Strength Training for Endurance Athletes
There is a long-standing belief held by many endurance athletes that if they lift weights (especially heavy weights), that they will get “too bulky” or “lose flexibility”. This may have been the common practice for endurance sports training 40 years ago, yet so many athletes today still believe that strength training will negatively affect their performance. There is plenty of scientific evidence at this point that disprove these outdated beliefs. Any athlete, coach, or healthcare provider who discourages endurance athletes from strength training is stuck in the past, and doing themselves or their athlete a terrible disservice.
Here are 10 points every endurance athlete should know regarding strength training:
You won’t bulk up. An endurance athlete saying they will bulk up from strength training is like a body builder saying they will look like a marathoner if they do any cardio. It’s absurd! It takes body builders and powerlifters YEARS of consistent training to develop their size and massive physiques, just like it takes years to develop aerobic endurance. They have to specific training programs to help foster muscle hypertrophy and growth, just as you have training programs to allow you to run faster or bike longer. Also, their diet HIGHLY supports and influences their body’s adaptation to the stresses of weight lifting, by adding mass and bulk.
You won’t lose flexibility. Another myth from the days of yore is that strength training will make you “muscle bound” and lose flexibility. Research has show again and again that strength training has no effect on tissue flexibility. In fact, some methods of heavy load eccentric training have been shown to increase tissue length.
No more 3 sets of 20. Some endurance athletes do perform strength training, but stick with the old “low weight high rep” scheme. 3x20 is great for building endurance, but guess what…as endurance athletes we are already really good at the endurance stuff. We want to develop true strength and power, and 3x20 is not enough of a stimulus to create that type of adaptation.
Lift heavy. The goal of strength training is to gain strength right? In order to do so, you must lift loads heavy enough to cause the physiological changes in muscle tissue. The higher stress on your muscles and tendons will cause adaptations for greater contractile force and tensile loading tolerance. Heavy loads also help generate neural adaptations within the muscle, allowing you to better synchronize the number of motor units firing as well as the number of individual muscle fibers recruited to fire.
Focus on your sport specific weaknesses. If you are a cyclist, being able to bench press 300lbs isn’t going to make you a better cyclist. Look at your sport and determine which major muscle groups or movement patterns are essential for your performance, then focus on exercises that address those patterns. Exercises should be sport specific, but also geared towards your individual weaknesses.
Everyone is different. No strength training plan is built to suit every athlete. It should take into account your previous athletic background as well as your current strength/fitness. Two triathletes, one a former collegiate swimmer and the other a collegiate soccer player, are going to have very different needs for strengthening based on their backgrounds.
Compound vs. isolated lifts. The most efficient use of time in the gym for endurance athletes will be with compound lifts. That means exercises that combine the movement of multiple joints and muscle groups; think squat, deadlift, lunge, pull up, etc. However, isolated lifts (single joint/muscle group movements) such as knee extension or hamstring curl should not be discarded. Depending on an athlete’s individual weaknesses, isolated lifts can be a great addition to any strength program.
Injury reduction. There is no such thing as injury “prevention”. No amount of exercise can prevent you from stepping off a curb and rolling your ankle, or taking a fall on the bike. Strength training WILL however help to decrease your risk of injury, especially muscular and overuse injuries common with endurance sports. The stress from lifting heavy loads stimulates muscles/tendons/bones to adapt and become more resistant to the repetitive stress incurred by endurance training.
Periodize your strength training. You have to plan your strength training in accordance with your endurance training. Post-season and early season can be heavily strength focused as the demands of your endurance training and proximity to racing is low. As you move closer towards racing season and the volume of endurance training increases, the focus on strength training decreases and moves towards maintenance. HOWEVER, that does not mean strength-training stops! Maintaining 1-2 strength sessions per week with heavy loads has been shown to improve endurance performance, and can be appropriately programmed to avoid impacting endurance-based training.
Consistency is KEY! This is the golden rule for pretty much anything. Consistency of training will always yield better performance than sporadic bouts of intense training. Running 3x/wk for 12 months will result in greater fitness in the long run, compared to running 6x/wk for 6 months and then doing nothing for 3 months. The same goes for strength training.
Hopefully, with these points above, you feel more comfortable and confident about adding strength training to your routine. Understand that every athlete is unique and there is no cookie cutter approach for achieving performance. If you are looking to add strength training to your endurance program please consult a professional who has experience and knowledge of both strength training methods and how to balance it with the rigors of endurance sports. If you are in the Bozeman area and interested in a strength training program, come see me at Physical Therapy Elite!