- A 2005 study found that athletes who completed strength training after endurance exercise sessions had greater improvements in a 4km time trial and in VO2max (a measure of aerobic capacity).
- A 2008 review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning concluded that strength training has a positive effect on running economy and/or running performance among endurance runners.
- A 2013 study on Masters runners found that a maximal strength training program increased running economy at marathon pace.
- A 2014 review article analyzed 26 studies on strength training and endurance performance. Strength training was shown to improve time trial performance, muscle power, and economy.
Some athletes are afraid of strength training during endurance training, for fear that a large increase in muscle mass will increase weight and slow down race performance. This is theoretically a valid concern, as a ton of muscle mass would slow an athlete down, but is something we don’t need to be excessively worried about. Because of the high amount of aerobic training done in the rest of endurance training – and the fact that most athletes are not eating specifically to gain weight during endurance training – it’s unlikely that there would be a large increase in muscle mass weight that would slow an athlete down. The benefits to power and strength from very minimal increases in muscle mass weight have benefits that would (in my opinion) outweigh a few pounds gained. Again, though, most athletes do not have to be concerned about weight gain from one or two strength sessions each week while concurrently training for road races or triathlon.
In addition, many of the benefits from strength training for runners/triathletes are due to neuromuscular changes. The brain communicates better with the muscles which is beneficial outside of any changes to muscle mass. The benefits also come from a correction of muscular imbalances and injury prevention.
Let’s take runners for example. By strength training leg muscles, you can create a more powerful push off from the ground on each step. This can lead to a better stride. Improving muscle strength and power can also help with hill work. Exercises used for legs like squats also help correct imbalances and strengthen some of the smaller muscles, helping prevent injury. In addition, creating a stronger core and upper body through strength training – and better neuromuscular connections with these areas – can help maintain form and posture on long runs.
Generally, strength training for endurance athletes should include exercises for the whole body, with an emphasis on muscles used in your discipline (running, cycling, and/or swimming). Include exercises that work multiple muscle groups.
In terms of the specific structure of your strength training program, it may be beneficial to work with a trainer in order to a) gauge your current abilities and where to start, and b) periodize your training (aka create training plans that may change throughout the year based on your season). Working initially in the off-season on a higher volume, lower intensity strength training routine and approaching pre-season/early season with a higher intensity, lower volume training plan may be useful.
As training volume for swim/bike/run increase, you may find it difficult to keep up with the strength training. If you feel it’s tough fitting in two strength training workouts per week, consider trying to meet this goal during the off-season and then dropping down to one strength training session per week in-season. For example, a 2011 study looked at soccer players who completed a 10 week strength training program in pre-season. The program was twice a week and resulted in improved strength, sprint, and jump performance. In-season, the players that continued strength training just once a week were able to maintain these benefits.
Here are a few of my personal favorites for runners and triathletes, along with links to their form demonstration and description from the ACE Exercise Library. Of course, you wouldn’t include all of these in one session, but could incorporate some of these as you build your plan.
- Barbell Deadlift
- Barbell Squat
- Bench Press
- Push Ups
- Pull Ups
- Lat Pulldowns
- Shoulder Press – Seated or Standing
Lastly, if you’re a few weeks away from a big race, this is not the time to start your resistance training program. Start in the off-season, early in your season, or after your A race is complete.
Share with us – do you strength train while training for endurance events?