Controversy has existed for a long time over whether strength training is beneficial or detrimental for endurance athletes including runners, cyclists, swimmers, triathletes or adventure racers. Recently though, there has been an abundance of research and information that supports endurance performance enhancement through strength training when applied correctly. In addition, research also confirms resistance training to be the best exercise intervention for injury prevention.
One of the main concerns often expressed by endurance athletes and their coaches towards performing strength training is that it will increase muscle bulk and therefore add unnecessary weight to their desired lean and light bodies. However, recent research across a range of endurance sports indicates that correct exercise prescription and manipulation of load, reps (the number of times you perform the specific exercise), sets (the number of cycles of reps that you complete), intensity (how hard you perform the exercise), rest interval duration (time period between performing the exercise, or subsequent exercise) and exercise selection can avoid muscle hypertrophy as well as minimising any self-perceived heaviness or fatigue sometimes reported during the days following strength training interventions.
Previously, the typical approach to strength training for endurance athletes was to perform high repetitions with short rest (eg. 20 reps with 30 seconds rest), or to perform a standard weight based training regime (eg. 8-12 reps with moderate rest). Conversely, best-practice current strength training guidelines found to enhance endurance sports performance advocate using high loads and low repetitions. In addition, it is recommended to perform the movement explosively during the concentric phase (when you’re working against the resistance) which together stimulate increased muscle power output through improved neuromuscular function (muscle signalling pathways and recruitment) whilst minimising muscle hypertrophy.
For swimming, dryland resistance based training interventions have been shown to improve stroke length and tethered swimming force production which are both linked to better swimming performance. In running, strength training has been shown to decrease middle and long distance time trial performances as well as improving running economy (reduced oxygen cost) through decreased ground contact time, increased musculotendinous stiffness, or more efficient running biomechanics. Similarly, for cyclists strength training improves technique, reduces the oxygen cost, enhances lactate-profile power and increases absolute peak power and average power output over varying distances (1 km – 45 km).
Although often overlooked, another key benefit of strength training is its preventative effect on sports injuries (including overuse injuries). In 2014, a large meta-analysis reviewing strength training, proprioceptive training, stretching, and multiple exposure (strength, stretc hing and/or proprioception) exercises on sports injury prevention found strength training alone to have the strongest positive effect. The study reported that strength training “reduced sports injuries to less than a third and overuse injuries could be almost halved” whilst “stretching proved no beneficial effect”. Before you remove stretching from your training regime, the study only looked at stretching's preventative effect on injury and does not take into account that stretching and mobility exercises may be necessary to achieve joint range of motion to achieve efficient movement patterns such as that during catch phase of freestyle swimming.
Therefore, is strength training safe and beneficial for endurance athletes? Yes!! However, the training program needs to be well designed, functional, and sport specific with a focus on correct movement patterns and technique. Together, these guidelines will ensure your strength training intervention will enhance your endurance sports performance and decrease your risk of developing sports related injuries.
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Brodie Gardner has a Masters in Exercise Physiology, Honours in Sports Science and competes as a professional triathlete. He has a long history working with elite athletes and has provided consultation services to numerous Australian sporting associations.