What you need to know:
The Problem with Tradition
- Many endurance athletes have exhausted their means of improvement with traditional training.
- Training deficiencies, such as strength, can take your endurance capacity to new levels.
Similar to any group of competitive athletes, endurance athletes carry their own 'traditional' concepts when it comes to training and program design. Whether they are runners, bikers, swimmers, triathletes, or any combination in between, anyone new to an endurance sport realizes they must improve their aerobic capacity to sustain a specific pace over a specific distance. In order to do this, many people simply take to road and log mile after mile after mile.
After all, this is the accepted way of doing things, right? As a runner, if I have the goal to run a half marathon and I can only run 5 miles, obviously I need to put my time in to improve my running. But, what happens when simply just running or just biking fail to provide you the results you want? For many, this means they decide to start doing more. They think, "I must not be doing enough, so I must do more to improve."
In the endurance community, this type of thinking is the essence of traditional training. But is this training efficient in producing results? Are you wasting your time? What if the reason for your plateau in progress is not your lack of running/biking/endurance, but rather a deficiency, such as strength, that you may not have considered?
Approach enough endurance athletes about strength training and you will hear a lot of myths and misconceptions. However, talk to some of the best endurance athletes in the world and they will acknowledge the benefit strength training has in their performance. With that in mind, let's look at two of the most popular misconceptions. Misconception #1 - Strength Training is Not Useful
This myth continues to stand the test of time despite the evidence that strength training is beneficial to athletes, regardless of sport. Even to this day, there are endurance sport experts that debate back and forth on whether or not endurance athletes need to lift weights.
Seriously? This is still happening even when we know strength training is a necessity for optimizing sport performance and health? Of special importance to endurance athletes, strength training has been shown to:
- Maintain and/or promote the building of muscle mass. This is a huge benefit because endurance training negatively impacts muscle mass, meaning many athletes lose precious muscle.
- Strengthen the endocrine and immune systems. Yet another big plus since chronic endurance training has a negative impact on both these systems.
- Promote adequate bone density. The importance of this should speak for itself, but this will be of special importance to runners when you consider the risk of stress fracture.
When you take all that into consideration as well as the ability that strength training has to correct imbalances in the body and promote neuromuscular coordination, strength training should be an essential component to your training program. Misconception #2 - Avoid Heavy Weights and Low Reps
Now that you have considered resistance training as part of your endurance routine, the next misconception to deal with is exactly how an endurance athlete should go about lifting weights. This misconception has its roots in the belief that endurance athletes need to perform high-repetition sets, usually 15-20 or more reps. The idea being high-reps will build muscle endurance, which will have the best carry over to their endurance sport. Again, this may work in the beginning, but as an athlete becomes more experienced and improves, training must adapt accordingly.
Keep in mind that many endurance athletes have exhausted their improvement with traditional training. The key to improvement now becomes identifying any deficiency. For endurance athletes deficient in strength related pathways, they can benefit from maximal strength training. Training for maximal strength requires specialized programming and relies on lifting heavy weights explosively for lower amounts of total reps.
To illustrate this concept, here is an example of a triathlete who utilized maximal strength training in her program with very successful results. Case Study:
Importance of Maximal Strength to the Endurance Athlete
- Triathlete trained is one of the head researchers for PowerBar, has a PhD in nutrition.
- 8-10 lifts were performed per month in the 90-95% range of her 1RM (rep max)
- Special exercises performed were box squats, special deadlifts, good mornings, and a similar variety of pressing movements for upper body.
- No high repetition work was performed to avoid soreness and a high degree of effect on her traditional triathlon training. Also, very little time is spent training in this manner.
- She was amazed at the results this training was giving her. She said that she “could now look at any hill, use muscles she never had, and was able to dig deeper than ever before, and have a posture that was solid as stone,” which made her much less fatigued at the end of the run. She had shaved 1/2 hour off of her Iron man, and did about 4 hours less work per week of traditional training. She had gained 2lbs of weight from the beginning as she trained this way for 8 months. Her bodyfat went down about 2%, and she no longer had back pain, neck pain, and less nagging training injuries and setbacks.
What’s the importance of maximal strength to the endurance athlete? Let's consider two athletes, athlete A and athlete B. They are both seasoned runners, but athlete A becomes much stronger, relatively speaking, while athlete B stays the same in strength. Keeping body weight constant, it will take less effort for the stronger athlete to perform the same amount of work. This increases endurance through strength conservation.
Clearly, the programming of specialized strength training can be beneficial. Also consider that the athlete in the case study above did almost 4 hours LESS training per week. This concept is known as training economy. Training economy is about achieving the greatest sport result with the less amount of time and energy spent in training. Thomas Kurz said it best in his book, Science of Sport Training:
"Training is efficient if the highest sport result is achieved with the least expense of time and energy".
To highlight this concept even further, research performed in Finland at the Research Institute for Olympic Sports found that replacing almost 1/3 of regular endurance training with explosive strength training not only improved strength and speed tests, but also improved aerobic capacity and running economy.
Take a moment to consider how much of your endurance training is unnecessary and whether your time may be better spent on training your deficiencies. Final Words
The purpose of this article was to provide some insight into the importance of considering alternatives to traditional endurance training. Integrating resistance training to built specialized strength will only compliment your endurance capacity and provide you with a more efficient training program. To become a complete endurance athlete, addressing deficiencies appropriately can be the difference between a season of frustration and one of personal bests.