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Resistance Training for Endurance Athletes

By: Chris Taber, PhD

It is self-evident that strength training can improve sports where high force and high power out puts are necessary such as power lifting and weightlifting. However, it’s less clear how strength training may improve aerobic based sports where lower sustained force production and muscular endurance are critical for success. There has been disagreement between coaches on the effects of strength training for endurance athletes with the belief that it will make them slower or heavier. Therefore, the purpose of this brief article will be to provide evidence that strength training including both high force and high velocity movements can benefit aerobic athletes and should be implemented into their training repertoire.

Resistance Training is Beneficial for Endurance Athletes

Often resistance training and endurance training have been viewed as disparate training outcomes and often conflicting when combined together. However, there is evidence to the contrary, that in fact, combining strength training with endurance training provides greater benefits than endurance training alone.1,2 Furthermore, endurance athletes are often novices in the resistance training realm leaving room for further adaptations and performance benefits. Reviews of the literature have demonstrated that resistance training can improve movement economy, power output, and maximal movement speed all of which underpin performance in many types of endurance sports.3 Often coaches are concerned that resistance training may cause unwanted weight gain or hypertrophy which will negatively affect performance. This is a valid apprehension to inclusion of resistance training however investigations into this claim often show little to no weight gain while demonstrating increases in strength. These strength effects are most likely due to neural mechanisms and the impact of the volume of endurance training mitigating muscular hypertrophy.4,5

With the potential benefits established and the negative effects of training quelled it is time to investigate how to incorporate resistance training into a training plan for endurance athletes. The main ways to incorporate resistance training for these athletes are to use heavy strength training such as squats and deadlifts, power training such as the Olympic lifts and their derivatives, and finally plyometrics such as jumping and throwing. Amongst athletes who are naive to strength training research has shown that getting stronger prior to implementing power training leads to greater improvements in power when implemented later.6 Early training stages for these athletes should focus on proper technical execution, mastering the basics of resistance training, and improving base levels of absolute and relative strength. Once a proper strength base is obtained, transferring more training time to power training via weightlifting and plyometric activities will help to improve power output and alter force production along a spectrum of velocities.

With these previous ideas in mind we can move onto implementation of resistance training. For these athletes, building a base of strength and anaerobic work capacity using large muscle mass exercises focusing on full range of motion is important in early phases of training during the off-season. Exercises which can be incorporated at this time would be squats, deadlifts, presses, and pulling exercises. Additionally, the early offseason would be an ideal time to introduce skilled technical work with the weightlifting movements by incorporating lighter technical work and pulling movements. As the preseason approaches, focus can shift from basic strength into maximal strength and power development. Incorporation of the snatch, clean, and jerk exercises can be implemented during this phase alongside the inclusion of plyometric exercises and heavier pulling derivatives. As the competitive season commences the focus should be placed on fatigue management and expressing high power outputs in competition. Strength exercises should still be included during this phase but consideration should be given to exercises that may cause muscle damage and excessive fatigue such as heavy eccentric contractions. Partial lifts such as half and quarter squats from safety pins and concentric only motions such as power cleans, power snatches, and pulls are appropriate due to the high power output but lower levels of fatigue. Finally, a balance should be struck between the total training volume throughout the year where during times of heavy endurance training resistance training volume should be lowered to an appropriate amount to account for accumulated fatigue.

In conclusion, resistance training is beneficial for endurance athletes as long as it is implemented correctly and intelligently into the training process. Many of the concerns about negative transfer from resistance training are unfounded and in fact performance is enhanced with the inclusion of resistance training. Athletes and coaches should focus on proper technique and strength development first followed by power development and high velocity movements later in a training year as the athlete develops. If you’re an endurance athlete not currently strength training you may be leaving some performance improvements on the table and time to reach out to your coach about implementing these strategies into your training plan.

1. McCARTHY, J. P., Pozniak, M. A., & Agre, J. C. (2002). Neuromuscular adaptations to concurrent strength and endurance training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(3), 511-519.

2. Millet, G. P., Jaouen, B. E. R. N. A. R. D., Borrani, F. A. B. I. O., & Candau, R. O. B. I. N. (2002). Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running economy and VO2 kinetics. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(8), 1351-1359.

3. Beattie, K., Kenny, I. C., Lyons, M., & Carson, B. P. (2014). The effect of strength training on performance in endurance athletes. Sports Medicine, 44(6), 845-865.

4. Hickson, R. C., Dvorak, B. A., Gorostiaga, E. M., Kurowski, T. T., & Foster, C. (1988). Potential for strength and endurance training to amplify endurance performance. Journal of applied physiology, 65(5), 2285-2290.

5. Aagaard, P., Andersen, J. L., Bennekou, M., Larsson, B., Olesen, J. L., Crameri, R., ... & Kjaer, M. (2011). Effects of resistance training on endurance capacity and muscle fiber composition in young top‐level cyclists. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 21(6), e298-e307.

6. Prue, P., McGuigan, M. R., & Newton, R. U. (2010). Influence of strength on magnitude and mechanisms of adaptation to power training. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc, 42, 1566-1581.

Christopher Taber is an assistant professor at Sacred Heart University and head coach of the Sacred Heart weightlifting team. His research is focused on strength and power development for athletes as well as athlete monitoring and testing. Christopher is an Instructor fo Totten Training Systems, coaches and competes for East Coast Gold Weightlifting team. He lives with his wife Lucy and their dog Marble in Connecticut. 

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