[New performance series] Lift weights, sprint to the podium?
You are an endurance athlete. A triathlete. You swim, cycle, and run. You put in the hours and often struggle to find time to consistently work on each discipline. So, finding an extra 30, 45, or 60 minutes to go to the gym is out of the realm of possibility. In addition, lifting weights is for meatheads, people grunting and screaming, who just want to look good in front of the mirror. Definitely not for someone looking to improve performance. After all, just putting the bar on your back is enough to jack up your muscles, making you carry unwanted extra weight over a long distance. Right?
Hopefully, this is not your opinion on resistance training. Yet unfortunately, it is still the point of view of many endurance athletes and coaches out there. That just logging the miles and performing your interval sessions is more than enough to build your muscular fitness. And if any extra work is required, uphill sprints and stairs can provide all the stimulus you need. The reality is that lifting weights is not an important part of your training program. It is an ESSENTIAL part of your plan. And I don’t mean just wrapping a band around your knees and doing some bodyweight squats or working on that glute med. I mean actually lifting weights. Heavy weights. Putting in the effort and aiming for consistent improvements over time. You know, just like you do with your swimming, cycling, and running.
But why should you?
In this series we have been covering strategies to improve the components that lead to performance in endurance events. Just to review it, your body’s ability to intake, distribute, and utilize oxygen (your maximal oxygen consumption – VO2max), your lactate threshold (the intensity at which fatigue gradually starts to accumulate), and your movement economy (your body’s oxygen consumption at a submaximal intensity) are the key aspects here. Take a look at the image below.
Forget the technical jargon or any terms you might find too “science-y” and just look at the red font and arrows. At the first level, on the left, you have regular endurance training. That leads to direct improvements in all three performance factors. On the right side is strength training. Through adaptations in your neuromuscular capacity, resistance training will lead to an increased movement economy, consequently impacting endurance performance. And this isn’t wishful thinking or a theoretical model that we hope one day will prove itself to be true. No, resistance training has been consistently shown to improve performance in endurance sports, whether it is cycling, running, swimming, skiing, triathlon…. You name it. And I assure you that being stronger makes you a better athlete.
There are a few mechanisms that have been speculated to lead to the improvements in movement economy and performance. While further research is needed to evaluate each mechanism, some have a strong background and evidence to support it. Let’s dig deeper.
Warning: this is the nerd section. If you are interested in knowing more about the mechanisms that make you a better athlete with resistance training, go for it. If I already have you believing in its effects and you’re just looking for training recommendations, scroll down (putting into practice) and save yourself some reading time.
Our muscles are composed by different muscle fiber types. Type I fibers (also known as slow twich fibers) are more fatigue resistant, but don’t generate much power. Type II fibers (your fast twich fibers) are the opposite, and generate a lot of power, but tend to fatigue quickly. In between, we have type IIa and IIx fibers, which would be somewhat of a hybrid between the slow (type I) and fast (type II) muscle fibers. One of the hypotheses for the improvements seen with resistance training is the fact that with resistance training, type I fibers would get stronger, and therefore, work at a lower relative activity level, delaying fatigue during long-duration work. In addition, as fatigue sets in, our body will increase the recruitment of the type II muscle fibers that are less economical. In layman terms, with stronger muscles you won’t be working as hard (relative to your strength levels) and won’t have to recruit more muscle to work so soon. That would spare not only your muscles, but some of the glycogen (our main energy source) you will need for your late race surge as well.
Another mechanism lies in the fact that your muscle fibers might shift in their characteristics to be better equipped to handle a certain type of stress if it is frequently repeated. This means with more endurance training your body would try to ensure that your muscles are best equipped for it. While we can’t fully shift our type II fibers into type I fibers, the intermediate ones (IIa and IIx) can actually be altered with training. Resistance training could “switch” some of your type IIx fibers into type IIa. And why is that important? Well, the type IIa are more fatigue resistance than the type IIx, but can still generate a high amount of muscular power. So, your muscles become more resistant to fatigue, while not losing that much in their ability to produce power. While this has been demonstrated in at least one study, some findings in the area are still conflicting, so we’ll keep an eye on it. Looking back at the image above, another potential mechanism is increased muscle-tendon stiffness, meaning that the “spring” in your legs gets a greater boost at each step. In this process, less energy is wasted, also contributing to the improved economy.
But what about the fear of becoming more muscular, you ask? Well, what if I told you that having a bit more muscle can actually improve your performance? Recent studies have found a very large correlation between the average amount of power that cyclists could generate during a 40-min all-out trial, and the increases in the size of their quadriceps after a period of resistance training. The authors suggested that the increase in lean mass could have been accompanied by an increase in aerobic enzymes, leading to a better energy production by the muscles.
While there are other mechanisms that might contribute to performance improvements following resistance training programs, these warrant a bit more investigation by researchers.
So, in short, resistance training can:
- enhance your muscles ability to delay fatigue by ensuring that you are working at a lower relative intensity. In addition, since your type I fibers will be able to perform for longer without fatiguing, your body will spare your type II fibers for later in the race, increasing your chances of finishing strong, and sparing some of the glycogen you would need for that.
- increase the amount of more “fatigue-resistant” fibers in your muscles by shifting the type IIx fibers to type IIa. Type IIa muscle fibers are more resistant to fatigue than type IIx, and while there is a loss of muscular power in the process (type IIx can generate more power), the type IIa fibers can still generate enough power to ensure performance won’t be compromised.
- increase muscle-tendon stiffness which leads to a better use of energy for muscle contractions at each step.
- increasing muscle mass (in the muscles that are important for your sport – save the biceps curl for beach season!). While this seems to be counterproductive for endurance performance, increasing muscle mass can also lead to a concomitant increase in the number of aerobic enzymes, leading to an improved ability to produce energy.
While these are all amazing outcomes, there’s one more I haven’t mentioned as it won’t directly improve your performance. Resistance training reduces your chances of getting injured. Read it again. Forget the common misconception that resistance training would hinder flexibility, and thus lead to more injuries (in fact, stretching is NOT an effective way of avoiding injuries). Overuse injuries are the most common occurrence for endurance athletes and a recent study showed that resistance training had the ability to almost reduce this type of injuries in half! Quite surprising, eh?
Putting into practice
We tend to make things more complicated than they should be. So, when planning your resistance training program, keeping it simple is actually a good advice. While I have spent the past 1,000 words or so defending how resistance training is important, truth is, if you only have 3 days a week to train, you are better off to spend that time swimming, cycling, and running. If you have time, then performing resistance training twice per week could be enough to show some improvements. Most studies have shown that the benefits of resistance training are more pronounced if your program is longer. So, a good practice might be to start your resistance training program as soon as your competitive season is over. As you won’t be performing too much endurance training at this time, you have more time to dedicate to the gym. Aim to be training for a minimum of 8 weeks before your race, and ideally more than 12 weeks. This is usually the duration of the studies that have shown positive results, but longer interventions might be even more beneficial. When choosing your exercises, specificity is key. That means strengthening the muscles that will be required during the event. Lastly, the number of exercises, sets, and repetitions are also important. Ideally, we aim to perform maximal strength (lifting heavy weights) and explosive strength training (think plyometrics, like jumps, for example). Now, that might be too much information all at once, so let’s break it down.
Program duration and frequency: aim for a minimum of 8 to 12 weeks, but longer programs will likely lead to greater benefits. During your preparation phase try to lift weights twice a week. Once competitions start, a maintenance frequency of one session per week might be enough to keep your improvements.
Number of sets and exercises: Most research has had endurance athletes perform two to three sets 2-3 per exercises, with 6 to 8 exercises per session. Depending on your experience and access to equipment at the gym, this could end up being as short as 30 minutes.
Repetition range: as previously mentioned, there are benefits to becoming stronger and gaining a bit of muscle mass. In addition, different types of strength training have been shown to provide different benefits. In this context, if you are going to the gym twice a week, aim for a heavier day (4-6 reps) and a lighter day (8-12 reps). As part of your heavy day, make sure you add plyometric exercises, such as box jumps for example, to your program, keeping them within the same rep range.
Rest time: 2 to 3 min is what is commonly seen in research studies. Particularly on the heavier days, allow a bit more rest to ensure you can maintain the intensity of each set.
Exercises to use: your exercise selection should target the major muscles used in the sport. Think of your legs mostly, and chest, back and shoulders for swimming. Some studies have reported that a larger number of lower body exercises might be necessary to lead to improvements in cycling performance. Still, if you are proficient in the big, compound exercises (those that exercise more than one muscle group at a time), such as squats and deadlifts, then you likely won’t need to perform may isolation exercises (those that work a single muscle, as a biceps curl, for example).
Cautionary tales: make sure you start slow. If you haven’t done resistance training in a long time (or at all), this will ensure you don’t experience too much muscle soreness (technically called DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness) after your sessions. In addition, the recovery from an intense resistance training session might take up to 72 hours. That means that you have to plan accordingly. A heavy strength session and an interval session on back to back days are a big no. So, allow your body some time to rest between sessions, and if you can, up your nutrition (a bit more protein could help) and sleep game to support your recovery.
Yes, I know. You want to see a training program, right? Well, below you find the descriptions of 3 programs utilized in research with positive results. Please, adapt this to suit your needs (experience level, preferences, available equipment, etc).
Program #1 – Vikmoen et al. (2016).
In this study, training was performed twice per week for eleven weeks. Interestingly, the participants were only female athletes (an under-researched group in sport science). Participants were well-trained (VO2max: 53 ± 3 ml.kg.min-1) cyclists and runners who had no resistance training experience in the 12 months prior to the study. Participants alternated their loads throughout the 11 weeks as outlined below. The training program was quite simple.
While this is a very short program, the participants improved their cycling economy and 40-min all out performance when compared to the control group (that did not perform resistance training, but had its number of weekly sessions matched the strength training group).
Program #2 – Storen, Helgerud, Stoa, & Hoff (2008).
This one is even simpler. Subjects were 17 (8 females, 9 males) well-trained runners. For 8 weeks, participants performed resistance training 3 times a week, with the session consisting of a single exercise.
Whenever participants were able to do 5 repetitions in a set (1 one more than prescribed), 2.5kg were added to ensure progressive overload. Simple, eh? Yet, their results were quite good. Running economy was improved by 5%, while time to exhaustion at the participants’ maximal aerobic speed went up by 21.3%. Once again, keep it simple and consistent.
Program #3 – Millet, Jaouen, Borrani, & Candau (2002)
This study was performed in triathletes, with 7 of the fifteen participants competing at an international level (elite national team). Despite being highly trained, the resistance training group saw greater improvements when compared to the group that only maintained their regular endurance training (although, similar to the study mentioned above and differently from the first study, the resistance training group ended up performing a higher total volume as the gym sessions were added to their program and no changes were made to the endurance-only group). The training session had a higher number of exercises and the number of sets was gradually increased from 3 to 5 every 3 weeks.
A bit of a higher volume of strength training, and the results were also positive, with the study showing that the resistance training group had greater improvements in running economy.
Hopefully by now I have convinced you that resistance training should be part of your routine. Not only it can improve your performance but can also help you in avoiding injuries that can derail your training. Still, despite the positives, keep in mind what has been mentioned earlier: if you can’t find time for it (although a few sets of a single exercise could be enough), you are still better off sticking with your endurance training.
Now it’s your time. Head to the gym. Pick some heavy weights. Lift them, grunt, yell, take a selfie! Just kidding, please no. Make sure you can add resistance training to your program and see the results. Trust me, it can enhance your performance and make you look good!
Want to know more?
Millet, G. P., Jaouen, B., Borrani, F., & Candau, R. (2002). Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running economy and VO2 kinetics. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 34(8), 1351-1359.
Ronnestad, B. R., Kojedal, O., Losnegard, T., Kvamme, B., & Raastad, T. (2012). Effect of heavy strength training on muscle thickness, strength, jump performance, and endurance performance in well-trained nordic combined athletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 112(6), 2341-2352. doi:10.1007/s00421-011-2204-9 [
Ronnestad, B. R., & Mujika, I. (2014). Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review.Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 24(4), 603-612. doi:10.1111/sms.12104
Schumann, M. & Ronnestad, B. R. Concurrent Aerobic and Strength Training. Springer: 2018.
Vikmoen, O., Ellefsen, S., Troen, O., Hollan, I., Hanestadhaugen, M., Raastad, T., & Ronnestad, B. R. (2016). Strength training improves cycling performance, fractional utilization of VO2max and cycling economy in female cyclists. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 26(4), 384-396. doi:10.1111/sms.12468
Vikmoen, O., Ronnestad, B. R., Ellefsen, S., & Raastad, T. (2017). Heavy strength training improves running and cycling performance following prolonged submaximal work in well-trained female athletes. Physiological Reports, 5(5), 10.14814/phy2.13149.