In the past long distance, endurance athletes like runners and cyclists have been wary of getting involved in strength training programs.
There are a few reasons for this. One is that there is a view that strength training will either make you bulkier or at least heavier with increased muscle density, and therefore this will reduce your speed.
Another factor is that they heed a tried and true rule of athletic conditioning that is called Specificity of Training. In other words if your sport requires moderate intensity, long duration exercise, then you should train that way to achieve the best performance.
So weight training would have no real value in these sports. But is this true? Is there value to strength training for endurance sports?
First of all strength training does increase the strength of the tissues (muscles, tendons) involved in running and cycling, and therefore has a real role to play in injury prevention.
The tendency of endurance athletes to suffer overuse injuries can be attenuated by strengthening the tissues used in these sports. It should be kept in mind that proper stretching should accompany any exercise, whether endurance or strength, since tight tissues can also be a source of injury.
The endurance athlete also will inevitably encounter hills and the need to sprint ahead of a competitor or a pack of racers. Strength training will help improve the athlete’s ability to switch into high gear for these crucial episodes on the race course and so are valuable components in the athletes tool-kit.
Another benefit of strength training is that it increases the ability of the nervous system to fire more efficiently and bring in more muscle fibres for a given intensity of work. Therefore your body can use less oxygen and energy at a given speed of movement, which ultimately will improve performance.
A by-product of weight training is that stronger muscles (and tendons) can contract at a lower energy cost and transfer more force into the tendons. This process is called increasing the muscle-tendon ‘stiffness’. This creates more movement as a result of elastic recoil of the tendons saving the runner valuable muscular energy needed for the entire race.
These days there is more support in the literature for strength training and more endurance athletes are choosing to add this component in their training regimens. A systematic review in 2008 concluded the benefits for endurance running. Four of the five studies that qualified for the review employed sport-specific, explosive resistance training, whereas one study used traditional heavy weight resistance training. Two of the five studies measured a 3% improved performance for 3K and 5K distances, and all five studies measured 4.6% improved efficiency.
After critically reviewing the literature, the authors concluded that resistance training has a positive effect on endurance running performance.
However caution should be exercised, as adding another component of training for endurance athletes, 10 per cent of whom it is estimated are already over-training, may lead to impairment in performance.
It is in fact recommended that high intensity strength and plyometric training should account for no more than 20 to 30 percent of the overall regimen which means cutting back on some of the endurance training to make room for the inclusion of strengthening.
And if the athlete has little experience with strength training, and especially plyometrics, they should definitely seek guidance before implementing these in their programs to avoid the risk of injury.
(Kerry Senchyna is the founder, owner and president of West Coast Kinesiology since 1992 and is a provincially registered kinesiologist (BCAK). He provides active injury rehabilitation, ergonomic assessments as well as elite athletic conditioning programs for clients.)