Strength Training and Endurance Performance
Endurance athletes love training long distances. Often described as time in the saddle, it often consists of large amounts of time dedicated to moving slowly over large distances.
While this has been a staple of many endurance athletes training for many years, it may not be the most logical option. With traditional endurance training there is a heavy focus on long distance, steady state exercise. Often the main form of progression utilised with this training is an increase in distance, which is somewhat illogical if we think about it. By running a greater distance at the same speed (or possibly slower) that is always used, are we really going to get faster?
Hint: It does depend on current fitness level, but probably not.
So what should we do?
Well, when it comes to strength and endurance training, they are often viewed at opposite ends of the training continuum, with improvements in one causing subsequent reductions in the other. In reality, it’s not that simple.
When we look at endurance performance, it is effectively the ability to maintain or repeat a given force output (think each step during running). Now each individual step we take has the same, consistent amount of force being applied to the ground. Now if we think about it logically for a second, if someone increases their relative strength, each step will require less relative force to maintain the same pace they did prior to getting stronger. This means any step done at any given workload requires less energy, as it is now a lower percentage of their maximal force production. This then results in them moving faster, and further each step, despite using the same amount of energy.
BOOM! Mind blown.
And this isn’t just for running. The same principles apply for cycling and swimming.
Now lets get a little (only a little) sciency for a moment.
Strength training has shown to significantly improve endurance performance in both recreational, and highly trained endurance athletes. These studies have suggested that the inclusion of strength training into an endurance training program will enhance endurance performance greater than endurance training alone. These improvements have been measured by improvements in movement economy (energy efficiency), velocity at VO2max and maximal anaerobic running test velocity.
Often seen is a significant improvement in strength, with minimal improvement in lean mass, suggesting that strength increases are predominantly neural, and result in significant improvements in relative force production.
Associated with strength training is a shift in muscle fibre type from type IIx (Super explosive muscle fibre type) to type IIa (less explosive, slightly greater endurance capacity) fibre types, slightly improving endurance capacity.
Maximal voluntary muscle contraction is improved, reducing the amount of motor units recruited to produce force at any given workload, and therefore requiring less energy at any given workload.
Strength training also causes an increase in musculotendinous unit stiffness. This results in an improved ability to store elastic energy during eccentric muscle actions (eg. landing each step), which in turn increases concentric muscle force (eg. Pushing off the ground). This results in less energy used per step, and an increase in movement economy.
So what are the practical implications?
So we now know that strength training can contribute to improved endurance performance, but how should we use this information.
I would suggest that the inclusion of just two full-body strength sessions per week would be sufficient to stimulate a strength adaptation. The focus should be on large compound movements such as squats, deadlifts and lunges to improve lower body strength, working within strength based rep ranges (6x3, 5x4, 4x6 etc.), trying to elicit neural adaptations whilst minimising potential hypertrophy to maximise increases in strength relative to body weight.
The inclusion of loaded carries, pulling movements, and some direct trunk stability work would be worth including as accessory exercises if time permits.
If you want to improve your endurance performance through strength training but don't know where to start, click here!