Should I strength train in the lead up to an event??

Expert Edition Blog: Dr Kate Spilsbury

Kate is an exercise physiologist, top runner and my good mate!! Her PHD is in the physiology of tapering (reducing training load pre event) for endurance athletes. So with all my recent encouragement of strength training, I thought it would be great to hear what an expert in the field has to say about strength training in the lead up to an event. And here it is…….

The challenge with tapering is to provide a training stimulus which is sufficient to alleviate accumulated fatigue, whilst still maintaining or further enhancing physiological adaptation. Failure to find the balance between doing too much and not doing enough could hamper your performance goals. Therefore, if strength training forms part of your usual training routine, it’s important to consider tapering it in the lead up to an important event, but not removing it completely.

Muscle strength and power typically improve after tapering periods of 1-3 weeks. Therefore, it is recommended to start reducing or even removing any heavy strength work (e.g. weighted squats, deadlifts, etc.) from 3 weeks out. However, it’s important to maintain (or just slightly reduce) training frequency during the taper, as opposed to doing nothing. By continually tapping into the physiological systems we’ve worked so hard to improve, it reminds the body that we’re not switching off and reduces the risk of feeling flat on race-day. Two weeks out from the race, heavy strength work should be removed and the focus for gym sessions should be towards activation and prehab-type exercises, mobilisation and stretching. It’s important not to try anything new or unfamiliar during the taper (due to the risk of soreness or injury), so anything you plan to do during this time must be incorporated into your build-up. An alternative is to complete some of your usual exercises, but with lower resistance (e.g. body weight instead of weighted). In the early part of race-week it’s fine to continue with some of these exercises (if it fits with your usual routine), but the last few days before the race the focus should be on recovering and event-specific priming for the race (e.g. some light jogging and short sprints/strides for runners).

Taper length is usually dictated by prior training load and the level of accumulated fatigue that the athlete is under as a result of their build-up, rather than the event they are training for. So longer endurance events do not necessarily need a longer strength taper if the athlete hasn’t undertaken a particularly heavy strength training program beforehand.

Whilst this is a general guide, everyone responds to training and tapering differently and therefore it’s a good idea to try out your taper for a less important race to find out what works best for you.

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