EPC Tips - Sport-Specific Strength Training

Mar. 31, 2011

By Cody Waite

Improve your power output through increased force application intervals.

Download or Print Article - PDFYour first priority with Base Training is build your aerobic endurance. Your goal is to be able to ride and run longer distances and at faster speeds while maintaining aerobic heart rates. Training at lower effort levels early on allows for adaptations and improvement in you body's ability to use fat for fuel, spare glycogen (carbohydrate), and develop a more efficient cardiovascular system; all benefits of improved aerobic function. Once your aerobic base is established and you can easily cruise around over varied terrain while maintaining aerobic heart rates, you can then begin to cruise at faster speeds, through aerobic intervals, to really maximize your aerobic speed as the second component of Base Training. The final piece of Base puzzle is strength. Developing sportspecific strength will allow you to apply more force to the pedals and ground to get you even faster, especially when you're faced with greater resistance from headwinds and gravity.

As XTERRA athletes, hills are part of the territory. Hills (and in some cases technical skill) are what really separates the front of the pack from the back. For this reason, improving your strength on the bike and on the run (and in the water too) is crucial to success. Once your aerobic function has improved enough to allow you to climb hills while maintaining aerobic heart rates, you then can begin to add sport-specific strength workouts to your training schedule to improve your muscular strength that will in turn increase your power output.


Increased power output at a given effort level (or heart rate) is what we are looking to improve through training. Our power output relative to our mass determines how fast we can go. Simply put, Power is the result of how quickly we can move a given amount of resistance through the application of force. As an example, pedaling a bike we can increase our power output by increasing our cadence (speed) while remaining in the same gear, or increase our gear (applying greater force) while maintaining the same cadence. Generally speaking, riding a certain speed in a smaller gear with a higher cadence has a higher aerobic demand (resulting in higher HR), where riding the same speed in a larger gear at a lower cadence has a higher muscular demand (resulting in lower HR). Which application of power is “better” than the other is a topic of debate, but regardless, the greater your aerobic function and muscular strength is the faster you will go. In training we want to improve both our speed and our force production capabilities to improve our power output. Improving your arm turnover in the water as well as pedaling and running cadences can be achieved through various drills and speed intervals. To improve your ability to apply greater force to the water, pedals and ground, you need to perform sport-specific strength intervals.


Training strength can be done in two primary fashions: non-specific and specific. The concept is pretty basic here, but worth understanding the benefits of both. Non-specific strength training refers to training that improves your overall strength for general conditioning and health. Weight training is the most common form. Lifting weights makes you good at lifting weights. Some of the strength gains carry over to swimming, cycling and running, but not very effectively. Weight training still has its place and is still beneficial for most endurance athletes at certain points in their training, but it's not as effective as specific strength training for making you faster at the activities you compete in. Cross training activities and anything else physical you do contributes to improving general strength in a non-specific way.

Specific strength training is exactly that, specific to the activities you are training for. By training strength while swimming, riding and running you are using the exact muscles you are trying to strengthen in the exact position and movement patterns they go through during your activities. By performing intervals emphasizing strength development you strengthen the muscles you use much more effectively to help you go faster. Below you will find some examples of effective sportspecific strength training sessions you can implement into your own training plan.


There are several ways to train strength for swimming; weight training and stretch cords are among the most common non-specific modalities. Pulling or swimming with paddles is the most common swim-specific method. Hand paddles increase the surface area of the water you are able to pull against. This increase in surface area increases the amount of force you must apply to move through the water. Swimming intervals with paddles will improve your muscular strength as well as improve your catch mechanics as the increased surface area of the paddle can help you learn to feel proper hand position when engaging the water. As with all of the strength training methods mentioned here, be sure to begin your strength training conservatively to avoid injuring yourself by jumping into it too quickly with either too much resistance or too much volume. In this case be sure to begin with smaller paddles and gradually build to bigger ones and begin with only a few paddle intervals and add more over successive sessions.

One note on paddle swimming, due to the increase in surface area and force required to pull through the water, your arm speed will decrease. When you incorporate paddle swimming into your program be sure to maintain or add some speed intervals to the mix to keep your turnover speed high. Another great suggestion is to get yourself paddles in several sizes (small, medium, large). This way you can begin with the small ones and over time build to the larger ones to develop more strength. Then as your race season nears you can maintain your strength gains while also bringing more speed into the equation by going back down to the smaller paddles allowing you to increase your turnover. In fact doing “descending paddle” sets is a great way to train strength and also get a feel for more speed by starting the set with big paddles (greater force) and using smaller paddles (more speed) with each consecutive interval.

Example of a Paddle Set:

  • 4x300 Swim with Paddles, descend (swim each interval a little faster than the previous). 30 second rest intervals. Example of a “Descending

Paddle” Set:

  • 500 Swim w/ Large Paddles, moderate pace. 30 second rest interval.
  • 400 Swim w/ Medium Paddles, mod-hard pace. 40 second rest interval.
  • 300 Swim w/ Small Paddles, hard pace. 60 second rest interval.


Utilizing hills and bigger gears are the two best ways to build cycling specific strength. Climbing hills naturally causes you to apply more force to the pedals due to the increase of the force of gravity. You can increase the force application even more by riding in larger gears up the same hill. Aiming for a cadence around 50-60 rpm, pedal in the largest gear you can push for the length of the interval. Begin with several shorter intervals of big-gear climbing and over several sessions you want to increase the length of the intervals while reducing the quantity. Alternating hand positions on the handlebar from tops to drops (road bike) will utilize different muscles and more effectively increase strength gains. Also alternating intervals between seated and standing, will strengthen different muscle groups in not only the legs but also the arms and back.

Example of Big Gear Climbing Intervals:

  • Begin with 6x5 minute climbs, alternating hand positions every minute. 2+ minutes easy between intervals.
  • Build up to 3x20 minute climbs, alternating hand positions every 5 minutes. 5+ minutes easy between intervals.

Utilizing the stationary trainer for strength intervals is a great resource for those that don't have access to big hills, or when weather/time considerations restrict your riding options. The above intervals can be replicated on the trainer easily by elevating the front wheel and turning up the resistance of the trainer or using big enough gearing to achieve the target cadence and force goals. Other options on the trainer include performing Isolated Leg Training (ILT) in a large gear at 60 rpm for several minutes at a time as well as long duration “climbing” on the trainer by standing in a big gear for up to 30 minutes at 50 rpm.

Stationary Trainer Strength Workout Example:

  • Warm-up (leg speed intervals)
  • 3x3 minute ILT intervals @ 60 rpm, 53x16
  • 30 minutes standing @ 50 rpm, 53x12
  • 3x3 minute ILT intervals @ 60 rpm, 53x15
  • Cool-down (leg speed intervals)


As with cycling, hills are the best method for run specific strength training. Doing both hill repeat intervals (at moderate intensities) and long sustained climbs are effective at building run strength. Simply adding more trail running to your program can often do the trick if you typically run on flatter roads. Long sustained climbs will build muscular endurance while short, steep repeats can build more explosive strength. Do your best to keep these efforts aerobic to make the most gains and not over stress your body.

Example of a Hill Repeat Run:

  • Warm-up
  • 6x2 minute hill runs, maximum aerobic effort. Jog down for recovery.
  • 5 minutes flat running
  • 6x30 second hill runs, maximum anaerobic effort. Walk down for recovery.
  • Cool-down

Other effective run strength techniques include running drills such as “one legged running”, bounding and hill bounding. All of these are plyometric-based exercises and therefore must be used in limited quantities and very conservatively. One-legged running is essentially hoping forward on one leg for 10-30 hops per leg. You want to push off and land on your forefoot and use a natural runners arm-swing motion as much as possible. Do several repeats of these and you will really feel it in the lower legs and feet. Bounding and hill bounding are essentially the same thing only done on flat ground vs. an incline. It's an over exaggerated running motion that is a mixture of running and jumping. Big, slow stride with forceful push-off and shock absorbing landing. Start with the flat bounding and work up to the hill bounding as your body adapts. Again, a little goes a long way, so be smart!

Example of a Strength Drill Session:

  • Warm-up
  • 3x20 step One Legged Run, walking recoveries.
  • Aerobic Running.
  • 3x20 second Bounding, walking recoveries.
  • Aerobic Running.
  • 3x10 second Hill Bounding, walking recoveries.

Finally, using a weight vest when running is a great way to build running strength on both flat ground and hills. Adding only a few pounds to your frame can really make a big difference (you will see it by an increase in HR at same speed, or slower speed at same HR). Begin with only a couple pounds and build up to around 5% of your body weight. Run only a mile or two the first time and build up from there. Once you have that down you can add hills and really make big strength gains!

After building your aerobic endurance through consistent aerobic training and maximizing your aerobic speed through aerobic intervals you are ready for sport-specific strength training. Incorporating sport-specific strength training into the second half of your Base Phase of training can be an effective component to increasing your power output and racing speed. After many weeks of effective specific strength training you will be better prepared for your race season and the higher intensity workloads that come with it.


About Cody
Coming from a bike racing background, Cody Waite is in his 5th season as an XTERRA professional. Cody is also the founder and head coach of EPC Multisport, a Denver based endurance sport coaching company, club, and elite amateur XTERRA racing team. His passion for off-road racing and helping others achieve their goals in triathlon, mountain biking and running are visible by looking at his own successes and those of of all he works with. Learn more about Cody and EPC Multisport at
www.epcmultisport.com. Join the EPC Team and make 2011 your best season yet!

Email: cody@epcmultisport.com

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