Strength Training in Endurance Athletes:
Yea or Nay?

Introduction

You might think thereís a general agreement among Ďexpertsí on whether or not strength training, as itís conventionally called, is beneficial to endurance athletes Ö but there isnít. In fact, there are two distinct schools of thought.

The first school believes that supplemental strength training is beneficial because it helps correct muscle imbalances and biomechanical inefficiencies (strong quads/weak hamstrings, for example) resulting in improved economy of movement, improves lean muscle mass (which improves your metabolic rate), and assists and protects connective tissues (prevents injuries) by improving muscle fiber density around these tissues as well as the resiliency of the tissues themselves. They also believe that it helps to increase the maximal power output of specific muscle groups, thus improving the sustainable power output (muscular endurance) during endurance exercise.

Thatís the theory, anyway.

The second school of thought believes that supplemental strength training is a waste of time because it does nothing to improve the neuromuscular firing patterns of specific muscle groups. In other words, if you are a marathon runner, squats will do nothing for you because you donít run in a squat-like position. Sit-ups wonít help because you donít perform horizontal abdominal contractions during a 10k.

The second school has some folks who might give some credit to specific drills within a sport, but by and large they feel that anything that is not running (or cycling), will not improve performance in a running (or cycling) event.

In this paper Iíll look at some scientific articles on the subject, and then Iíll tell you that results are often manipulated to achieve the results the researchers are hoping for. Iíll also tell you that unless a long-term study (3-5 year) is performed on at least 50 previously untrained athletes per group (1 being strength training, 2 being no strength training) with controlled diet, lifestyle, and training across groups, and performance and injury frequency/recurrence being the studied variables, then all we have to date is speculative short-term research and differing personal experiences on the subject.

Definition of strength and clarification of resistance/plyometrics/drills

First, we have to define what strength really is. A trained physiologist will point out that strength is defined as maximal power output (for a short duration X of time). For instance, Marty was able to put out XX watts of power for X amount of time. This is all well and good in the sterilized world of the laboratory. But how does this translate into the real world?

Well, in the real world, endurance athletes like myself might never actually attempt to achieve their maximal short-term power output. What weíre seeking is our sustainable power output, AKA muscular endurance (ME). This is the ability to put out XX-Y watts of power for XX+^Y amount of time. Endurance athletes will touch on their maximal power only in finishing sprints (after holding a sustained power output previously).

Thus, my point is that the strength training advocated by some coaches (myself included) and physiologists for endurance athletes is more correctly called muscular endurance training or resistance training, and perhaps even more specifically than that, non-sport specific muscular endurance training. What I mean by that is that running 7 miles easy is sport specific endurance training. Doing 3 x 10 sets of leg press is not (except for the leg press competition).

So, in general, when you hear folks mention resistance training, ME training, or strength training, there is a good chance theyíre all talking about variations on the same theme.

Arthur Lydiard, a well-known New Zealand running coach, likes hills and bounding for run-specific strength training. Thatís hard to argue with, but some people feel that unless youíre racing in the hills, then running in the hills is not worth your time. I leave it to them to argue with Lydiard.

This type of training could be called resistance training, since it uses the resistance of body weight and gravity against the muscle groups. Other resistance training can be done with cords (stretch cords secured then pull against them) and weight machines (the machine weight resists your pressure against it).

Plyometrics are exercises (defined herein as contractions of various muscle groups) designed to improve coordination (neuromuscular firing patterns) and induce hypertrophy (muscle growth) by quick eccentric and concentric muscle contractions. Jumping jacks, stadium jumps, and some forms of medicine ball exercises fall into this category.

Isometrics are exercises in which muscles are tensed but not contracted. Some forms of medicine ball exercises fall into this category.

Most folks will agree that drills training (backwards running, one-leg bike drills) is a sub-category of sport-specific ME training. But since you donít run backwards in a raceÖyou get the point. Group A would say these drills isolate secondary and strengthen secondary muscle groups; Group B would say the secondary groups could be strengthened through specific training alone.

Statement of position

I belong to the first school of thought. Will fill out the rest of the headings below as I have the time.

Articles for resistance

Articles against resistance

Strength training and age

Strength training and BMI

Strength training and testosterone/HGH

Effects of testosterone

Psychology of strength training - confidence

Summary Score of articles (pro/con)

Summary

Conclusion

Strength train or you'll atrophy into a tiny little hobbit (more to come)...

Marty Gaal