Strength Training for the Endurance Athlete
A strength training program for an endurance athlete should accomplish two goals: First, to increase performance, second, to decrease the likelihood of injury. With these goals in mind, some of the exercises selected should mimic the sport itself while others are termed corrective exercises in which to promote muscle balance, posture, and joint mobility.
Rationale for strength training endurance athletes
Concurrent training is a term used when resistance training and endurance training are both included in a training program. Excessive aerobic training can have a negative effect on the development of maximal strength for the power athlete, however strength training has not been shown to have a negative effect on endurance performance.
Strength training in endurance athletes does not result in the same attenuated strength, which has been observed in concurrent training when performed by power athletes. Studies that reveal strength training as ineffective often cite overtraining as a “confounder”, which means time spent strength training should actually replace some of your aerobic training time to avoid overtraining. Successful concurrent training protocols replace a portion of endurance training volume with resistance training (Mikkola, 2007). Many endurance athletes avoid weight training because they are worried about the negative effects of increasing muscle mass such as lower capillary and mitochondrial density and a lower strength to weight ratio. These worries are not substantiated by research.
Strength training for performance
Exercises to increase power output or running economy need to have some specificity to the sport itself so there is a transfer of that power. I use the word power because it is not enough to just increase strength, there also has to be a speed component, which can be accomplished two different ways.
A study in 2001 demonstrated that lightweight, explosive exercises improved cycling time trial performance without further gains in muscle mass (Bastians, 2001). In this example weight is relatively light but the speed is fast resulting in a high power output. Another studied the effect of heavy weight training on cycling performance and showed improvement in 40-kilometer time trial performance, VO2 max, and Wingate peak power (Ronnestad, 2010). With heavy weight training, the speed is slower, but there is an intent to move quickly, which turns out to be very effective.
Similarly, plyometric training has been demonstrated as an effective way to improve running economy even in trained runners (Saunders, 2006). Plyometric training has the potential to increase maximal force production without muscle hypertrophy. With any of these modes of training, proper progression is important and more is not always better. Exercises also need to be age-appropriate and adapted according to the level of each athlete.
A resistance training program designed to improve performance must also take into account the repetitive nature of endurance training and address movement impairments. Swimming, cycling, and running are sagittal-plane (front-back) dominant activities, although stabilization must occur in every plane. Due to the repetitive nature of these activities, endurance athletes are predisposed to muscle imbalances and resulting overuse injuries. Swimmers stereotypically present a forward head and rounded shoulders, which can lead to shoulder injury (Lynch, 2009).
Cyclists spend an inordinate amount of time in a biomechanically compromised position. Hip flexors are shortened and muscles function almost exclusively in the sagittal plane. Low back pain and knee pain are frequently reported by cyclists. Runners also perform most of their motion in the sagittal plane, but it is the muscles that stabilize in the frontal plane (side-side), such as the gluteus medius, that prevent many lower extremity injuries (Willson, 2005). In fact, approximately 20% of the energy cost of running is spent stabilizing side to side motion in the frontal plane.
The strengthening goal of a corrective exercise program should be to target underactive muscles such as the gluteus medius, transversus abdominus, anterior tibialis, lower trapezius, deep cervical flexors, and can be specific to the athlete’s needs. For example, a distance runner with pronation distortion syndrome might perform hip abduction exercises, single leg squats, ankle dorsiflexion + inversion, glute bridging, plank/side planks, and a single leg tip over.
A cyclist with low back pain might do more core stabilization such as the bird dog exercise, isometric abdominal exercises, side planks, and glute bridging. A swimmer with shoulder impingement would have more of an upper body focus that would actually look similar to exercises prescribed for a sedentary desk worker or an overhead throwing athlete with a focus on deep cervical flexors, lower traps, rotator cuff, and serratus anterior. Then complex movements that integrate these muscles into correct movement patterns in a functional exercise can be included, such as a squat + overhead press, cable chop or single leg tip-over + cable row. Perhaps the most important advice for corrective exercises is to make sure you are doing each exercise correctly or you are defeating the purpose and reinforcing incorrect movement patterns.
-Josiah Middaugh is a professional triathlete, coach and personal trainer at Dogma Athletica. He can be reached at Josiah@josiahmiddaugh.com