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Strength Training – Why it’s important for Endurance Athletes

It always surprises me how few endurance athletes utilise strength training as part of their overall endurance training program. This is unfortunate since there is a large amount of scientific research supporting the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes.

Before taking a look at the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes I’ll start by taking a look at some of the concerns endurance athletes commonly have about strength training and try to dispel them.

Why do many endurance athletes avoid strength training?

Some of the most common concerns cited by endurance athletes include:

1) Fear of bulking up too much – many endurance athletes fear they will gain excess muscle and see a subsequent drop in performance. However, endurance athletes are unlikely to see any significant muscle gain, mainly due to the catabolic effect of endurance training – prolonged endurance training increases muscle breakdown/protein metabolism – which counteracts the muscle building effects of strength training. In addition, the structure of an endurance strength training workout differs to that used by bodybuilders, placing a greater emphasis on improving strength and neuromuscular co-ordination rather than increasing muscle mass. This is supported by recent research which has not found significant muscle gain when endurance athletes follow a structured strength training program.

2) Risk of injury – some athletes fear an increased risk of injury with strength training. However, strength training, when performed correctly, can protect you from injury by strengthening muscles and helping to increase joint stability.

3) Lack of time – endurance athletes often undertake multiple training sessions during a week, and are reluctant to add in weight training sessions at the expense of one of their endurance sessions. However, replacing just 30-40 minutes of aerobic training with a weight training session can have a significant performance benefit that far outweighs the loss of one endurance session. In fact, research suggests that strength training can be completed, immediately after a short duration low intensity workout, to give a boost to both endurance and strength.

4) Increased risk of overtraining – whilst it’s true that any increase in training volume or training intensity can increase the risk of overtraining. The overall risk of overtraining can be greatly decreased, through a well balanced program that incorporates strength training and adequate rest/recovery days. The risk of overtraining can be further reduced by not lifting too heavy and not exercising to failure – the point at which you cannot complete an additional repetition.

5) Disruption to subsequent training – some endurance athletes worry that strength training will cause tired/heavy legs that will affect subsequent training. Whilst your legs will undoubtedly feel tired after your first couple of weight sessions, you will quickly adapt, and the effects will lessen within just a few sessions. To reduce disruption don’t perform strength training too close to interval training sessions, ideally perform strength training at least 2 days before interval training.

The benefits of strength training for endurance athletes

The benefits of strength training on endurance performance are significant with positive effects reported for a number of endurance sports including cycling, running, swimming and cross country skiing. In particular strength training appears to have a positive effect on exercise efficiency, with 5-8% improvements reported following short duration studies, as well as improvements in the speed or power output at the lactate threshold.

Since both exercise economy and the lactate threshold are key determinants of endurance exercise performance it shouldn’t be surprising that researchers have also found that strength training significantly improves cycling and running time trial and race performance.

Strength training is believed to have these effects by: 1) improving neuromuscular co-ordination, 2) increasing muscle fibre recruitment which means the workload is shared across a greater number of muscle fibres, and therefore reduces the load on individual muscle fibres, 3) increasing the fatigue resistance of muscle fibres, 4) increasing aerobic energy production, and 5) increased muscle cross sectional area – importantly without increasing bodyweight!

Two important things to note from this are: 1) the performance gains occurred in part through increasing the proportion of aerobic energy production, and, 2) even though there was an increase in muscle cross sectional area, this did not result in increased bodyweight. These two points alone should be enough to dispel most endurance athletes fears about strength training.

What’s the best type of strength training for endurance athletes?

Most research has found that either traditional resistance training – using free weights and resistance machines – or plyometric/explosive strength training provides the greatest benefits. Core strength training and circuit training also provide benefits albeit to a slightly lesser extent. If you are new to resistance training then research suggests you should initially perform weight training using lighter weights or bodyweight exercises and build up towards a more traditional resistance training program.

In terms of the actual exercise you should try to be as specific as possible, and use the exercises that most closely mimic the muscle usage in your sport. Ideally, start with compound exercises – these are multi-joint exercises that rely on the co-ordinated movement of several muscle groups e.g. squats, deadlifts, chest press. Then look to incorporate isolation exercise – single joint exercises e.g. leg curl, leg extension, calf raise – later in the workout.

How much strength training do you need to do to see a benefit?

Most research has used 2-3 weekly training sessions, which is a fairly significant amount especially if you are already doing a couple of weekly interval training sessions. From my experience I have found one weekly session to be adequate and enough to give a performance boost, especially if you are also doing interval training.

How long should each session last?

To reduce interference with your endurance training, try to limit strength training sessions to no more than 40-45minutes. This will ensure you maximise the training benefit whilst reducing the risk of overtraining or disruption to your endurance training.

How heavy should you lift?

Most research has used fairly heavy weights that are approximately 70-85% of the athletes 1 repetition maximum, and require the athlete to complete between 4-10 repetitions. You should only be lifting weights in this range if you have a good level of weight training experience. Even for those with a good level of experience I would tend to avoid going heavier than 75-80% of 1 repetition maximum– this equates to a weight that can be lifted approximately 8 times.

The reason for this is that as you get closer to your 1 repetition maximum you place greater stress on your central nervous system (CNS) which increases the risk of burnout, or overtraining. Another way to reduce the risk of burnout is to avoid training to failure as this places greater strain on your CNS – ideally you should be able to complete each set feeling like you could complete a further 2-3 repetitions if you had to.

Athletes that are new to strength training might want start with bodyweight exercises and then progress on to machine or free weights using a weight that they can complete 15-20 repetitions with. Endurance athletes with good strength training experience can utilise heavier weights that they can complete around 8-12 repetitions. I believe it’s important to use a range of different intensities within your strength workout and even experienced athletes should use both lighter and heavier weights to gain the greatest benefit e.g. if you were completing 9 sets in your workout you could do something like this: 3 sets of 15-20 reps, 3 sets of 12-15 reps, 3 sets of 10-12 reps.

How to incorporate strength training with minimal disruption to your existing training

Try to avoid doing your strength training nearer than two days before an interval training session as it may have a slight negative affect on your interval workout – ideally complete strength training 2-3days before an interval workout. I would be less concerned about disruption to other workouts like tempo training, long endurance workouts etc but interval training can suffer if performed to close to a strength workout.

Recent research has found that you can perform strength training after an interval training session, providing you leave at least a 3 hour gap, between the interval session and the weights session. Therefore if you complete an interval session in the morning you can perform a strength session in the afternoon/evening.

To maximize your training time consider combining your strength training workout with a low intensity endurance session. There is recent evidence that completing a strength training session, after a low intensity endurance workout, increases the endurance training stimulus as well as increasing strength. However, the endurance workout must be low intensity and not prolonged.

What are the best resistance exercises for endurance athletes

As mentioned above it’s important that exercises should be specific to your sport, and closely mimic the muscle movement patterns of your sport. Below are a few examples of some good strength exercises for running, cycling and swimming:

Some Good strength training exercises for runners include: lunges, squats, single leg squats, squat jumps, straight legged dead lift, leg curls, leg extensions, single legged calf raises, towel crunch (used to strengthen the foot arches), also hill repeats are a great sport specific strength workout

Some good strength training exercises for cyclists include: lunges, squats, single leg squats, squat jumps, leg press machine, leg curls, leg extensions, straight legged dead lift, single leg pedalling, tricep dips, upright rows.

Some good strength training exercises for swimming (freestyle) include: lat pulldown, cable straight arm pulldowns, dumbbell pullover, chest press, tricep extensions, dips, bicep curls, dumbbell side raise, upright rows, rotator cuff exercises, cable hip flexor, cable hip extension, swimming with hand paddles.

Caution: Do not try if you have any joint injury. If in doubt get clearance from your doctor.

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