In training for both running and swimming I have a primary objective behind it all – I want to be skilled enough and strong enough to handle a wide range of interesting exploration opportunities. When I come across an inviting patch of water or a trail wandering through a deep forest, I want to feel free to…

  • move faster (like swim sprint a quarter mile to rescue a child’s toy being blown away by the wind)
  • go longer (like the 25 km run into the hills I was happily drawn to do this morning)
  • move through challenging conditions (wild, wind-blown Mediterranean Sea? No problem.)

And, when I do something that is particularly fast, or long, or tough I want to be fit enough that I am not wasted by it afterwards or the next day. I want to feel this freedom of strength and versatility as a lifestyle, not just for a special race or event that happens once in a while, and not just for a few years before the body and mind can’t handle the stress of training for these any more.

Some people want strength so that they can compete and make it to a podium, or get an age group medal or set a PR, which is quite fine, and I really enjoy helping people get ready for that accomplishment. As for me, I want more strength so that I can more comfortable and more safely head out into a wider range of interesting and challenging terrain. I want more strength so that I can safely continue training for the decades (I hope) ahead of me. I want to be free to explore now, and I want to be free to keep exploring for many years to come.

How about you?

To be physically comfortable and safe in a greater range of athletic challenges, we need to be strong. In my understanding, there are three parts of strength we need to develop…

 

More Neural Strength

First, we focus on skillfulness of our movements and set high standards for the quality of that skill and use feedback to constantly refine the movements, making them more precise and more consistent. 

The neural connections in the brain – the configuration of wiring (so to speak) that controls the targeted movement needs a lot of stimulation over time to develop a more efficient way to move and handle the work load. This is all about skill. Though some are better at this than others, the human brain can figure out some of this efficiency puzzle on its own and the rest needs to be taught to us by others who know better how to move in those more efficient ways. An athlete will experience an increase in strength in the first few months of training which is mostly due to this refinement in the neural connections, even without ‘more muscle’ getting involved yet. The better the athlete is at discovering and reinforcing efficient movement patterns, especially in the early stages of their training process, the greater this initial increase in experienced strength will be.

 

More Fiber Strength

Next, we need to make the muscles we have do more work to provoke an increase in strength. We do this by gradually increasing the loading and the duration of work – by going on longer runs or swims and by working in more challenging conditions. There is a multitude of muscle fibers in each muscle and there are three types of fibers, each having their specialty. When you repetitively work your muscles in a particular way, the muscle fibers that specialize in that kind of work are selected by the brain while the others are left just sitting there not participating).

The more work we do the more those selected muscle fibers are stimulated to grow bigger. Growth means there are more components created inside the individual muscle cells (within the fiber) to handle the loading. The more components there are to handle the work load, the easier the work becomes for that muscle fiber. The easier it becomes the less wear there is on that muscle fiber, and the more comfortable you feel doing this kind of work.

 

Recruit More Fibers

I mentioned that when we are doing a certain kind of work, the brain recruits the kind of fibers that specialize in that kind of work, which means it recruits only some of those that are available. So next, we need to provoke the brain to get more available muscle fibers involve, not only more of the specialized type, but also to get fibers of the other types to help out. It is now known in sports physiology that the different types of muscles cells can be drawn in and adapt (within limits) to doing work they are not specialized for. The more fibers that can be coaxed into sharing the load, the easier, the safer, and the more comfortable it becomes for the whole body to do that work.

 To get more fibers participating in the work we need to do activities that require near-maximum power. Weights, sprinting, running hills, swimming against a current, and facing situations that push us to the edge of our current strength can do this for us in different ways.

I am not talking about us having to do extreme sport activities either – just good old-fashioned hard exercise and muscle fatigue. Doing work – in proper dosage –  that leaves us tired and sore is a really good thing during parts of the year. We allow the body to recover well and then do it some more.

Even though I am attracted to swimming and running for longer duration (2 to 4 hours is a nice range) for exploratory purposes, increasing resilience and comfort is the primary reason I do some weight work and I spend some training time (seasonally) on increasing power (which means I work on speed). I think of power in terms of having stronger more refined neural connections, stronger muscle fibers and having more of the available fibers participate in the work. The more I have of those, the safer and the more comfortable I will feel when I go out on longer or more challenging efforts.

 

Strength Is For Older People

When I talk about strength I usually have older athletes and health-oriented people in mind. Younger people and competitive athletes tend to regard strength as a hip thing to work on. But for older people, it is not merely hip, it is necessary. Strength combined with neural agility is what keeps us safe and moving well later into life.  We’ve got to work on this sooner than later because it only gets harder to build up.

Even if you don’t want to swim or run for 2 or 3 hours, the strength to be able to comfortably do so will serve you immensely for the non-athletic aspects of your life. Right now is a good time to work on it.

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