Endurance athletes are always looking to improve their performance, and there is a lot of research that supports cardiovascular training adaptations with regards to fitness and health. A common exercise myth is the idea that strength training would impede an endurance athlete’s ability to compete in a race. This notion stems from the idea that hypertrophy is inversely related to mitochondrial density and capillary density. Increasing muscle mass without increasing the vascular supply leads to less blood supply going to the tissue and decreased efficiency. However, strength training encompasses much more than hypertrophy and many of the benefits from strength training are neural in nature. It is entirely possible to improve muscular abilities such as power, strength and endurance without changing the size of the muscle. Through effective programming, endurance athletes can greatly benefit from strength training in combination to their cardiovascular training.
In a previous article we mentioned the benefits of undulating intensities of exercise throughout the week. Along with changing up the intensity of the workout, cross training different attributes of fitness is another component that can improve performance. The trick is to prioritize the types of training you do in comparison to the sport you intend to compete in. For endurance athletes, the majority of the training program will involve longer steady state activities that mimic the speed and duration of the events. However, if an athlete only ever trains one component of athletic performance, they will most likely limit their potential. Strength training is a secondary attribute for endurance athletes, but even 2-3 days of full body workouts can result in positive benefits.
As mentioned earlier, much of the adaptations to strength training are neural in nature. The neuromuscular system becomes more efficient at using the muscles, resulting in increased strength, power, and endurance. One of the ways to focus on improving neuromuscular adaptations is to include methods aimed at improving power. Plyometric training has shown significant benefit to improve power and has been demonstrated to provide decreased energy cost of running. This is significant for endurance runners and is much more associated with predicting performance. An efficient runner has the ability to conserve energy while maintaining constant work output. The energy spared can be used to close the gap in a race or allowing the runner to kick at the end of the race.
Another strength training method that can improve the energy cost of running is training exercises with higher velocity or intent. Much like plyometric training, high velocity training improves the individuals power output. Another benefit to velocity based training is that there is less eccentric load, which limits the amount of hypertrophy of the muscle because most of the microtears occur during the eccentric or lowering phase of an exercise. This also leads to less accumulated fatigue, and quick recovery between training sessions.
In a more traditional strength training program, sets and reps can be altered to improve muscular endurance. An endurance athlete has little need for maximal strength or hypertrophy, but training exercises for high reps and less weight will emphasize improvements in muscular endurance. Typically, this involves 3-4 sets of 15-20+ reps. In contrast to the plyometric and velocity based training methods described above, intensity and load for muscular endurance is significantly lower. This can help to train the endurance characteristics of the intermediate muscle fiber types (type IIa or fast twitch oxidative fibers).
As evidenced, there are several ways in which strength training can benefit endurance athletes. Having a well-structured program can eliminate weak points in a training regimen and lead to increased performance. Improving performance is both a science and an art. At Scottsdale Sports Medicine Institute, we are committed to helping you achieve your goals.
Alex Edwads, CEP, CSCS
Allen, K., Anderson, M., Balady, G. et al. (2014). ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription (9th ed). Philadelphia, PA. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Berryman, N., Maurel, D., & Bosquet, L. (2010). Effect of plyometric vs. dynamic weight training on the energy cost of running. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(7), 1818-1825.
Sale, D. G. (1988). Neural adaptation to resistance training. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 20(5 Suppl), S135-45.
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