises.
  • The short duration of time the muscle is under tension minimizes the muscle damage that often results in DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) that could leave the athlete too sore to complete training the next day.
  • Exercises that are required to work hard for less than a minute helps to keeps the metabolic stress of the exercise low, minimizing AMPK activity and therefore maximizing mTORC1.
  • Taking longer breaks between sets (2-3 minutes) is beneficial to fully recover the muscles stores and help keep the metabolic stress low.
  • Power and speed can only be developed in short bursts. If the exercise takes too long you will recruit the slow twitch motor units instead of the targeted fast twitch.

I love to use complex training methods with sporting athletes to get the benefit of strength and power. Watch the video below of an example of how to do this.

Your choice of exercise is EXTREMELY important. You must ensure you are using exercises that are beneficial to your body's needs and the demands of the game. Remember you have a very limited time so you must make every exercise count. Exercises like bicep curls and the bench press serve no purpose in helping the sporting athlete improve performance.

Due to the complex nature and specifics of various sports it is impossible for me to list all of the exercises we might use for each sport. You will find tons of information about the specifics of how to choose the right exercise for your sport in this article - How To Choose The Right Exercise For Your Strength Workout

There is two reports you can download with below with endless ideas of exercises and workouts you can get by clicking the image below.


5. Add High-Intensity Intervals To Your Endurance Workout

This has several advantages with the first one being the intensity relates specifically to the game situation. I never understand why football or basketball players would do 3-5km running time trials as this distance encourages you to pace yourself and is all about endurance. I would prefer to test athletes with multiple 800m intervals on a track where they must match the time of each set. For example 4-6 sets of 800m with a 2-minute rest between sets. A good runner might complete this in 2:30 per set. At the end of the workout, I would use some 100m and 40m explosive sprints with walk back recovery. The beauty of this is that it mimics the exact feeling of a game situation. Apart from the physiological changes it is creating it also is a great way to improve the mental approach to the game.

You can read more about interval training in this article - Interval Training Workout Secrets

The second advantage to including interval training is to do with the AMPK enzyme.

AMPK is activated by all exercise – but, since it responds to metabolic stress, the higher the intensity, the higher the metabolic stress you can generate and as a result the higher activation of AMPK. The best way to add high intensity is to follow a long endurance session with some high-intensity intervals. The long, slow exercise depletes muscle glycogen and this makes the high-intensity work even more metabolic stress than if the high intensity is performed while the athlete is fresh. This is because, as already mentioned, AMPK senses muscle glycogen levels. Therefore, depleting muscle glycogen before high-intensity exercise is optimal for activating AMPK and improving muscle endurance.

Another simple way you could achieve this approach is to use some battling ropes exercises at the end of the running session. These exercises demand speed to be completed correctly. Below is a video with some ideas.

Summary

I hope this article has given you some great ideas you can implement in your training. The days of trying to destroy your body with intense endurance sessions are over. You need to be smarter with your choice of exercise and as you can see in this article with the timing of when to complete your workouts. By making some of these very subtle changes you will see some amazing results to your sporting game. The best part is you do not need more time, if anything you will use less time and be able to focus more on recovery and keeping your body fresh for competition.

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