Podcast, Running, Science and Physiology, Strength training

Michele Zanini (part 2) | EP#394

 June 12, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Michele Zanini - That Triathlon Show

Michele Zanini is a PhD candidate at the University of Loughborough studying the connection between running economy, durability, and strength training). He is also a physiologist and strength and conditioning coach with the Italian Triathlon Federation, and he has been working alongside the legendary running coach Renato Canova. This is part two of a two-part interview, part 1 was published last week in EP#393. 

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • The science of strength training and endurance performance
  • How to implement this type of strength training in practice
  • The difference between the strength training described in the scientific literature and what some leading experts are proposing
  • Working with Renato Canova (one of the greatest running coaches of all time)
  • Canova's training principles and how amateur runners can apply them

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Strength Training

02:52 -

  • During the strength training protocol, we conducted two sessions per week over ten weeks, each lasting approximately one hour. 
  • The primary focus of the training was to enhance plyometric capabilities and develop maximum strength in the lower limbs.
  • To improve plyometrics, we incorporated two plyometric exercises into each session. 
  • As for maximum strength, we utilised exercises such as full squats, leg presses, single leg presses, and isometric calf raises. 
  • Including isometric calf raises was inspired by a recent study conducted in Germany, which demonstrated a 4% improvement in the energy cost of running through this exercise. 
  • This finding led us to consider the isometric nature of calf muscle fibres during running, as most of the work is performed through the tendon. 
  • Therefore, we aimed to investigate how incorporating isometric calf raises into our training regimen would impact running performance.

Strength training for triathlon

04:24 -

  • The approach to implementing strength training for athletes outside research settings differs slightly from an applied perspective. 
  • Standardisation is necessary for research, and athletes perform the prescribed work without much room for progression or prioritisation. 
  • However, a longer-term approach is taken when working with athletes outside of research, typically six to seven months or even a year.
  • The first step is to consider the upcoming races and plan the strength training accordingly, prioritising specific exercises based on the race requirements. 
  • One common mistake is athletes repeatedly performing the same exercises in the gym, which may be helpful for injury prevention but not necessarily for performance enhancement. 
  • It's important to emphasise to athletes that just as they vary their aerobic exercises, such as rides or runs, they should incorporate variety into their strength training.
  • Regarding the goals and types of strength to develop, evidence suggests that plyometrics, maximal strength, and explosive strength can improve performance, not only in running economy and fatigue development but also in maximum sprinting speed and potential improvements in running economy.
  •  It's worth noting that implementing strength training does not lead to an increase in body mass or a decrease in performance. 
  • Sprinters, who aim for exceptional speed, incorporate significant strength training into their routines.
  • However, implementing strength training in endurance sports can be challenging. 
  • Endurance coaches may lack the knowledge and time to properly implement strength training. In contrast, strength coaches may approach it from a perspective more suited to power athletes, leading to higher volumes that cause excessive soreness and interfere with aerobic performance.
  • To address these challenges, it's essential to avoid creating excessive soreness in athletes and to tailor the strength training approach to the specific needs and capabilities of the athletes and the coach being supported. 
  • There is no one-size-fits-all framework; instead, the approach should be based on understanding the group's starting point and working towards long-term goals.

Muscle soreness

10:17 -

  • When it comes to managing soreness in endurance athletes, several factors need to be considered. 
  • Initially, soreness arises from eccentric damage to muscle fibres during exercise. 
  • The subsequent inflammatory response and super-compensation lead to muscle repair and growth. 
  • While some soreness may be expected, it is crucial to minimise it, especially during the racing season.
  • With endurance athletes, it is advisable to err on the side of caution and prioritise conservative training volumes. 
  • Even elite athletes new to heavy lifting or plyometrics will experience adaptation, regardless of suboptimal volume. 
  • Unlike power or strength-dominant sports, endurance athletes have a higher ceiling for adaptation, requiring less work to improve.
  • Reducing training volume is critical. 
  • Manipulating intensity is less favourable since specific adaptations are desired from the load. 
  • Optimal loads for hypertrophy and maximum strength may vary, but focusing on loads over 80% of one-repetition maximum (1RM) is a good guideline for improving maximal strength.
  • It is crucial to perform the exercises with maximum intent, emphasising speed. Even when lifting at lower loads, performing lifts as fast as possible activates more muscle fibres and promotes greater adaptation.
  • Session duration should generally be kept relatively short, ideally within one hour. Most sessions can be completed in 50 minutes, although additional time may be required for prehab or learning new exercises. 
  • If time constraints arise, it is better to remove one exercise rather than compromise recovery.
  • Maintaining adequate recovery between sets is essential. 
  • Unlike repeat workouts in endurance training, strength training requires sufficient recovery time (around two to a half minutes) to replenish phosphocreatine and optimise force and power production. 
  • Cutting recovery periods will diminish the effectiveness of the training.

Number of reps per set

15:03 -

  • Listening to Bent Rønnestad's insights on your podcast, I recall him discussing leaving some reserve in training for endurance athletes due to their high adaptability. 
  • This principle resonated with me, and I have incorporated it into my approach. Depending on the specific training goals, I adjust the reserve accordingly.
  • I aim for about two reps in reserve for exercises focused on maximum strength within the range of around five to six reps. 
  • If I can perform five reps, I would stop at three. In general strength and hypertrophy phases, especially during the initial stages, I leave a greater reserve of around two to three reps. 
  • So if I can do ten reps, I would stop at seven or eight.
  • Leaving some reps in reserve serves multiple purposes. Firstly, it helps prevent excessive soreness and potential maladaptation caused by excessive load. 
  • Secondly, it prioritises safety, as approaching one's limit can compromise movement precision. 
  • Therefore, I primarily utilise free weights such as barbells and dumbbells, rarely relying on guided machines like leg presses.
  • Another factor to consider is the overall volume of the exercise, not just the volume within a single set. 
  • During certain phases of the training season, I may reduce the number of sets from four to two. 
  • Additionally, I may adjust the exercise selection by decreasing the number of leg exercises from three to two, for example.
  • By incorporating these principles of leaving a reserve, prioritising safety, and adjusting the overall volume, I aim to optimise my training outcomes and promote adequate progress in my strength and conditioning routines.

Form-based biomechanical exercises

18:11 -

  • In working with endurance athletes, there appears to be a divide between strength coaches and conditioning/physio coaches with different perspectives on training approaches. 
  • Some experts emphasise the importance of optimising performance through strength, power, and plyometric exercises, while others prioritise form and injury prevention.
  • Recognising the need for a comprehensive approach, I acknowledge the significance of both perspectives. 
  • While my expertise lies primarily in strength training for endurance performance, I recognise the value of prevention and injury management. 
  • Collaboration with physiotherapists or specialists is crucial when specific issues arise, or preventive measures are required. 
  • This teamwork approach ensures a well-rounded training program that addresses all aspects of an athlete's needs.
  • While research limitations exist, with protocols often spanning a few months, it is challenging to determine the definitive impact of core training, flexibility, or technical accuracy on performance. 
  • As a strength-focused coach, my training programs emphasise building strength and enhancing performance. 
  • However, I strive to incorporate preventive measures to ensure athletes can engage in consistent aerobic exercise and minimise the risk of overloading specific issues.
  • While I have developed basic exercises and progressions over time, it is essential to acknowledge that I may not possess the expertise and knowledge to specialise in prevention-focused programs. 
  • Therefore, collaboration with other professionals ensures a comprehensive and effective training regimen.

Movement quality

22:40 -

  • When it comes to incorporating lifts into training, ensuring proper movement is essential. 
  • Suppose an athlete struggles with a specific lift. In that case, it is crucial to regress the exercise or find a simpler variation that addresses any motor control, anatomical, or flexibility limitations they may have. 
  • The primary focus remains on the athlete's ability to generate high power levels while maintaining proper form.
  • Form always takes precedence, especially with athletes new to strength training. The initial phase involves assessing their movement patterns and ensuring they can execute exercises safely while targeting the intended muscles. 
  • Any deviation from the correct form can increase the risk of injury and lead to suboptimal adaptations by activating different muscles instead of the intended ones.

Working with Renato Canova

24:19 -

  • I discovered the person I admire when it comes to prescribing training programs. I came across a book he wrote around 1999 or 2000, which provided me with valuable methodological guidance and frameworks for developing training programs. 
  • I became an avid reader of his posts on letsrun.com, where he shared workout details and insights on various training approaches for different distances, such as marathon and middle-distance running.
  • I had the opportunity to meet him at a conference and discuss training-related matters. 
  • At that time, I had already completed an internship in Kenya with another coach and expressed my interest in returning. He encouraged me to reach out when the opportunity arose. 
  • Eventually, I met him in Italy during a training camp with Sondre Moen, a Norwegian marathon runner known for his exceptional performance of 2 hours, 5 minutes, and 45 seconds, achieved before super shoes' introduction.
  • Subsequently, I had the privilege of spending a couple of days with him in Italy, and later, I joined him during a training camp in Kenya, where I began assisting him with strength training. 
  • One remarkable aspect of this coach, Renato, is his passion for athletics. Our initial meeting involved a session with an artist, followed by an intense five-hour conversation solely focused on running and its application. 
  • I eagerly listened and took notes throughout the discussion as he shared his knowledge and experience. This encounter vividly exemplified his unwavering dedication to athletics and sports.

Renato's methodology

27:28 -

  •  One of the central principles is specificity, which involves tailoring training to match the desired race pace and distance. This allows for a clear goal and helps in planning the training process. 
  • The concept of even-paced races is emphasised, except for shorter distances like the 800 meters.
  • The training approach involves working backwards from the target race pace. Specific workouts are designed with different intensities, ranging from slower to faster than the race pace. 
  • These workouts progress over time, gradually approaching the desired race pace as weeks and months pass. By doing so, athletes can adapt and improve their performance.
  • The philosophy also emphasises the importance of maintaining a range of speeds and intensities. It is believed that if an athlete solely focuses on training at a race pace, they may lose some of the adaptations gained earlier. 
  • Therefore, periodic stimulus from both speed and endurance is necessary to prevent such losses and maintain a well-rounded training regimen.
  • Another principle is the change in training density. 
  • Rather than repeating the same workout week after week, the philosophy suggests increasing training density by modifying the volume and recovery periods. 
  • This approach involves gradually increasing the workload and intensity, moving from shorter intervals to longer ones while adjusting the recovery periods accordingly. By increasing training density, athletes can optimise their progress and avoid stagnation.

Training volume

32:53 -

  • The approach to training volume can vary depending on the athlete's specific goals. For example, in a workout scenario like ten sets of 400 meters, the volume can be adjusted differently. 
  • One option is to increase the volume by extending the distance, such as doing four sets of 1 kilometre instead. 
  • Alternatively, the volume can be increased by performing additional sets, allowing for more repetitions.
  • The choice between increasing intensity or volume depends on the training target. Increasing intensity by pushing for faster speeds may be preferred if the aim is to improve speed. 
  • On the other hand, if the goal is to build endurance and stamina, gradually increasing the volume of training can be more beneficial.
  • When training for a marathon, for instance, a typical approach involves starting with a workout consisting of six sets of three kilometres at marathon pace, followed by one kilometre at 90% marathon pace. 
  • As the training progresses, the focus shifts towards increasing the overall volume instead of solely targeting a specific pace. This is because marathon distance requires a longer duration to develop the necessary endurance than shorter track-related events, which may involve workouts longer than the actual race distance.
  • As marathon training advances, workouts can include variations such as five sets of five kilometres at marathon pace, with one kilometre at the same intensity or other more intense workout combinations. 
  • The key is to tailor the training approach to align with the specific demands and objectives of the target event.

Maintenance training

35:29 -

  • One of the key aspects of Renato's coaching approach, shared by other high-profile coaches like Claudio Berardelli, is the flexibility in structuring training cycles. 
  • They extend it to accommodate individual needs rather than strictly adhering to a seven-day microcycle. Claudio Berardelli typically uses a 10-day cycle, while Renato can even stretch it to 21 days. This allows for a more varied and adaptable training stimulus.
  • In Renato's programs, there is an emphasis on incorporating different stimuli within the same training session. This can involve alternating between speed-dominant exercises and race-specific workouts or gradually progressing from slower and longer exercises to faster ones. 
  • The aim is to provide a diverse range of training intensities and adaptations.
  • It's important to note that Renato's programs are often adjusted based on individual athlete feedback and performance during the workouts. This level of personalisation is possible because Renato is present during the sessions. 
  • If an athlete struggles to maintain the prescribed pace or requires additional recovery, the workout may be modified on the spot. For instance, a planned 10x1-kilometre workout may be altered to shorter intervals, such as 800 or 500 meters, while maintaining the overall volume.
  • It's worth mentioning that published programs or those found online may not reflect the exact workouts designed for specific athletes. 
  • These programs serve as references but may require adjustments based on individual capabilities and responses to training.
  • The adaptive nature of Renato's coaching approach ensures that the training aligns with an athlete's current abilities and optimises their progress while considering their limitations.

Things Michele does differently

38:37 -

  • Regarding methodology, I have been heavily influenced by my mentor, Renato, who has been in the field for a long time. 
  • Our programming approaches are similar; I have learned much from him. While we occasionally discuss differences, he is the one who provides valuable insights. 
  • However, there are certain areas where we have slightly different attitudes, such as strength training.
  • While I have collaborated with Renato in supporting his athletes with strength training, he primarily focuses on injury prevention rather than performance enhancement. 
  • Although he was fine with incorporating heavy strength exercises, his perspective revolved around preventing injuries. 
  • On the other hand, I lean towards a more performance-oriented approach and would conduct additional testing. 
  • Since Renato possesses over 55 to 60 years of coaching experience, he has the coach's eye and understands the implications of training on performance. As I lack that level of experience, I would utilise lab testing to further guide training prescriptions.
  • One aspect I differ from Renato is my willingness to experiment and introduce new ideas. 
  • While he relies on his vast experience and proven methods accumulated over the past 30 years, I believe in incorporating new insights into training. 
  • Approximately 5 to 10% of the training prescription would be dedicated to implementing innovative approaches that could enhance performance.

Tips for amateur athletes training for the marathon

41:26 -

  • When it comes to training for amateur athletes, it's essential to keep things simple and consistent. While there may be differences between high-profile or elite athletes and amateurs, the fundamental principles remain the same.
  • Start by planning your training over a seven or 14-day cycle, but remember that flexibility is limited. Stick to a plan that you can consistently follow. 
  • Begin by setting your goal and understanding your potential performance. Then work backwards, ensuring you incorporate specificity and funnelling in your training.
  • To prepare for a race, including enough specific workouts leading up to the event is crucial. Avoid the common mistake of solely focusing on long runs at a slower pace. 
  • Instead, aim to develop the specific marathon pace and volume gradually. Amateur athletes should include long runs of 32, 35, or even 38 kilometres, ideally around marathon pace or close to it. 
  • Variation in speed and progression is acceptable, but accumulating sufficient volume at the specific marathon pace is critical.
  • While overall volume may be lower for amateur athletes due to time constraints, adjusting expectations is essential. 
  • Elite athletes may complete a 40-kilometre long run in around 2 hours 15 minutes, whereas an amateur athlete might take three hours or more. Recognise that the extended duration of long runs for amateurs may have implications on recovery and potential issues that may arise.

The difference in mentality between African and European runners

42:29 -

  • The difference in attitude and approach to racing between East African runners and Europeans/Americans is a topic that aligns with my way of thinking. 
  • East African runners often try to keep up with the group's pace, even if it means eventually dropping out of the race. They don't start conservatively and tend to focus less on numbers like heart rate and pace. 
  • In contrast, Europeans and Americans often overthink and analyse these metrics, which can limit their performance both in training and racing.
  • The tendency to overanalyse and stay within a comfort zone can hinder athletes from pushing themselves beyond their perceived limits. 
  • When presented with challenging workouts, some athletes may initially find them daunting or impossible. Europeans, in particular, may struggle to push themselves to the point where they feel they can't cope. 
  • Instead, they choose a slower pace or modify the workout to match their perceived capabilities.
  • However, achieving specific performance goals, such as running a marathon at a certain pace, requires exposing oneself to the desired intensity. 
  • Simply slowing down and hoping to perform at the target pace during the race is unlikely to yield the desired results. It's essential to adopt an attitude of pushing boundaries and embracing the discomfort that comes with it.

Run training in a triathlon context

48:43 -

  • I must clarify that I am not a triathlon coach. However, based on physiology, I can provide insights and suggestions on running training in triathlon. 
  • I typically offer guidance that coaches can adapt and implement when coaching triathletes, considering the unique demands of cycling and swimming. Volume is one aspect that needs adjustment, as triathletes cannot sustain high running volumes due to the need for quicker recovery times. 
  • Unlike marathon training, where athletes may have several easy days after a specific block, triathlon training requires a compromise in volume and workout density due to the demands of other sports.
  • Considering the race demands, the distance of the triathlon (e.g., sprint or Olympic) and the athlete's race style are important factors to consider. 
  • Some athletes excel in the run after performing well in the bike leg, while others must focus on improving their biking skills to compete. 
  • In the World Triathlon Championship Series (WTCS) races, running is typically the last aspect to develop since it is crucial to be among the frontrunners to have a chance at top positions, given the high level of competition. If an athlete is already a good runner, the focus may be on maintaining running performance while developing other qualities. 
  • However, if athletes need to improve their running, they should focus on addressing the performance gaps and race demands. For instance, analysing the gap between the required pace and the current pace can help identify specific areas to work on, such as anaerobic and threshold work to improve speed and specificity.
  • Another crucial aspect of triathlon training is the transition from biking to running.
  • Maintaining a good run after a challenging bike ride or intense training session is essential. 
  • This specificity can be targeted through intense bike rides followed by a run to improve running speed over time or by adjusting the difficulty of the bike ride while maintaining a consistent run. 
  • Implementing brick workouts, which involve consecutive bike-to-run sessions, can be beneficial for developing this aspect.

Rapid-Fire Questions

54:07 -
What's your favourite book or resource related to endurance sports?
Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success - book by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness

What's an important habit you've benefited from athletically, professionally or personally?
Consistency. Just be able to keep showing up even if things are
not going too well or results are not coming. And that binds into just being passionate about what you do as well. So if you don't have the passion or enjoyment of doing it, then you won't be able to be consistent for long enough to make a difference.

Who's somebody that you look up to or that has inspired you?
Renato Canova, Andy Jones and Claudio Berardelli are three people that inspired me in different fields.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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