Peter Park has trained many professional athletes, most notably endurance athletes like Lance Armstrong. While many endurance athletes continue to be overly-concerned with more and more “endurance” training at the expense of strength training, Peter understands the importance of strengthening the endurance athlete. His strategy is explained below.
The strength techniques I use with my endurance athletes today have evolved 180 degrees from the way I trained myself as a professional triathlete thirty years ago. Back then, I would go into the gym two to three days per week, do 15-20 reps of squats, lunges, box jumps, push-ups, pull-ups etc. in circuit format as fast as possible. I was more concerned about keeping my heart rate and endorphins high than any real benefit to my racing.
My training partners and I were the envy of the gym for how “fit” we were, but little did I realize, I was basically going in the gym and doing the exact same workout, and using the exact energy systems as I was when swimming, cycling, and running.
Today, I train athletes with a mixture of my own experimentation and experience, along with elements picked up from incredible mentors like Pavel, Phil Maffetone, Lance Armstrong, and many others. Although I train athletes in all sports, I am best known for my work with endurance athletes, such as cyclist Lance Armstrong and motocross legend Chad Reed.
Most of my endurance athletes have long competitive racing seasons. A typical race calendar for an Ironman triathlete, for example, will go from April to mid-October. There is no possible way an athlete can stay sharp or peaked for that long a period of time. Therefore, I set an athlete’s season to peak once in May and early June, then again in September and early October.
A Basic Sample Schedule for an Ironman Triathlete
- End of October and November: off-season
- December to end of March: base training, higher volume strength training
- April to mid May: interval training, lower volume strength training
- June to late July: peaking for early season Ironman, easy strength
- Late July to End of August: base training, higher volume strength work
- September to early October: peaking for seasons key race (Ironman Hawaii), lower volume, higher intensity strength work
Off-season is a time to shut the factory down, reflect, reorganize, and plan for the next season. I have found that six weeks is about the perfect amount of time for the off-season. My clients will stay active doing activities such as trail running and mountain biking, but nothing structured and only when they feel like it. I recommend most athletes stay out of the gym during this brief period — I want them to refresh the body and mind to be ready to get after it when the time comes.
The base training period is the most important cycle of the season. If done correctly, it sets the framework and foundation for a successful race season. If done poorly, mediocre results and often frustrating injuries result.
Nutrition for Endurance Athletes
Training and nutrition take on symbiotic roles in this stage. The two programs are equally important and dependent on each other for success.
Nutrition-wise, I have had the most success with clients following a low carbohydrate (for an endurance athlete), high fat, and moderate protein diet during the base period. I recommend keeping the carbs to about 100 grams (give or take) for the entire base period.
The purpose is to force the body to shift to using fat for its primary energy source instead of carbohydrates. With little glycogen available, the body is forced to get the fatty acids mobilized from fat stores to be used for energy. When I see a client at the end of this period eat a breakfast such as eggs, bacon, and some avocado, do a three- or four-hour ride with only water, and have no blood sugar issues, I know they have become the fat-burning machine I want.
Cardio During the Base-Building Period
All the cardio training during this period is performed at aerobic heart rate. The purpose is to get your aerobic system as efficient as possible. In a nutshell, you are looking to increase the production of mitochondria in muscle cells. Doing this longer, lower-level aerobic training builds more mitochondria and capillaries for better fat mobilization and oxygen transport to muscles.
I still use Phil Maffetone’s 180-[age] formula to get the athlete’s max aerobic pace. For example, if you were thirty years old, your max aerobic rate would be 150 (180-30). All workouts stay in this heart rate range. I will still do various types of interval training in this period, but all under the prescribed heart rate.
People are often frustrated at first about how slow they have to go to stay under the required rate. It takes a lot of patience and willpower, but the results are remarkable. It is not uncommon to see a three-mile running time trial be five to seven minutes faster at the same heart rate at the end of a base-building period.
Strength Training for Endurance Athletes
The base period is also the time where strength training can be maximized. With the cardio being done at a lower intensity, I ramp up the strength work during the base period. I will generally have clients strength train three days a week: Monday and Friday are the heavier, more intense days, while Wednesday’s workouts are lower in intensity and may include single leg work, explosive work such as hill bounds, and kettlebell complexes.
Reps are kept in 2-5 ranges on the main lifts, the 5-10 range with assistant work. Volume varies from week to week, but generally 10-12 working reps for my main lifts. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I will prescribe a short program of correctives and mobility to do on their own.
I use a variable load schedule with both the cardio and the strength work. Some weeks, I will emphasize the mileage in the cardio, and cut back on the volume and intensity on the strength side. Other weeks, I may reverse it, and up the intensity and volume in the strength, and cut back on the cardio training. I also make sure to demand a recovery period every three or four weeks, dropping volume considerably in both cardio and strength.
Every athlete is different in how much volume and intensity they can handle. It is my job to make sure the athlete is progressing and absorbing the training. It is far better to be slightly undertrained, than overtrained.
A typical strength program during the base period:
Warm up: 2 x
- Goblet squats
- Hip thrusts with barbell or dumbbell
- Empty Olympic bar overhead squat to side lunges
Circuit 1: 3 x 4 reps ( 75-80% effort or 4 with 2-3 left in tank): heavier deadlifts Monday and heavier squats Friday.
- One arm kettlebell press
Circuit 2: 3 x 4 reps ( 75-80% effort or 5 with 2-3 left in tank)
- Zecher squats
Circuit 3: Quicker pace holding form: wear heart rate monitor and stay under prescribed rate. 2-3 x
- Push-ups: as many as possible with perfect tight form
- Swings: 10-15 reps
- Renegade row: 7 per side
- Swings: 10-15 reps
Core: 2 x
- Get-ups: 1-2 per arm
- Farmer walks
- Stir the pots
On a side note, the program will vary depending on the type of endurance athlete I am working with. For example, triathletes and motocross athletes can afford and need to have some upper body strength to compete in their respective sports. A Tour de France rider, like Lance, or an elite marathon runner, needs to be careful about having too much weight upstairs. In fact, with Lance, our goal was achieving the core strength of a gymnast, the leg strength of a powerlifter, and the upper body size of a twelve-year-old girl! Strength-to-weight ratio is huge in pro cycling and marathon running. Therefore, when designing an endurance athlete’s program, you need to be careful with your exercise selection.
How Training Changes in April
When April rolls around, my athletes are strong, fat-burning machines, and more than ready to start some quality speed sessions. We will do some training races in May and early June, then a scheduled peak race in late June. It always surprises me how few speed workouts an athlete needs if the base training was done correctly. The aerobic system is so efficient, three to five key workouts or races are all that is needed to reach a peak.
The higher intensity speed work will eat up glycogen levels. Therefore, I will advise my athletes to increase carbohydrate intake by 60-100 grams for every high intensity hour of training.
During this period, I cut the strength training to two days per week. Both the volume and intensity in this phase is decreased. It is very much like Pavel and Dan John’s Easy Strength philosophy of training in season. Get in some quality work, never train to failure, and finish completely unfatigued and able to attack any workout your sport requires.
I try to schedule the strength workouts the evening after the cardio speed workouts. I prefer this method to give the athlete adequate recovery in between the high-end intense days. The strength workouts will continue until about two weeks before the peak race. At this point, the work is done and the goal is to do just enough work to stay sharp for race day.
A typical strength program during the peaking phase:
Active warm-up: 10 min of goblet squats, bridges, leg swings, etc.
Short reactive work:
- Hill bounds
- Eccentric swings or snatches
Circuit 1: 2-3 sets
- Deadlifts: 3 sets of 2-3 reps 70-75% of max. moving bar quick
- Kettlebell push press: 3-5 reps explosive
- Front squats (kettlebell or barbell): 2-3 reps 70-75% of max. explosive
- Pull-ups or medicine ball slams
I will do a short circuit here that may consist of get-ups, farmer walks, and various planking or rotational and anti-rotational work.
Occasionally, I will add in a few assistance exercises if no races are planned for the weekend. After the peak race, I will give the athlete a six-week mini off-season to rejuvenate and recover. From here, it is back to base training and heavier strength work for six weeks or so to build to the next race.
Training Endurance Athletes Effectively
I hope this article gave the StrongFirst reader some insight on how an endurance athlete trains, and more specifically, how strength work is implemented in the overall program. I have always believed strength training to be a huge part of an endurance athlete’s program, not only for performance, but also for longevity and injury prevention. I will continue to fine-tune my methods, and look forward to sharing them here.