In Season Performance is Built in Off-Season Work, PRT I: STRENGTH TRAINING

In Season Performance is Built in Off-Season Work
By Julie Young

I think there is sometimes a misconception that fitness to reach peak performance can be developed in a short period of time, just prior to a key event. But actually, the foundation to fitness and higher peak performance is developed in what we mistakenly refer to as “off-season.” Once we are in-season, the main bulk of the conditioning work is done, and we simply sharpen and fine-tune fitness.

In order to elicit the best response and tap each athlete’s greatest potential, the training plan is developed over the entire year and organized into phases. Each phase typically lasts three to four months and serves a specific purpose to help develop and improve the athlete’s abilities to reach his or her in-season goal. The phases begin with more general conditioning and each phase becomes more specific in order to simulate and meet the specific demands of the specific endurance event.


For summer endurance athletes, cyclists, and runners, triathletes, spring through early fall is considered the “competitive” season. As we wrap-up summer, we move into transition season, aka “off-season.” Transition season is an ideal time to evaluate the competitive season and focus on improving the limiters. It is the time to balance out the “training stress to rest-recovery” account, that has likely accrued more stress than rest over the year. And this is the season to prioritize and capitalize on mental and physical variety. But it is not variety for the sake of variety, it actually serves a purpose.

During transition season, endurance should become more free-flowing, meaning, use other modes of endurance to maintain and continue to develop your base of endurance. Do what sounds fun and feels right. Non-structured endurance training provides mental freedom and flexibility. This facilitates mental regeneration, a key objective of transition season.


During this phase, while we take mental and physical license with the endurance work, we place focus and purpose on a structured strength program. Work in the gym presents a completely different mental and physical focus – in this way, it essentially provides variety. Strength workouts can be creative to simulate sport-specific demands and challenging to effectively improve functional strength. Well-developed strength exercises challenge us to move in different planes of motion while maintaining good body position and postural control. Ultimately, specifically designed exercise circuits, improve weak links in stability, mobility, strength and recruitment, acquired over months of sport-specific, limited and repetitive movement patterns.

There is growing evidence to support the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes. The key findings indicate that in order for athletes to benefit from a strength program, it must be at least 12 weeks long, with two to three sessions per week, and include heavier resistance and explosive power. In the past, endurance athletes have included strength training in their “off-season” regiment, but typically stopped lifting once their competitive season started. Consequently, athletes would quickly lose all of their hard-earned strength gains. Now science tells us, that by including just one day/week of maintenance strength work during the competitive season, endurance athletes can maintain the gain.


A strength program designed specifically for the endurance athlete, extends over approximately 16 weeks, and includes three phases – a strength-endurance phase (multiple sets of higher reps, lighter weights) to insure a foundation of good movement patterns are established; max strength and explosive power. These phases implement progressive resistance, velocity, and complexity to maximize performance.

The circuits are structured as supersets to maximize time and include, for example, one upper body, lower body, trunk and stretch exercise. Once good movement patterns are established, and strength and postural control are in place, plyometrics can be added. The strength exercises are functionally challenging, requiring balance as well as postural awareness and control, key attributes we want to be automatic in our running and riding.


Strength work in conjunction with endurance training improves neural adaptation, and the brain’s ability to efficiently recruit, contract and produce a specific movement. Practicing exercises with resistance, trains the brain to fire the right muscle to achieve the intended motion. Ultimately this recruitment pattern becomes engrained and automatic, resulting in increased efficiency and power production in our endurance pursuits.

With an endurance-specific strength program, athletes capitalize on increased max strength, while avoiding increases in muscle mass (weight gain). Muscle hypertrophy is also undesirable for endurance athletes, because the increased fiber area may reduce glucose and free fatty acid transport from the capillary bed in to the muscle cells. This greater muscle fiber area may also inhibit the efficient removal of excessive heat production from the working muscle.

Strength training positively alters the muscle fiber type composition, resulting in an increased proportion of type II A and reduced type II X fibers. Type II A muscle fibers are characterized by greater endurance and a higher capacity to produce high contractile power.

Concurrent strength and endurance training also positively affects economy of movement, improving metabolic, physiologic and muscular efficiency. A recent study showed for the final hour of a 185min cycling test, subjects partaking in the concurrent training, experienced reduced rise in heart rate and lactate levels. And at the end of the 185min, when tested with a 5min max test, they saw a 7% improvement in power production, which can be directly related to improved sprint capacity in final phase of the race.

• Increased time to exhaustion, while riding and running at 100% of vo2max
• Increased max muscle strength
•Increased force development
• Elevated capillary to muscle fiber ratio = improved o2 delivery, and free ftty acid uptake into the muscle cell
• Increased free fatty acid uptake reduces rate of glycogen breakdown, may contribute to prolonged time to exhaustion
•In untrained or moderately trained athletes, increase in capillary density
• Increased economy of movement, as evidenced by reduced vo2 at certain speeds
• Increased oxygen uptake


Stay Tuned for Part II – The Value of Endurance Base Training – It does not have to hurt to be beneficial