Strength training for the endurance athlete
Strength training for the endurance athlete
As a strength and conditioning coach, a major part of the role is often to convince people of the benefits that an individualised strength and conditioning program can have on their performance. This can range from individuals who are misguided as to what the best way to train is or those who may not even consider strength training to be beneficial to their sporting performance. One such group of athletes that often falls into each of the categories is the endurance athlete. What I hope to do in the following paragraphs is to show the improvements that endurance athletes can expect by introducing resistance training into their yearly program.
The major worry I hear from athletes is that strength training will result in a physique more akin to Arnold Schwarzenegger than Moses Kiptanui. However, if prescribed properly this simply won’t be the case as the majority of early strength gains are due to neuromuscular adaptations such as improved motor unit synchronisation and efficiency in neural recruitment patterns rather than increases in muscle fibre size5. Basically, the initial increase in strength is due to the muscles become better at the movements rather than changes in muscle fibre size. With that concern put to bed, the question is why should an endurance athlete embark upon a program of resistance training?
The primary reason cited for why to include resistance training is it’s effect upon running economy which has been defined as the oxygen uptake required for a given velocity of submaximal running1 i.e. the smaller the amount of air you need to breathe while running, the better your running economy. Research has found improvements in runnning economy ranging from approximately 2-8% (2, 3, 7, 8). A systematic review of the effects of resistance training on highly trained endurance athletes was conducted9, it was found that initial benefits of resistance training on performance were as a result of neuromuscular adaptation. They concluded that due to improvements in running economy and hence race performance that the use of heavy weightlifting and/or explosive lifting programs for highly trained endurance athletes should be advocated. It should be incorporated as part of a well-structured and periodised program and take into account each individual’s ability and training history.
One group looked specifically at the effects of 9 weeks of plyometric training finding it led to improvements in running economy6. They tested with 15 national level athletes finding that the running economy improved significantly at the highest test speed suggesting that the cause of improvements associated was due to changes with the stretch shortening cycle as a result of the training intervention. This is a finding backed up by another group who found a 2-3% improvement in running economy at selected speeds using a moderate intensity plyometric program lasting 6 weeks with recreational runners8. This shows that introducing resistance training can be of benefit to recreational and elite performers alike.
Improvements in running economy are brought about by neuromuscular adaptations to training that lead to a reduction in vertical displacement of the athlete. Similar to riding a big full suspension mountain bike uphill, a lot of energy put into the pedal is absorbed by the suspension, a stiffer suspension setting means more economical pedalling. Quite often it will be easy to spot amongst recreational runners, they will have quite a bouncy running action and hence poor running economy. The use of resistance training including plyometrics helps to optimise the stretch shortening cycle and improve leg spring stiffness, this results in less vertical displacement and less energy lost from the system leading to improved running economy independent of any improvement in VO2max. More specifically shorter ground contact times, greater pre-activation leg muscle recruitment and lower total muscle activation have been found in highly trained 5km runners when compared with lower quality runners who possessed similar VO2max scores, each of which are very trainable facets4.
Despite the evidence, I’m not advocating that all endurance runners suddenly become gym bunnies and spend massive percentages of their training volume in the gym. The exercises need to be introduced as part of a properly periodised training program that allows the athlete to progress dependent upon their training history and their ability to perform the exercises safely with correct technique under the supervision of a qualified strength and conditioning coach.
1. Jones, A.M. & Carter, H. (2000). The effect of endurance training on parameters of aerobic fitness. Sports Medicine. 29(6) pp. 373-386
2. Millet, G.P., Jaouen, B., Borrani, F. & Candau, R. (2002). Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running economy and VO2 kinetics. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 34(8) pp. 1351-1359.
3. Paavolainen L.M., Hakkinen, K., Hamalainen, I., Nummela, A. & Rusko, H. (1999). Explosive strength training improves 5km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology. 86(5) pp. 1527-1533.
4. Paavolainen L.M., Nummela AT, Rusko HK (1999) Neuromuscular characteristics and muscle power as determinants of 5-km running performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 31(1) 124-130.
5. Sale, D.G. (1988). Neural adaptation to resistance training. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise. 20 pp. 135.
6. Saunders, P.U., Telford, R.D., Pyne, D.B., Peltola, E.M., Cunninham, R.B., Gore, C.J. & Hawley, J.A. (2006). Short-term plyometric training improves running economy in highly trained middle and long distance runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 20(4) pp. 947-954.
7. Spurrs, R.W., Murphy, A.J. & Watsford, M.L. (2003). The effect of plyometric training on distance running performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 89 pp. 1-7.
8. Turner, A.M., Owings, M. & Schwane, J.A. (2003). Improvement in running economy after 6 weeks of plyometric training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 17(1) pp. 60-67.
9. Yamamoto, L.M., Lopez, R.M., Klau, J.F., Casa, D.J., Kraemer, W.J. & Maresh, C.M. (2008). The effect of resistance training on endurance distance running performance among highly trained runners: A systematic review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 22(6) pp. 3026-2044.