Strength and in particular heavy lifting for runners, cyclists and triathletes is now a standard practice amongst professional athletes and their coaches.
A little like climate change science the smart guys understood it and adopted the practices decades ago. However, it has only been more recently that the science and research of strength training for endurance athletes has caught up with the early adopters. Just like climate change, there are still some who don’t believe the science and the research. However, this group of non-believers is disappearing fast.
The point of this article is to explain the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes. In future articles we will look at how to schedule strength into your already busy schedule and what exercises work and why.
So, if you have ticked off two or three ‘structured’ strength sessions this week or about 90 minutes give or take, then you already understand the importance what I am about to discuss. Save yourself the time and go smash out a few heavy deadlifts.
If you haven’t ticked off your structured heavy strength sessions this week - read on. Chances are you have already read - in every single triathlon, cycling or running magazine you have picked up in the past five years that strength is important to your training and progression. However, for some reason you are still not quite there yet. Maybe you do some strength, at home, sometimes. Or perhaps you go to the gym weekly and do a circuit class or mess around in the weights room a bit. Or your outdoor gym on your run is more your thing. The point here is that strength training needs to be structured to work best for an endurance athlete. Secondly, heavy lifting is the puzzle piece that delivers the big progressions.
The effort required to structure your strength training is pretty easy when you consider the benefits. As I said above there are many.
Yes, very simply you will run faster. Research by Karsten, Stevens, et al published in the Int’l Journal of Sports Physiology found that after 6 weeks of sports specific maximal strength and conditioning program 16 moderately trained recreational endurance athletes showed performance improvement in a 5km time trial of 3.62%.
Runners World lists many examples of similar studies showing improved running times when strength was substituted for run or other training.
A review of current research was conducted by Beattie, Kenny, et al and published in Sports Medicine NZ also concluded that strength training in endurance athletes improved economy, muscle power and economy.
If we want to run faster for longer, then running economy is what it is all about. An efficient stride will let you run at a higher speed for a longer time. It makes sense then to work towards improving our efficiency and economy.
But what does this mean and how does lifting weights help? Efficiency and economy come from having your muscles fire in the correct sequence. This is called neuromuscular coordination. The nerves and neurons are developed with regular weight training.
Improved Body Composition
Many studies have proved that strength training has the fastest impact on body composition. Helping you gain or maintain lean muscle mass and can also decrease your percentage of body fat. This is fairly straight forward concept.
Of more importance is the ability to keep your muscles in balance. Triathlon, cycling or running training all have very specific demands on specific muscles. Most muscles that make a joint move will have an opposite muscle or muscle group. It is easy when training to overdevelop one group of muscles and leave the opposite counterpart underdeveloped. This will be problematic in the longer-term.
If my muscles are stronger I can push the pedal harder or run up the hill faster. Muscles will develop faster with heavy weight training much faster than just cycling or running alone.
Good old fashioned squats and deadlifts will produce amazing results when structured correctly in an endurance training program.
Increased Bone Density
Stronger muscles are directly related to increased bone density. If you are 25y.o. you have probably already moved onto the next topic. However bone density is not only and old person’s issue. Although for those of us closer to 60 than 30 it is worth understanding that endurance training alone will decrease your bone density and this will be a problem for you soon enough. Strength training will reverse this problem and your bone density can be rebuilt.
All this is sounding pretty convincing so far. You will look better, your brain and muscles will be in synch, you will be faster and stronger with better bone health. But here comes the big left hook.
Injury prevention wouldn’t be such a big deal if so many athletes didn’t get injured so often. And it’s not just the top pro-level athletes that get injured. Just from my own experience there are always 8-10 or more inured athletes in just my triathlon club.
The good folk at Harvard believe up to 75% of runners will be injured each year. While they say it could be as high as 80%. These numbers are huge.
If we all agree that consistency is the key to success then then missing training through injury is to be avoided at all costs. Grab some heavy weights and start lifting.