Book Review: Finish Strong: Resistance Training for Endurance Athletes

Richard Boergers & Angelo Gingerelli (2021) published by Bloomsbury.

I like podcasts and videos but I also like the written word, so here is a written book review.

I was really hoping that I would like this book and find the contents to be helpful. I am happy to report that really I do like this book! See my review below.

I suppose I should provide the following disclaimer: I mostly read the information targeted at runners (and cyclists to a lesser extent). I essentially ignored the advice for swimmers because the last time I was in a pool someone commented that my technique was akin to drowning. I realize that is a reason I should read the chapter on swimming, but at this point in my life any hope for me in a swimming pool lane has nearly vanished. Back to the book.

This book is divided into chapters that cover a bit of background, then reasons for including resistance work in your endurance training, followed by in-depth examples of exercises for runners, cyclists, and swimmers. Certainly some crossover exists among athletes in those three sports – and book recognizes this – but it is nice to get some specific guidance for each individual pursuit.

The Introduction

These authors really do a great job presenting the importance of resistance training for athletes. Well done! Honestly their writing convinced me to continue with my strength training even though the issue remains under debate in the field of endurance sports. Unfortunately, however, the authors chose to begin the first paragraph of the introduction with a selection of their sporting accomplishments rather than their training experience: Oops, no running events beyond the marathon distance (but they do have some IronMans, which is awesome). As someone interested in ultra marathons, I am certainly biased, but I think the authors should have have begun with their much more impressive background as wellness and fitness professionals with advanced degrees in human movement, biomechanics and exercise physiology, as well as being self-coached athletes (which I highly respect and is also my default situation). I don’t personally care whether the authors have done longer/harder/more racing than me. What matters to me is that they have experience in training: Coaches don’t have to be better athletes than the people they are training!

More important than a coach’s own athletic prowess, is the coach’s modus operandi and training philosophy. Thus I particularly appreciate the authors’ statement that they “both have the same ends goals in mind for incorporating resistance training with our aerobic sport training – improving athletic performance, injury prevention, and career longevity” and that such training can lead to “more efficient energy metabolism due to increased muscle mass…often accompanied by mental benefits, such as improved self-esteem, feeling younger or more athletic, and increased confidence” (pp. 6-7). Sign me up!

Beyond the Introduction

A fair question to ask about resistance training is whether it requires a great deal of time. Athletes are busy and want to maximize their training, so is it worth it to add another thing to do? The authors address this issue with a recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine that includes 2-4 sessions of resistance training per week. The authors explain “Doing two to three sessions per week for about 45 minutes each will be more than enough to see improvements” and that “finding the time to add resistance training…might be a game changer” (p. 37).

But how should we do this training? Do we need to buy a gym membership? No, probably not. As for me, I currently have a small collapsable home gym that I use every week and have been using for a couple of years. My gym includes the ability to squat and bench up to 70kg (more than my body weight), which is enough for me, for now. If I do go to a gym, should I do what the other people at the gym do? Maybe yes, maybe no. Endurance athletes, however, differ from powerlifters in a few important ways. For example -and I didn’t realize this until reading this book- powerlifters are frequently sitting around looking at their phones because they need their muscles and nervous system to be (mostly ?) recovered so that they can lift maximum weight. Endurance athletes don’t need to lift maximum weight on rested muscles; in fact, endurance athletes want to keep their heart rate up as they work out, like they do in their sports. Does this mean we should lift easy weights but with a certified butt ton of repetitions? The authors don’t specifically answer this as far as I remember, but my opinion is that lifting heavy-ish with multiple repetitions (6-8?) is better than easy forever repetitions AND is better than one heavy max rep. The authors do write that to get stronger you must move “enough weight” to break down muscle, so that it can rebuild stronger (p. 17).

So how do we find the balance in strength training that can lead to progress in endurance sports? Enter crossfit / circuit training. The authors recommend circuit training but with a certain caveat: No need for an isolated cardio component because we should be getting plenty of cardiovascular work in our day-to-day exercise (though, off season might be different- if you have an off season). Something this book helped me understand – and implement a change in my workouts – is the importance of training opposing muscle groups. For me, this means that now I include hamstring training to compliment my massive ultra runner quadriceps (see the Oatmeal cartoon below and notice the quads).

After the introduction and a few chapters about the importance of doing the right strength training, the authors move on to fairly comprehensive chapters that focus on specific training for specific sports. Before this specific sports training, however, the book does review multiple salient aspects of strength training that range from mobility to core work to a chapter on fundamental exercises that all endurance athletes should master (squat, lunges, to push/pull ups and more).

After these fundamental exercises comes the sport specific information. For example, Chapter 15 is titled “The Top 10 Exercises for Runners” and includes lots of exercises to help runners – and no, I won’t list them all here. It is safe to say, however, that they include core work and upper body too (running is not all about the legs!).

After these sport specific exercises, the authors provide some training templates that athletes might use. I mostly skipped this section as I dislike and never use general training templates. The information in these templates, though, could be quite useful in designing my own training calendar.

Other things I learned – in no particular order

  1. What about Plantar Fasciitis? Does it happen to everyone who runs lots and lots? Well, the authors posit that plantar fasciitis might actually be cause by underactive glutes – perhaps on one side – and that only resting won’t fix the problem; but that “…resistance and mobility training is key” (p. 33). So if you have this problem you should consider adopting some strength training.
  2. Why do lunges when I can work both legs at the same time doing squats? Well first of all, keep doing squats for sure, but isolateral moves (one leg) are quite important because they mimic what actually happens in real endurance events. We aren’t usually jumping from rock to rock using both legs… So squats are great, but maybe single leg squats and lunges are event better (p. 50-51)!
  3. The older you get, the more important resistance training becomes. Resistance training can add years or even decades to your endurance sports life. So do it already, gosh!

Suggestions to the authors

  1. Start the introduction with your background in sports medicine before mentioning the events you have completed.
  2. Collaborate on the next edition with an ultra runner coach to reach a much wider audience. In particular, your comment on p. 65 about peak milage for runners beginning at 50km needs to be , um, jacked waaaaaay up. More like 100-150 km per week could be peak milage (sometimes more!?!).
  3. Make a social media account about endurance training to promote your work. You might actually already have this…. I will check later.
  4. Add a conclusion to your book. Finish it strong(ly). 🙂

Conclusion

The authors didn’t write a conclusion so I will just say a big THANK YOU to Richard Boergers and Angelo Gingerelli for their work and interest in helping endurance athletes improve.

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