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Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

By: Coach Lauren


In the endurance world, it is almost always assumed that strength training can make for stronger, less injury-prone athletes. However, a detailed explanation as to why strength training benefits endurance athletes is rarely given.  In this article, I will explain why strength training is beneficial to the endurance athlete. 


Strength training will take you to the next level if you are able to add it into your training regime. As a cyclist, you cannot expect to improve by staying off the bike for a few months and only focusing on weight training, although there are exceptions. Instead, endurance athletes should look toward a strength program as a supplemental training stimulus that will help them meet their athletic goals. 


The Nature of Our Sports – Specific Examples


Cycling, swimming, and running each create an enormous amount of stress on the body. In these sports, the athlete continuously performs repetitive movements in one plane, requiring a high amount of consistent engagement of the same muscle groups over and over while other muscles atrophy. Below I will give just a few examples of these repetitive movements and how strength work can mitigate effects of these movements. 


First of all, if we are stuck in the aero position in cycling, the body adapts to this posture. Even though it is good to get used to being in this position, certain negative adaptations occur – the chest muscles become tight, causing a forward flexed posture and rounded shoulders. The neck remains in a hyperextended position. The body needs to have the opportunity to correct itself through upper body, balanced strength work and flexibility, in order to reduce the incidence of pain in the back, shoulders, and neck of cyclists. (Russ & Adley, 2009)


In running, on the other hand, eccentric (lengthening) muscle contractions occur both in the quadriceps and calf muscles with each running stride. This force is exaggerated even more during downhill running, when total force landing on each leg can equal more than four times body weight when the foot lands on the ground. Muscles are not conditioned for repeated eccentric contractions, and are susceptible to damage when forced to contract in this way (Friden,1984; Noakes 2003). 


Weight training implements eccentric and concentric muscle contractions. In thinking of the squat movement, for example, as the knee is extended and the weight is pushed away from the body, a concentric contraction occurs, while as the knee flexes and the body returns to the squat position, an eccentric contraction occurs.  By training both eccentric and concentric contractions in a controlled and safe manner, the athlete is able to create opportunities for adaptations that wouldn’t be possible by training through sport alone. Over the course of an endurance event, such as a marathon, stronger muscles mean less muscle damage during each stride or stroke, and thus better performances overall. 


During freestyle swimming, a repetitive overhead movement occurs. The swimmer/ triathlete must have a strong rotator cuff (group of four muscles and their tendons that provide stability to the shoulder joint) in order to avoid injuries such as muscle tears and impingement, which will be debilitating to the swimmer.  (Russ & Adley, 2009)


Finally, a strong, functional core is vital for all the sports mentioned. This includes all around core work, not just working towards a six-pack! A strong core and powerful hip flexors allow the runner to stabilize the pelvis and hold form in the latter stages of a race, when other runners are falling apart. Knowing that power in cycling and swimming also originates from the core, having an advantage on other competitors in this realm cannot be overstressed. 


General Examples and Studies


More generally, after proper implementation of a weight program, the athletes muscles hypertrophy (enlarge) through an increase in the number of myofilaments without an increase in the total number of muscle cells (Noakes, 2003) This is an important benefit, as the athlete is now better able to withstand the demands of their chosen sport. Additionally, weight training counter-acts the body’s natural muscle loss with age, creating an athlete that can compete well into their 70’s and beyond. Implementing strength work made a resurgence in mid-century, but mostly in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Using strength work, many athletes are hitting personal best times and competing well  and injury-free as master’s athletes, whereas the 30th birthday was often cause for retirement in years past. 


Several studies have shown the benefit of strength work. Hickson and Overland, et al. 1984 showed that resistance training of the quadriceps muscle increased endurance time during maximal cycling or running exercise by 47% and 12% respectively.  Additionally, Finnish researchers Leena Paavolainen and her colleagues have shown that explosive strength training involving sprinting and a variety of plyometric exercises, in addition to more traditional strength work, significantly improved 5k running times of their runners. (Noakes, 2003)


Time Spent on Ice


Injuries are probably the most detrimental setback to an endurance athlete. As already noted, endurance sports are repetitive motions over a long period of time. Take cycling, for example. High hamstring tendinitis simply means that the cyclist cannot ride without pain or the chance to cause further injury. However, if you think of other sports, like tennis or golf, a right wrist injury often means that the athlete can still practice backhands or their putting stroke. Thus, endurance sports are often the least forgiving to injured athletes, taking weeks, months, or years away from valuable training time and fitness buildup. The point is then to get faster through not getting injured!


Falls are another concern in endurance sports, especially when it comes to cycling, triathlon, and even trail running. Unfortunately, crashes can be inevitable and are nearly always accidents. Not everyone gets the same injuries from a similar crash. If the athlete is able to stand up and walk away from the crash with only minor aches and pains, he or she is more likely able to get back on the road to recovery faster. 


Proper Implementation – You are an endurance athlete, not a bodybuilder!


Here is an example of the importance of training smart. Gabriela Sabitini was an excellent tennis player during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. However, strength work her early career created a tennis player that was “much heavier and slower.” She slugged around the court unable to explode into her shots or play proper defense. Then, in 1990, Sabatini began working with Carlos Kirmayr, a coach who stressed speed and quickness. Sabatini’s new strength program consisted of jumps, lunges, and explosive activities. Sabatini lost weight and gained agility, and this played a role in her new found success on the tennis court.  (Chu, 1995)


Training smart is just as important as training hard. In addition to mode, it is also important to pay attention to overall frequency and volume. For example, in some studies (Hickson, Dvoroak, et all 1988; Marcinik et al 1991; Noakes 2003) showed a beneficial effect when weight training was added to endurance training, not substituted for it. When cyclists were asked to strength train instead of ride on some of their training days, there was no benefit in comparison with spending the same time cycling (Bastiaans et al. 2001; Noakes 2003). 


The moral of these studies is that strength training will take you to the next level if you set aside the time to add it into your training regime. Strength training enhances performance, helps prevent injuries, and lets athletes come back from injuries faster. In implementing strength work into your training routine, it is important to use a balanced program that focuses on functional, specific exercises with an emphasis on injury prevention and power at separate points in the season. 

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