Endurance Skating

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Winter Strength Training for Skaters

strengthIt’s early season/winter, and that means strength training for most athletes.

Podcasts, blogs and fitness websites everywhere are all running articles on strength training, and since I am not particularly original in this respect, I’m going to write about how I do it.

Strength training is one of the few unquestionables that nearly all coaches agree needs to happen – for all athletes, in all sports. There are very few exceptions. However, there’s also a lot of confusion about exactly what it means and how to best develop it.

Strength 101

Strength is simply the ability to push a large mass over a distance. If you can push/lift a 100kg weight then you are stronger than someone who can only move 90kgs. Strength is a foundational component of athleticism, from which other attributes, skills and abilities are derived. Don’t confuse strength with power – which is the ability to move mass over time. To develop power, you first need to develop basic strength, then speed (light weight, higher rep fast turnover), and then put them together which will equate to higher power. A lumbering strongman may have great strength but not be able to move quickly enough to possess great power, while a kenyan marathoner may possess excellent leg turnover but not have the strength in order to be able to push a big gear enough gear on a bike to be a competitive cyclist, for example.

Specific leg strength & overall body strength is something that I have personally been working on for many years; I used to be an absolute weakling, and have come from a very low base in this regard. I remember when we used to do “get low” drills such as chariots at Tatem training sessions where my legs would burn and my back would ache, leaving me a writhing mess on the floor.  However, with steady, consistent work in the gym, a regular offskate routine, and a couple of other tricks I’ve learnt, I feel that I’ve come on strongly in this area in the last few years. It has been a very slow and steady improvement.

The Importance of Strength For Speed Skating

When it comes down it the nitty-gritty, an important component of speed skating is about leg and core strength – more so than cycling, and far more so than running. Why is this? Because skating is a fully weight bearing exercise where you must support a static body position and also uses a very long duty cycle of the active muscles – skating has a  duty cycle of about ~55% (from setdown to full extension of the pushing leg), whereas cycling has a duty cycle about ~35% (the power-generating parts of the cycle stroke), while running’s duty cycle is just ~10% (the ground contact time of each foot).  The long duty cycle of skating and the biomechanical angles created by sitting low activate large muscle groups and create a lactate buildup even before you have moved an inch! 

Muscular strength and the ability to hold your bodyweight in the skating position with relative comfort is critically important, so if you improve you maximal strength ceiling while your body weight remains the same, you’ll find it easier to hold a lower position to reap the benefits of a longer push and a more aerodynamic body position.

There’s no secrets when it comes to strength training… or at least none that I know about (haha). I have personally improved simply by doing regular gym & offskate sessions. It has taken a long time, but I have improved gradually year on year. During the winter I try to aim for twice-a-week in the gym & 3 offskate sessions a week, and then during spring and summer when I just want to maintain, I cut down to once a week in the gym and 1 or 2 offskate sessions.

When it comes to strength workouts, shorter sessions with more frequency are definitely the way to go. 3 x 15min sessions a week spaced evenly apart are better than 1 x 60min session, even though total time is less.

A gym session for me is usually a full-body routine where I’ll do legs, core and upper body. I’m using heavy weights and low reps (between 4-6 reps) at this stage of the season to build strength, and will gradually shift to lighter weights, pushing 12-16 reps faster to develop power and speed as we move into the build phase of the season. I try to use compound movement exercises such as deadlifts and pullups that work several muscles/joints at once. 

Offskate sessions I do in the comfort of my own home! No special equipment required, although a wobble-mat and resistance band both make excellent investments. Here is a sample of a typical offskate session I’ll do:

Single set:

  • 15xsquats, pause 2 secs at the low position
  • 10 single-leg squats on each leg
  • 60sec low walking x2
  • 5 vertical jumps @ ~90% max effort
  • Hold low skating position, 60 seconds

Repeat for 2 full sets (3 if you’re feeling really good). Total time taken 15-20 mins.

There’s plenty of offskate stuff that you can look up on Youtube. However you could do much worse than watch this series of videos featuring Yann Guyader:

As ever, with strength training it is better to build up slowly and leave a little on the table each time. They should not be so hard that they leave you beat up and sore for the next couple of days.

Bike Work | Low vs High Cadence

You probably don’t need me to tell you that a great cross-training tool for developing strength for skating is the bike. However, my thoughts on exactly how it should be used have changed over time, both in terms of pure cycling, and cycling for skating. I used to think that pushing a big gear with lower cadence was the way to go to produce maximum power. It made intuitive sense – the most power was generated by moving more weight per push, not spinning you legs like wiley coyote with no force behind each stroke.

However, after reading up on it, there was so much argument made for aiming for ~90rpm+, notably Lance Armstrong who developed his pedalling technique to use these higher cadences during his career, that I fell into line with the “high cadence/smaller gear” theory. As Lance was the best cyclist in history, you would have to be pretty stupid to disagree, wouldn’t you? And for what he was doing that made perfect sense – higher cadence, while it may have been more cardiovascularly taxing, had the effect of saving his legs and preserving more muscle glycogen, which on a Grand Tour makes total sense. Time Trialing is another possible arena where 90-100rpm is probably optimal – but even here I think you’ll find that the cadences used are not as high as some might think.

However, in general, I’ve gone back the view that lower cadence/bigger gear is better and that the higher cadence theory is flawed for most people, most of the time…

Firstly, while the elites may be pushing higher cadences, they are doing so because they can generate more power, and therefore operating at these higher cadences is perfectly in line with their power profile. Secondly, so much of what is written about cadence is from a Triathlon perspective where ~90 rpm is often targeted to shift the work onto your cardiovascular system, save the legs and sync your cadence with the 90 (180) strides per minute that is known in running to best use Muscle Tendon Elasticity (MTE)… which is completely non-applicable to skating.

And I’m not even sure that I agree this is an optimal strategy for Triathlon. I think that it makes a lot of sense for us to  look at the elite female Ironman athletes who are riding at ~3w/kg, rather than the elite men who are riding at ~4w/kg with correspondingly higher cadence (unless you too can produce 4w/kg for 4hrs at 80% of FTP, of course) to see what is optimal for most age groupers. Supposedly, Mirinda Carfrae is (or was) a relative pedal-masher @ ~70rpm. Chrissie Wellington was also known to grind away in the 70-something rpm range too.. so low cadence didn’t seem to do much harm for the 2 best female runners in the history of Ironman!

Of course, for everyone there is the aspect of individualisation, and just because lower cadence works for Rinnie/Chrissie as much as a high cadence works for Lance, you need to work out what works best for your, for what you are trying to achieve.

So yes, my thoughts on cycling cadence and gear have gone full 360, and I’m firmly back in the “large gear/low cadence” camp on the bike for developing leg strength. While I do lightly on the recovery days, most of my cycling this winter has been firmly in the large chain-ring!

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One comment on “Winter Strength Training for Skaters

  1. Ilan Vardi
    January 26, 2016

    I saw Martina Sablikova on Eurosport riding the world’s time trial in 2015. It was amusing because she’s 55kg and has no visible muscle, but was pedalling at like 70rpm’s. This was noted by the commentators who had no clue who she was, including ITT guru Michael Hutchinson (of the book Faster). She still finished 12th (out of 44).

    All the best,

    -ilan

    Like

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This entry was posted on December 31, 2015 by in Skating, Training and tagged , , , , .

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