It’s a common question – why should endurance athletes lift weights? Isn’t lifting going to make them bulkier, heavier and therefore slower?
Weight training concurrent with endurance training is seen as a contradiction, an either or proposition, the underlying assumption being that lifting weights isn’t going to help improve the athletes performance, but rather hinder as they’ll put on weight by gaining muscle.
I’m an endurance athlete, cycling (MTB), running and swimming to various degrees of seriousness and dedication. Over the past two years I started to lift weights consistently, and have noticed how this has improved my cycling: I recover quicker after strong powerful sprints, fatigue less when riding out of the saddle and have improved my climbing endurance.
But don’t take my word for it - what does science say?
There are many studies that have measured the outcomes of adding weight (and resistance) training to an existing endurance athlete’s program, also called concurrent training.
Some of the main benefits and outcomes observed are listed below:
Improved power and time to exhaustion for well-trained cyclists and runners (Bastiaans et al, Hickson et al)
Improved running endurance in general (Mikkola et al) and for 5km runs (Paavolainen et al)
Increased lactate treshold (University of Maryland, quoted by Friel)
Improved sprinting power in fatigued state for cyclist (Ronnestad et al)
Increased 45min time trial for young cyclists (Aagard et al)
Improved running economy and peak velocity for runners (Sedano et al)
Injury prevention due to stronger musculoskeletal system
Higher bone density, reducing risk of osteoporosis at later age
While I don’t mean to do an extensive review of supporting literature, the abovementioned studies provide sufficient evidence to add some variation of resistance or weight training to an endurance-only training regime. But what’s the best way to go about this?
The key consideration is to train in a meaningful and targeted way: just lifting heavy loads of whatever exercise you can think of without adjusting for goals, current strength, aspects of endurance sport to be improved, muscular asymmetries and time available can result in inferior results or even injury.
Some recommendations to get started are:
Keep it simple: initially, focus on a few loaded exercises
Train sport-specific: load movements that replicate your endurance sport’s primary muscles (e.g. squats if you cycle)…
…but don’t neglect secondary muscles (e.g. deadlifts for cyclists), perform lighter exercises targeting these too
If you are a dedicated athlete following a strenuous training plan, don’t add the resistance training, but replace some of your existing endurance work to avoid overtraining
Plan a minimum of 8 weeks training with weights, and stick to it to start seeing benefits
Seek advice from a coach who understands the importance of weight training in an endurance context –as opposed to focusing on bodybuilding protocols
Aagaard P, Andersen JL, Bennekou M, Larsson B, Olesen JL, Crameri R, Magnusson SP, and Kjaer M. “Effects of resistance training on endurance capacity and muscle fiber composition in young top-level cyclists.” Scandanavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports 21:298-307, 2011.
Bastiaans JJ, van Diemen, AB Veneberg T and Veukendrup AE. The effects of replacing a portion of endurance training by explosive strength training on performance in trained atheletes. Eur Journal Applied Physiology 86: 79-84, 2001.
Friel J. The Cyclist’s Training Bible. 2009.
Hickson RC, Dvorak BA, Gorostiaga EM, Kurowski TT and Foster C. Potential for strength and endurance training to amplify endurance performance. Journal Applied Physiology 65: 2285-2290, 1988.
Mikkola, J., Vesterinen, V., Taipale, R., Capostagno, B., Hakkinen, K., and Nummela, A. Effect of resistance training regimens on treadmill running and neuromuscular performance in recreational endurance runners. Journal of Sports Science, 29(13),1359-71. 2011.
Paavolainen, L., Hakkinen, K., Hamalainen, I., Nummela, A., and Rusko, H. Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology, 89(5), 1527–1533. 1999.
Rønnestad BR, Hansen EA, and Raastad T. “Strength training improves 5-min all-out performance following 185 min of cycling.” Scand Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports 21:250-259, 2011.
Sedano S, Marín PJ, Cuadrado G and Redondo JC. Concurrent training in elite male runners: the influence of strength versus muscular endurance training on performance outcomes. Journal Strength Conditioning Research. Sep;27(9):2433-2443. 2013.
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