Over recent years there has been a mentality shift towards strength training within the endurance sport domain from one of reluctance to general acceptance as part of an “all-round” training programme. Yet, there remains some confusion within this area in reference to weight, number of repetitions, sets and what exactly the adaptations are that occur with a strength programme. This blog post will look at a recent meta-analysis which aimed to assess the effects of strength training on middle and long-distance performance. A Link to the full text can be found here.
Firstly, what sports are we referring to when discussing middle and long-distance performance? For this study the authors included athletics events, cycling, cross-country skiing and swimming. Now let’s look at the determinants or “crucial” factors associated with peak performance in these sports: VO2 Max, Efficiency (Oxygen cost at given power/pace) and the lactate threshold1. Therefore, to improve performance in these sports the strength training programme must improve one of these facets. Previous research has suggested adaptations to both efficiency2-3 and lactate threshold4. There is hesitation from athletes and coaches in relation to strength training some of which being the increase of muscle mass (hypertrophy) and thus weight and the interference of endurance adaptations. With adequate load and appropriate programming these issues should not present themselves.
The authors hypothesized that strength training would improve performance more than sport specific training alone, they also hypothesized that these improvements would come from improvements in efficiency and lactate threshold whereas VO2 Max would remain un-altered.
How did they do this?
Through the use of a meta-analysis – simply put a meta-analysis is a form of research which combines the results of multiple scientific studies to answer a research question. (If you’re of the inclination a more detailed explanation of their methods can be found in the full text).
What was the outcome?
Overall the implementation of strength training was associated with moderate improvements in middle and long-distance performance. Maximal strength training and “a combination” of methods was found to be the intensity of strength training that produced the greatest improvement in performance. As the authors hypothesized there was a moderate improvement in efficiency while VO2 Max remained unchanged. Interestingly the lactate threshold also remained unchanged. As we would have thought, there was a large increase in maximal force and moderate increase in maximal power as a consequence of strength training. Interestingly, the authors also found that there was no significant differences in the “sport” category and the adaptations suggesting each sport mentioned above would benefit from strength training.
Conclusions, how does this apply to us and limits of the study?
In a nutshell one should include some element of strength training within their overall training programme!
Not in a nutshell – middle and long-distance performance increased the most when athletes underwent a maximal strength programme (a rep range guide can be seen below). This suggests to us that endurance athletes need to be lifting heavy weights for a low number of repetitions to induce these adaptations. Recovery should also be long here to allow these targets to be hit consistently. For example, if your 1 repetition maximum is 100 kilos on a squat these results would suggest that you will gain most of your performance improvement by lifting between 85 – 100 kilos for 1 – 3 repetitions. However, it is important to note that this takes skill and knowledge and should only ever be conducted under expert guidance along with a foundational level of strength built up over time. The way I would suggest programming this into your training approach would be to start light at a high rep range and slowly progress the weight upwards and the reps downwards.
Regarding the frequency of training 2 strength sessions per week and greater than 24 sessions in total were associated with the biggest performance improvements. You may now be thinking how I include this without sacrificing my “sport specific” training, the answer here is mainly about prioritizing our goals. At certain phases of the year i.e. off-season/ preparation and early base phases gym work will often take priority over sport specific sessions especially for advanced athletes. When programming along with your sport specific training it is important to avoid interference of adaptations, explaining the interference effect itself is another post entirely. But, to minimize this there are strategies that we can incorporate: a “polarized” training approach where extensive training around the lactate threshold is reduced5, prioritising training goals (as mentioned above), sequencing strength training before endurance to avoid the associated fatigue impairing the strength workout6. There is a contradictory theory based on gene expression, but I won’t dive into that! Essentially it all stems back to training goals.
We have not touched on the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes in relation to bone density and injury prevention. Low bone density can lead to medical issues such as osteoporosis. Due to the non-weight bearing nature of some of the sports mentioned in this study, such as cycling, low bone density is an issue. Adequate strength training can combat this, strength training has been shown to reduce the risk of injury more than interventions such as stretching.
So, my advice – hit the gym and exploit those gains!
- Joyner MJ, Coyle EF. Endurance exercise performance: the physiology of champions. J Physiol. 2008;586(1):35–44.
- Balsalobre-Fernandez C, Santos-Concejero J, Grivas GV. The effects of strength training on running economy in highly trained runners: a systematic review with meta-analysis of controlled trials. J Strength Cond Res. 2016;30(8):2361–2368.
- Barnes KR, Kilding AE. Strategies to improve running economy. Sports Med. 2015;45(1):37–56.
- Ronnestad BR, Mujika I. Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: a review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2014;24(4):603–612.
- Docherty, D., & Sporer, B. (2000). A proposed model for examining the interference phenomenon between concurrent aerobic and strength training. Sports Medicine, 30(6), 385-394.
- Baker, D. (2001). The effects of an in-season of concurrent training on the maintenance of maximal strength and power in professional and college-aged rugby league football players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 15(2), 172-177.
- Lauersen, J. B., Bertelsen, D. M., & Andersen, L. B. (2014). The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Br J Sports Med, 48(11), 871-877.