Endurance Athletes NEED to Strength Train

Endurance Athletes NEED to Strength Train

By:  Caitie Wippermann, MS, BS, CSCS

We all know that a large sector of the active population of Santa Barbara prefers to compete athletically in long distance races or triathlons.  Even if not competing, I know I’ve seen plenty of people jogging in my neighborhood, at the track, all over the area.  Training by doing long, continuous aerobic exercise provides obvious benefits, such as improved cardiovascular functioning and increased endurance.  It may also help relieve stress and reduce weight for some.
However, endurance training alone, without a proper strength training plan has many issues.  Many people will argue against the need for strength training for endurance events.  I come from a track background and I can tell you that the distance runners were not the biggest fans of the weight room, to say the least.  People think “why would I need a strength program when I am doing an endurance event?  How does strength training improve my endurance?  Won’t I become bulky and slow?  It takes away my energy for running/cycling/etc.”  I could go on and on with reasons. 
Endurance athletes NEED to add in some type of strength training into their regular routine, especially if they are serious about becoming a better athlete.  Here are the top reasons why:  
1.      Injury Prevention
 I’m sure this sounds redundant but the truth is endurance athletes are constantly plagued by overuse injuries.  How can they prevent these chronic injuries?  By strengthening the bones, ligaments, tendons and muscle tissue, the body will become “sturdier”.  This means that the body will be better able to handle the repetitive stressors placed upon it.  Strength training builds greater bone density than running, cycling, and swimming do.  Greater bone density will prevent against stress fractures that are so commonly seen in endurance athletes.  Fewer injuries throughout the year will allow you to increase both the amount and the intensity of your training sessions.
2.     Correcting Muscle Imbalances
Endurance events are characterized by repetitive motions in the same plane of movement.  Certain muscles and planes of movement become neglected, leading to muscular imbalances.  Think of a cyclist’s body position while they are training – shoulders and back hunched forward with knees buckling out to the sides.  Over time, the amount of hours stuck in this position add up causing the muscles in the upper back to become elongated and weak while the muscles in the chest become shortened and tight.  Basically, the backside of the body (hamstrings, glutes, rhomboids) is neglected while the front side (quadriceps, chest) is worked.  Have you ever analyzed the typical jogger that you see on the streets?  More than likely you will see inefficient running patterns.  They may be hunched over, head tilted to one side or bobbing back and forth, shoulders rolled forwards, hips collapsing with each step, feet flailing out to the side, arms going across the body and a shortened stride length.  Not all runners look this way; however, a large percentage of recreational joggers do.  If they can become stronger and strengthen the muscles that become neglected from a jogging only routine (hips, posterior chain, core and shoulder stabilizers) they can correct some of these movement tendencies.  This leads to my next point on running efficiency. 
3.     Running Economy
Now imagine a professional runner.  They seem to run effortlessly, with long smooth strides.  Why is this?  These runners put more force into the ground with each step.  Their body position is tall with all movements going forwards and backwards while eliminating side-to-side motions.  They are more economical and save more energy while they are running.  Studies have proven that adding in a strength training program will improve endurance performance in top level athletes.  A study by Paavolainen, L., Hakkinen, K., Hamalainen, I., Numella, A., and Rusko, H. found that an explosive strength training program improved 5k time by improving running economy and muscle power.  This was due to improved neuromuscular efficiency, not an improved VO2 max (which is hard to improve in well-trained endurance athletes).  Strength training recruits type IIa muscle fibers that can produce more force and contract faster than the type I fibers typically trained in endurance activities.  This not only helps the kick at the end of the race, but improves every stride during the race.  Another study by Aagaard, P, & Andersen, JL., found strength training to improve both short term (<15 and="" long="" min="" term="">30 min) endurance capacity in both well-trained and top-level endurance athletes.  It is noted that strength training can also improve endurance ability in previously untrained individuals (Paavolainen, et al.).  Adding in a progressive strength training program into your endurance training routine will make you faster by increasing your neuromuscular efficiency, causing you to be more powerful with each step by having shorter ground contact times and longer strides. 
4.    Balance Hormonal Secretions – Cortisol and Testosterone
Correcting this ratio will lead to improved body composition by increasing muscle mass which leads to a decreased body fat percentage when everything else is held constant.  Constant long-duration, high volume aerobic training leads to increases in cortisol secretions and decreased testosterone.  Chronically high levels of cortisol have been shown to weaken the immune system, leaving your body much more prone to illness and infections.  By adding in resistance training, you can offset this ratio by increasing your testosterone.  Say goodbye to frequent infections and time off from training!  Chronically high cortisol levels will also break down muscle mass, causing your metabolism to slow and fat to accumulate.  Strength work can help to maintain your muscle mass, making you a leaner, stronger and more powerful runner.    
References:
Aagaard, P. & Andersen, JL. (2010). Effects of strength training on endurance capacity in top-level endurance athletes. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine in Science and Sports, 2, 39-47.
Paavolainen, L., Hakkinen, K., Hamalainen, I., Nummela, A., & Rusko, H. (1999). Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology, 86(5), 1527-1533.

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