Traditionally endurance athletes tend to avoid doing a lot of weight training. The reason being that they don’t want big blocky muscles which they will have to carry around during a race. This perception is starting to dissipate with modern endurance athletes, as they realize the benefits of weight training. I will discuss a number of these benefits and how they can improve endurance performance.
- Increased Strength
The first and most obvious benefit to weight training is improved strength. This strength comes from a number of physiological adaptations. Muscle fibres develop so they can produce a stronger and faster contraction. In addition the recruitment of muscle fibres is improved. Neural patterns become better trained allowing for more efficient contractions during movements. Ligaments also become strengthened which also increases the amount of force we are capable of applying.
This strength increase means that relative workloads become easier for an athlete. It requires less relative effort to maintain a certain pace or power output. They will find it easier to sustain a certain workload and will be capable of working more than they could previously. They also have the higher maximal power output which may be useful during sprint type scenarios.
- Injury prevention
Weight training strengthens ligaments and tendons. This means the ligaments and tendons can tolerate greater amounts of force. This will significantly reduce the risk of injury as they are much more resilient to damage, which may occur during intense exercise. High loads through the joints are common for all athletes during athletic movements. Making the ligaments stronger would be a good way to prevent any damage occurring.
When we spend large amount of time training a particular skill or movement the muscle involved becomes more developed. Often their opposing muscle group lacks this development leading to imbalances. This not only affects movement patterns but can also heighten the risk of injury. Weight training can be an ideal time to correct these imbalances.
- Core Strength
I refer to core strength on its own purely because I want to emphasize its importance. Having a strong trunk and core allows us to transmit force through our body much more efficiently. A tired runner or cyclist tends to wobble back and forth in their upper body. This is an indicator that their core has fatigued as they cannot maintain efficient posture. This is a waste of energy and a waste of effort. A strong core allows for more efficient and direct movement. This can help an athlete conserve energy without sacrificing pace. Weight training is a superb way to strengthen the core and help coordinate the body.
- Hormonal support
Weight training promotes certain hormones which can be beneficial to all athletes. It can help promote lean body mass and reduce fat mass. This means that you carry less “dead weight” in favor of muscle which can contribute to your performance. As an athlete you will become more energy efficient.
The most important thing for any athlete to remember is to favour movements over muscles when weight training. Their goal is performance orientated and their program should be different to that of a bodybuilder. If they train compound multi-joint movements with an emphasis on form and the goal of getting stronger, they will see a benefit.
Most endurance athletes fear weight training for fear of getting too big. In reality this is quite unlikely. Our capacity for hypertrophy is largely determined by genetics. We tend to identify our body type shortly after puberty. Heavy, more muscular individuals are unlikely to ever succeed in a sport that favors slender, lean bodies like endurance running or cycling. While we can influence our size, it is usually quite apparent we are naturally suited to some sports more than others. We enjoy sports that we can compete at. If we are the wrong shape or size we tend to avoid that sport because we don’t do so well at it. A high level endurance athlete is unlikely to gain the amount of muscle mass that would hinder his performance. They can still however, see significant strength improvement without muscle gain. They should not fear weight training as it is likely not to become a problem unless they are struggling with an unfavourable body type to begin with.
In summary, athletes of all types will benefit significantly from weight/strength training. They should always approach it from a movement perspective and not try to isolate muscles unless prescribed for prehab or rehab purposes. Endurance athletes are now realizing that an appropriate strength program should not be feared. It can and should be implemented to their program as they are likely to see quite noticeable improvements in the areas discussed.