Weight training for endurance athletes has been a hotly debated topic over the last few decades. There have been many arguments both for and against but today, it is widely accepted that weight training is a beneficial component of an endurance athlete’s schedule. Two of the biggest arguments against hitting the weight-room were: adding bodyweight and affecting that all important, power to weight ratio, and that any strength gained would not be specific enough. In other words, the athlete was concerned that strength achieved through a leg-press, for example, would not be applicable when running, because the motion is slower, and the angles and applications of force were different.
Firstly, the weight issue – if you are an endurance athlete, you more than likely have the body type that predisposes you to that type of activity. That body type does not gain muscle weight easily. An endurance athlete can, as a result of their physiology, make considerable strength gains without adding much in the bodyweight department. Even if you are a more muscular athlete, you will not be weight training exclusively. The bulk of your weekly training hours will still be devoted to endurance training, which will make adding muscle a lot harder. What we are looking for is building strength in the muscles we already have.
The second argument – Yes, if you were looking to improve strength and power that is specific to your activity, you would do that via plyometric type activities. Jumps and bounds are much more directly applicable to running than say, leg press in the gym. Improving things like pedalling power on a bicycle is much better trained by doing sprints or hill-reps on your bike than spending time lifting heavy things. But… the weight training is not focused directly on making you faster or more powerful in your sport. What it is focused on is making your body stronger and more durable and better able to absorb the pounding that you subject it to. It should also be aimed at maintaining the muscles and joints that are neglected in the activity that you spend countless hours performing. This, indirectly, will make you faster.
That all said though, there is considerable evidence that supports the assertion that weight training improves sport-specific strength and power as well. For example, a strong glute is a strong glute and will be able to push a pedal around with more force or drive you faster up a steep hill on your local trail run through strength gained in the weight room. Even if that was achieved in movements that do not exactly replicate your chosen activity.
So, you are sold on the idea that weight training will be a good thing to add to your week of training. Where to start?
Light weight, many reps
Another age-old weight training myth is that endurance athletes should keep things light and perform many, many reps. You already do that, swimming, cycling or running you don’t need to do it when you are lifting. Obviously starting out in the manly-weight section of your local health club, you should start light and allow the muscles and joints some time to become conditioned and ready for the harder work to come. Once this has been achieved though, endurance athletes should lift as heavy as they can whilst maintaining good form.
Right, you’re at the gym, you have eased yourself into things, now what? Walk past the ‘super-circuit’ and the static machines to the free-weights and the squat-rack. You want to focus your time in the gym on compound exercises. Things like squats, dead-lifts and bench-press. The more muscles involved in the movement and the more difficult the bar is to control the better. You will not only be using muscles to get the bar off the ground, but your body will be recruiting all sorts of muscles, not directly involved in raising the bar, to stabilise the body to provide a solid platform for the lift. Your ankles, knees and hips will all need to be stable and strong in order to get the heavy weight moving upwards in a controlled manner. While you are training your glutes and quads primarily in a squat for example, you will be getting the added benefit of strengthening these joints that are critical in sports such as cycling and running. If done with good technique and form, you will actually also be improving the range of motion through these joints. This is a far better way of improving range of motion through the major joints than static stretching can achieve. These compound lifts also require less time per session. You get a far better workout from three to four sets of two or three different lifts than you would from using a multitude of machines that isolate muscles and focus on limited areas. Begin with the simpler moves like the squat and deadlift. Then gradually add complexity, working your way up to lifts like the ‘clean and jerk’ and the ‘snatch’.
The best time to start training with weights is during the off-season where there are is no racing and training load is lighter. If you lay a good foundation of strength there, you can continue to incorporate at least one session a week right through the next phase of pre-season build. Once into the racing season you will probably want to hold off on the weight sessions in favour of recovery and more specific speedwork but some lighter sessions and plyometric exercises will go a long way to maintain things and still have you fresh for your key sessions and races.