Strength Training for Endurance Athletes
As endurance athletes, we sometimes neglect strength training because we believe:
- Weights will make us bulk up, leading to a decrease in performance
- Weights are only for powerlifters, weightlifters and football players
- The more time spent running, the better runners we’ll become
- Being indoors sucks! We’d rather be outside!
- We aren’t good at it, so why bother?
I’m here to tell you why these closely held beliefs are not true and why ALL endurance athletes can benefit from a proper strength training plan. No matter what your endurance specialty, skill level or age, strength training is an essential part of any endurance athlete’s training program.
The Benefits of Strength Training for Endurance Athletes
Improved running economy
Research has shown that strength training leads to improvements in running economy. What is running economy you ask? You can think of it as the mileage for your vehicle. You don’t want a vehicle that burns endless gas that you need to constantly refill. Instead, you want something that burns as little fuel as possible while getting you to all of life’s destinations! As an endurance athlete, the same holds true. You want to use the least amount of oxygen for any given exercise intensity (pace, watts etc.) Strength training helps you reach that goal.
- Strength training increases the body’s ability to generate elastic energy from tendons by increasing tendon stiffness. As a result, the muscles are required to do less work for each stride.
- Strength training enhances muscle force and power production. If we raise our max force and power production, the energy required for submaximal contraction naturally decreases, leading to energy savings.
- Strength training also decreases muscle co-contraction. When a muscle fires, the opposite muscle group also activates to keep the joint safe and stable. With strength training, the opposite muscle group’s activation decreases, which leads to fewer energy demands. The result is improvements in form for all our endurance activities.
The high volume and repetitive nature of endurance sport training leaves us endurance athletes more prone to injury. Combined with inadequate recovery times, this can lead to weakened bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. And repetitive movement patterns lead to muscle imbalances. The resulting injuries can sideline us for days, weeks, months and sometimes years.
Here’s how strength training can help prevent injuries:
- By engaging in strength training, especially heavier strength training, we can increase the resilience of our tissues (bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles). When these tissues are more resilient, they are better able to absorb force. With each running step, the body absorbs approximately 3 times its weight. On average, we take 1,200 steps per mile. You can see how quickly these forces add up and lead to overuse injuries.
- When we regularly engage in strength training, we can spend less time on sport-specific training, which gives the tissues more time to repair and come back stronger.
- Strength training will help to address, identify and fix muscle imbalances and weakness by using a wide diversity of movement patterns. When we perform the same movement patterns repeatedly, many muscle groups become weak and deactivated while our shoulders, lower back, hips, knees, and ankles end up compensating, leading to overuse injuries. Strength training will ensure that these muscles are being strengthened and activated to promote a well-balanced and high performing body.
Build a bigger endurance engine
Not only will strength training increase our endurance efficiency and decrease our risk of injury, it can also improve our muscles’ metabolic machinery.
Let me explain:
- With higher repetition strength training, we increase the number of mitochondria in our cells. You might remember from high school biology that the mitochondria are each cell’s powerhouse. They produce much of the energy required for muscle contraction and relaxation in the presence of oxygen. Ultimately, with more mitochondria, we are able to use more of the oxygen in our blood to produce energy, which allows us to perform at higher exercise intensities for longer.
- Also, with higher repetition strength training, there is greater capillarization of the muscles. With more capillaries, there is more blood flow to the working muscle allowing for greater oxygen delivery and waste removal, leading to improved performance and efficiency.
Maybe now you’re thinking, this all sounds great — I want better running economy, fewer injuries and a bigger endurance engine
BUT, I don’t think I have the time. With a career, spouse, children, relatives and countless other obligations, there’s no way I can do three to four weight sessions a week.
The good news is that endurance athletes can reap significant benefits with just one or two sessions a week.
As a strength coach and endurance athlete myself, I understand the desires and requirements of other endurance athletes. I’ve completed several Ultramarathons and can say for certain that I wouldn’t have been able to get through all my races if I hadn’t built up strength in the weight room. If you’re looking to put in the work and improve your performance, I want to help. I can create and coach you through a training program ideally suited to the needs of an endurance athlete. If you want to learn more, get in touch to schedule your first appointment.
Matt Flynn BSc, CPT
Barr Health & Fitness Endurance Performance Specialist