Research shows that an effectively integrated strength and conditioning programme which includes both strength training and endurance training, is more effective than endurance training alone.
The effectiveness of strength training on endurance performance has been a subject of debate between coaches whether that’s through a lack of understanding, misinformation or just a case of stuck with old beliefs.
Historically, endurance coaches are portrayed as ‘anti-strength’ training - perhaps unaware of the potential benefits. As a conditioning coach I am always looking for ways to optimise performance, and it’s quite clear from the scientific literature that strength training is an integral part of every athlete's training programme, including endurance sports.
In fact, this ‘anti-strength’ ethos, which is common in endurance circles has helped me as a coach, as I have made significant improvements with my athletes. I do believe more people are engaging with it as it’s becoming more accessible through social media to see what Mo Farah, the Brownlees et al are doing in training camps, which is fantastic.
This article aims to inform the reader how strength training allows an athlete to train for longer, with more intensity, and ultimately improve performances. The second part of this series will be discussing a common theme which many endurance performers suffer with - injury management.
What is strength training?
It’s perhaps first important to determine what we mean by strength training - Strength is defined as ‘the ability to generate force’ (Siff, 2001), or ‘the ability to exert force on an external object or resistance’ (Stone, 1993).
Strength training falls under the umbrella of resistance training which can be utilised by various methods from bodyweight, resistance band, barbells to conventional dumbbells - it doesn't matter which implement is used as long as there is a requirement for the muscle groups to overcome these external forces at the appropriate intensities.
Not all ‘strength training’ is equal
Resistance training is graded by intensity, with strength training being the most intense form ie. the most amount of maximal force is required. In fact, strength is considered a skill which is expressed in magnitude of 0-100% (Stone et al., 2006).
Table 1. Simplified resistance training scale. As volume increases (repetitions), intensity decreases.
It’s important to differentiate the difference between intensities, for example <85%+ as found in circuit classes, or in a typical gym routine is not classified as strength training and you may not receive the benefits of true strength training, so it’s important to understand and prescribe the appropriate intensities.
Strong is important.
Stronger athletes outperform weaker counterparts across a wide variety of sports (Suchomel et al., 2016).
It’s perhaps clear to appreciate why a stronger weightlifter or rugby player will perform better than a weaker counterpart from the physical demands of the game, but strength appears to be inherent in sporting success across a range of sports, including rowing (Lawton et al., 2011) and basketball (Ziv and Lidor, 2009) also.
Similarly, there is a correlation between jumping ability, which is a test of muscular power and performance times (Hudgins et al., 2013). Other research has shown that world class Kenyan runners possess physiological characteristics which are better suited to muscular power, and rapid force production compared to national Japanese athletes (Sano et al., 2013; Sano et al., 2015). These may be part of why Mo is able to run his famous ‘sprint finish’ and complete his fastest split during the last 1-km during a 10-km race.
Whilst strength improvements may be more appropriate in strength based sports, what is clear is that strength plays an important role in both strength, and non-strength dominant sports too. This is perhaps no surprise when we appreciate that forces of around x 4 body weight are placed through each leg during high-speed running (Rabita et al., 2015), showing a clear requirement to handle and produce force.
Training volume - building a strong base
Better endurance performers train with more intensity and more frequency (Rust et al., 2012). This makes strength training not only important to improve immediate event success, but acting as a vehicle to build high training volume and intensity, which is required for endurance events such as marathons, ironman events and ultra-endurance events.
How does strength improve running?
I have highlighted a number of key components of running performance where research has shown it improves key parameters, which include; delaying fatigue, increasing power production and enhancing running economy which we are all likely to be aware of.
Table 2. Evidenced based benefits of strength training for endurance events.
Strength training has been shown cause adaptation to muscle fibres which are beneficial for endurance performance. There have been studies to show strengthen muscles fibres (type I) which reduces the activation of less economical muscle fibres (type II) (Ronnestad and Mujika, 2014), as well as conversion of fast twitch IIX to more fatigue resistant type IIA fibres (Aagaard et al., 2011)
For example, Damasceno et al., (2015) showed that 8 weeks strength training counteracts fatigue during the last parts of a 10-km running race which lead to improved performance.
Figure 1. Strength training counteracts fatigue during the last part of a 10-km which leads to improved performance (Damasceno et al., (2015).
Increased power production
Because force qualities are improved with strength training, and the delayed fatigue - athletes improve their ‘anaerobic reserve’. This means that their high power efforts can be ‘saved’ for important parts of the race, such as a holding a breakaway, or a sprint finish.
One of the most important, and possible more influential factors which strength training can influence is movement efficiency, or running economy (RE), which refers to the amount of oxygen used at a given speed.
In research this can be assessed by an athlete exercising at a given speed and assessing the amount of oxygen that they use to perform that given intensity. With this in mind, an athlete who has better RE will outperform another athlete who has the same, or similar VO2max. This is because they are able to operate at higher speeds for the same amount of oxygen as you can see from figure 2.
Figure 2. Comparing VO2max and running economy between two international athletes. One with good economy, and one with poor economy (Saunder et al., 2003).
That’s great, how do you improve running economy?
Strength training and explosive type training appear to be important to improve RE and performance in both well trained and novice performers. What’s interesting is that these improvements happen in a short space of time.
...strength training just works!
How should we be strength training?
We now know the benefits strength training has on endurance performance, but it’s important to appreciate how strength training is integrated into a training plan to actually ensure these benefits crossover.
Periodised strength training is more effective than non-periodised training.
A periodised training plan is a systematic plan in order to achieve the best possible performance, which involves progressive training of various components of fitness, health and wellbeing, culminating in improved performance. A well constructed plan ensures performance is improved, reduced likelihood of injury, as well as positive psychological state for the athlete.
One of the main reasons for this, is that training sessions must complement one another and there should be a seamless transition from one session to another.
For example, it’s common for people to have a degree of soreness after heavy eccentric hamstring exercises, such as the Nordic Curl from a strength sessions and it would be inappropriate to perform high-speed running in the following days afterwards.
Whilst strength training holds lots of benefits, the application of this like any form of training is the key to success and it’s important to have synchronization between both strength and conditioning.
...Oooo we do love a Nordic!
I will write a blog about ballistic and plyometric types of training because I feel there are many misconceptions about what indeed they really are, and how they are trained effectively. ps . a box jump is not a plyometric exercise!
Whilst this method of training is indeed effective at improving performance, we must also consider the stress in which this type of training places on an athlete. For this type of training to be safe and effective the athlete must be extremely strong - if they do not have a good strength base then it’s inappropriate to perform this method of training. It’s also important integrating this method of training into their periodised training plan.
What about usual gym routines?
A typical bodybuilding approach is to perform repetitions with a moderate weight (<85% max) to ‘failure’ ie. that burning sensation you get when you can’t lift anymore, which seems to maximise muscle growth.
Whilst this method makes you ‘feel’ like you’re doing more, and it may be appropriate within a rehabilitation phase of training where muscle growth may be a goal when prescribed correctly it is not appropriate for improving performance directly. This is because type of training creates excessive fatigue, as well as targeting inappropriate muscle fibres which reduces muscle power output (Balsalobre-Fernandez et al., 2016).
What about circuit training?
Circuit training delivers inferior results compared to strength training (Taipale et al., 2013).
‘Circuit’ training generally refers to a combination of resistance exercises of low to moderate intensity (<85% mas) with minimal rest and is performed by lots of endurance performers in the winter months. This type of training can be useful to improve fitness as it elevates heart rate, however in the context of strength training it is not appropriate.
Therefore, circuit training is a tool to use to maintain, or improve some aerobic fitness which may be useful when you are unable to run, and in fact they are usually good fun. However they are not to be confused with proper strength training and it’s certainly not the tool to be used when wanting to get strong.
In my experience, most endurance performers issues do not lie in not doing enough aerobic exercise, rather not having a sufficient strength base to build their aerobic fitness on top of. My advice to the athletes I work with is to build a solid strength base, so that more training volume can be built on top, rather than trying to do lots of fitness work on a weak base.
What type of strength training?
Specificity is a training principles which suggests that training should replicate the movements, muscular actions and actions of the sport. This is an important stage of periodisation as this enhances transferability from gym into the sporting action.
For example, there is a greater reliance on the hamstrings during running when compared to cycling which should provide us with direction on exercises which help improve each sport. You could therefore raise concern when performing exercises, such as leg extensions and curls in the gym for running as they do not replicate the demands of the sport and will likely have little transferability to running and unlikely improve performance.
From research, strength training 2-3 days per week is recommended to optimise your progress, however this is highly variable depending on your training history and the amount of endurance training you do. Generally, strength comprises around 30% of total training volume in the studies which show improvements in performance.
Get a coach
One of the most common errors I see with endurance athletes is a lack of a plan, random fluctuations in training, and random workouts, which generally lead to injury.
To gain the benefits of a well programmes training plan, you need to find yourself a coach who is willing to plan all elements of your training programme into one individualised programme - this cannot be downloaded online, or done in 5 minutes and it sure will change from time to time.
In fact, as contradictory as it sounds, a poorly executed or constructed strength routine will likely not improve performance and could do you harm.
Strength underpins every athletic task : stronger athletes appear to outperform weaker athletes.
Strength training improves key determinants of endurance performance and race success; improved efficiency, the ability to sprint finish, delayed fatigue and ultimately improved performance.
A strong base will allow you to build endurance on top, whereas a weak base will not.
Strength training and explosive strength training should be your focus. Circuits can help break the monotony of training up and improve fitness, however this is not strength training.
Strength training must be periodised within an individualised training programme, and should be implemented correctly.
I will next blog about a much larger subject - injuries in endurance sports, particularly running where strength training has been shown the be the most effective form of rehabilitation tool (Lauersen et al., 2014).
I have hopefully displayed the effectiveness and the physiological basis for implementing strength into an endurance performers programme, and hopefully dispelled a fear fears among athletes and coaches. Whether someone is wanting to run their first marathon, or to the more driven athlete completing Ironman events I hope that you appreciate the effectiveness that strength training can provide.
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