Endurance athletes often get a rap for being skinny. In fact, many avoid the weight room for fear of getting too bulky, which is a mistake. Certainly theres is some merit to being lean and not carrying superfluous mass, but assuming you don't go overboard by lifting heavy weights every day, eating absurd quantities of food and cutting out most of your endurance training, you will not gain pounds of stringy muscle mass (sorry wannabe Arnolds). You will, however, get stronger, more durable and probably faster. At this point in the evolution of endurance training, all top triathletes, runners and swimmers incorporate resistance training into their training regimen. But it’s not just elites who can benefit. All age groupers, whether you’re back of the pack, middle of the pack, or at the pointy end of the race, can benefit.
Here are the top five reasons triathletes should incorporate strength training into their routine and a brief list of the most important movements to include in your workouts.
1. Strength Training can prevent injury and promote proper form:
Weak muscles and muscle imbalances can lead to improper form, incorrect muscle recruitment and excess load on joints, ligaments and tendons—all of which are main factors contributing to overuse injuries. For example, due to weak glutes, hips and quads, many peoples’ knees collapse inward when running or squatting, leading to PFS (knee) and IT Band pain. Strengthening these weak muscles can facilitate proper form, allowing you to exercise more efficiently and with lower propensity for developing overuse injuries.
According to a study published in Sports Medicine “Research indicates that resistance training promotes growth and/or increases in the strength of ligaments, tendons, tendon to bone and ligament to bone junction strength, joint cartilage and the connective tissue sheaths within muscle. Studies involving humans and animal models also demonstrate resistance training can cause increased bone mineral content and therefore may aid in prevention of skeletal injuries. Investigations to date suggest resistance training can aid in injury prevention. The incidence of various types of overuse injuries, such as swimmers shoulder and tennis elbow, may be reduced by the performance of sport and/or motion specific resistance training activities” (Fleck 1986).
2. Strength training can improve your running economy:
Just as exercising with proper form can reduce the risk of injury, so too can it improve running economy--or the amount of oxygen you consume at a given pace relative to your body weight. Being stronger allows you to recruit the correct muscles for an optimized stride so that you do not default to relying on incorrect muscle groups. As evidence, a 2008 study by Storen et al., separated a group of runners into two groups: one of which executed a tri-weekly strength routine of half squats while the other (control group) continued their normal endurance training regimen. After eight weeks, the strength group improved running economy by 5% and time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic speed by 21.3%. The control group experienced no changes from pre to post values in these parameters.
3. You lift weights, you will get faster
Endurance sports require strength. Yes, carrying extra weight, even in the form of muscle, can detrimentally impact performance; however, you do need the ability to generate enough force to actually go fast. This does not mean that you need to gain a lot of muscle mass--the goal is to be strong relative to your weight. Especially for swimming and cycling, the strength required to propel yourself requires substantial muscular power. The stronger you are, the smaller the percentage of overall max power you will have to exert in order to maintain a given pace. You will also be better able to maintain your form in the latter stages of a race when muscle fatigue sets in, better positioning yourself for the final kick. According to a study published in 2015 by Damasceno, et al., “a strength training program offers a potent stimulus to counteract fatigue during the last parts of a 10-km running race, resulting in an improved overall running performance.” The study separated group o f 18 endurance runners into a strength training group or control group and had the strength training group engage in an 8-week strength training program. In addition to experiencing a higher magnitude of improvement in a drop jump and peak treadmill speed test, the strength group improved their 10-km running performance by 2.5% versus -.07% for the control group.
4. You will maintain fitness as you age
As one gets older, muscle mass and strength naturally decreases. Lifting weights can stall or reverse this trend, allowing you to maintain muscle mass and continue generating the power that will enable you to execute key workouts and race fast. For older endurance athletes, even if they are time-strapped, I encourage at least two strength sessions per week.
5. You will stay leaner and recover better
Lifting weights can boost metabolism and maximize the hormonal response (i.e. induce the release of testosterone and growth hormone), leading to better body composition and recovery. Compound movements wherein you use numerous large muscle groups, such as with dead-lifts and squats, are most effective at releasing hormones, stimulating metabolism, burning fat and achieving faster overall strength gains.
Although there are dozens of valuable exercises, the following are the core ones that I recommend to all my athletes. As with anything, simpler is better and consistency is what ultimately matters. To start, aim to do 3 sets of 10-12 reps of the following with proper form.
-Pull ups or pull downs: Targets upper back and can help the pull-phase of the stroke
-Dead-lifts: Targets glutes, quads, hamstrings, upper and lower back, and traps. Dead lifts are probably the most effective and efficient exercise for gaining strength.
-Squats: Increases quad and glute strength to improve cycling and running power. Lack of quad strength often leads to internal collapsing of the knee during exercise which can lead to a host of overuse injuries such as runners knee. Performing squats can prevent this. All variations--single leg, pistol, weighted and unweighted, traditional -- are beneficial.
-Various core exercises: bridges, clam shells, flutter kicks, superman, hanging leg lifts, Russian twists and planks. These exercises improve abdominal, oblique and hip strength, promote stability, prevent injury and allow you to maintain correct and efficient form.
Conrad Goeringer is an Ironman Certified Coach based out of Nashville, TN. He is the founder of Working Triathlete and author of the book The Working Triathlete. His passion is helping athletes of all levels and with all schedules achieve their endurance goals. Reach out to learn more about coaching packages and for a free consultation.
Damasceno, M V, et al. “Effects of Resistance Training on Neuromuscular Characteristics and Pacing during 10-Km Running Time Trial.” European Journal of Applied Physiology., U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25697149.
Støren, O, et al. “Maximal Strength Training Improves Running Economy in Distance Runners.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise., U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18460997.