Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training

It's that time of year again when the debate on whether or not endurance athletes should lift weights begins. Both sides will toss out research and personal experience as evidence that it does or doesn't do the endurance athlete any good. I tend to come down on the side that it is beneficial, but with limitations.

Most of the research indicates that weight lifting does improve aerobic endurance performance, primarily by boosting economy rather than aerobic capacity/VO2max [1-5]. Not all research finds benefits, however [6,7]. I should point that while my 20-year research archive only includes two studies that found no benefit from strength training for endurance athletes, journals are less likely to publish research that reports no positive change in the conclusion. So while the research appears to be tilted toward lifting weights as a way of racing faster we may not be seeing the whole picture.

So it really isn't the research that causes me to come down on the side of strength for endurance athletes, it's my experience from 20 years of working with athletes of all abilities. But I do agree with the positive-finding research that the main reason for this benefit is improved economy.

What's "economy"? Let's put it in the context of the 3 most basic predictors of success in endurance sports--a large aerobic capacity, lactate threshold at a high percentage of aerobic capacity and economical movement. Improving any of these three will benefit performance in endurance sports. The latter-economy-essentially has to do with how much energy is wasted-or not wasted-during exercise.

How can energy be wasted during exercise? One way to waste energy is to use high levels of glycogen (carbohydrate-based fuel) during submaximal effort. It's sort of like the fuel economy rating of your car. Some cars are gas guzzlers and others are very efficient in their use of petrol. The fuel source you would like to primarily use during exercise is fat. How much fat you burn relative to glycogen during exercise at any intensity is a decent indicator of how economical--and fit--you are. Teaching your body to spare glycogen and preferentially use fat for fuel is one of the purposes of endurance training, especially in the Base period.

How can the body become better at using fat for fuel? There are a few ways, but let's look at one that has to do with strength work. The more the workload is done by slow twitch (type 1) muscles as opposed to fast twitch (type 2a and 2b) muscles the more fat you use as a percentage of the total energy expenditure.

So how can you get the type 1 muscles to carry more of the workload? I'm glad you asked. The stronger the type 1 muscles are the greater the percentage of the workload they can carry while you bike, run, swim, cross-country ski or do whatever your endurance sport involves. You can make these muscles stronger in many different ways--by training on hilly courses, by increasing the drag resistance in some way during workouts (for example, swimming while wearing a T-shirt or running with a parachute attached), and/or by lifting weights. If you go the latter route the exercises you do need to closely mimic the movements of your sport. Biceps curls will not make you a more economical runner.

Will weight lifting help every athlete become more economical and therefore faster? Nope. I've coached a few endurance athletes who came to their sport with a long history of body building or power lifting. These athletes had plenty of strength. They needed less. Athletes who are the peak of performance probably won't benefit either. If I took a Kenyan runner who had just won the New York City Marathon and put him on a weight lifting program for several weeks it's doubtful he would be a better runner. But if someone who was a complete novice--say to cycling--lifted weights doing cycling-related strength exercises for several weeks he or she would undoubtedly improve cycling performance without even turning the cranks once. Most of us fall between these extremes. And most of us will improve our endurance performances by lifting weights. My experience tells me this is so.

1. Hickson RC, et al. 1988. Potential for strength and endurance training to amplify endurance performance. J Apply Physiol 65(5):2285-2290.
2. Hoff J, et al. 1999. Maximal strength training improves work economy in trained female cross-country skiers. Med Sci Sports Exerc 31(6):870-877.
3. Johnston RE, et al. 1995. Strength training in female distance runners: Impact on running economy. Med Sci Sports Exerc 27(5):S47.
4. Tanaka H and Swensen T. 1988. Impact of resistance training on endurance performance. A new form of cross training? Sports Med 25(3):191-200.
5. Marcinik EJ, et al. 1991. Effects of strength training on lactate threshold and endurance performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 23(6):739-743.
6. Bishop D, et al. 1977. The influence of resistance training on endurance cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc (29(5):S1502.
7. Bishop D, et al. 1999. The effects of strength training on endurance performance and muscle characteristics. Med Sci Sports Exerc 31(6):886-891.


At November 13, 2007 10:48 AM , Blogger Rick said...

Joe, thank you for another helpful post. Here's the question: for those of us who follow one of you programs during the season and do 9 workouts per week, but go back to 6, or so, in the off season, am I better off with strength training or not, if my off-season (realistic) max is 6 workouts?

At November 13, 2007 1:26 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Well, as usual, it depends. If you are a triathlete that means only 2 workouts in each sport each week. That's pretty much as low as a triathlete should go. So in this case I'd say no weights. (However, I'd also suggest that as you get older lifting weights is one of the most valuable things you can do to keep aging at bay.) But if you are a cyclist or runner, 6 workouts in a week is pretty good so, yes, in that case, weights would be a good idea.

At November 13, 2007 7:13 PM , Anonymous びっくり said...

Very well worded post. I just wanted to point out something missing from your "3 most basic predictors of success in endurance sports": will power.

Something like 90 percent of the athletes to DNF a marathon don't do so for medical reasons. People stop because they don't 'believe' they can finish. So, I would say this confidence is the most important.

I understand that your article is just covering the physical training issues, so I'm not trying to bait you or call you out. Again, well thought out and well written post.

At November 14, 2007 7:51 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joe: Thanks for your article. Have you given any thought on how to log Training Stress Scores(TSS) or Intesity Factor (TF) in Cycling peaks WKO+ for strength training days. I don't think "Zero" TSS scores are correct as the days are not rest days. I'm interested in your thoughts.

At November 14, 2007 3:05 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Anon-Yes, I have thought about this. All I've done with it so far, though, is use RPE + duration to estimate a TSS for strength training. This will take a lot of head scratching to be more precise.

At November 25, 2007 10:03 PM , Blogger Bruno said...

Joe, do you see a difference in weight training for various triathlon distances? Would the benefits be different for an ironman athlete compared to an Olympic age grouper?


At November 27, 2007 7:11 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

bruno--This would cretainly play a role in setting up a strength program. Many individual factors would play a significant role in how and program, whether strength or sport-specific, would be designed.

At December 14, 2007 12:06 PM , Blogger Rick said...

Joe, I'm a TP-ATP subscriber and working to build my 2008 plan. This is a question similar to an earlier one regarding number of workouts weekly.

If I am unable to schedule the recommended workouts of 3 swim, 3 bike, 3 run, 2 strength, am I better off with a 3, 2, 2, 2 schedule or a 3, 3, 3, 0 schedule?

I am 54, beginning my third season, consider myself to have lots of potential for improvement, focus on Olympic distance and finish large races (e.g. Chicago) in the 10-15%-ile of competitors.

Many thanks for your response.

At December 14, 2007 12:34 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Rick--Given a limited amount of time to train you will generally get a greater performance benefit if you focus on SBR and leave out weight training. The exception might be if you are quite weak, especially in the legs. But even then I'd suggest weights only through Base 1 and then start hill work to maintain your gains without lifting beginning in Base 2.

At February 19, 2008 4:58 AM , Blogger Bahzob said...

Hi, I am a 49 years old biker and following the advice in the Cycling Bible incorporate a strength program into my training plan. Thus far I am completely sold on the benefits of doing so. Apart from any cycling benefits I just feel sharper and overall more fit since doing weights.

I am now starting to up my cycling hours but still want to do strength maintenance sessions throughout the season.

Which brings me to a question. Thus far I have scheduled one hour or so strength sessions in the evening where I run through all my drills. With my schedule now it would suit me to break this hour up and do 3x20minutes on various mornings. I was thinking of each 20 minutes focusing on a different area each sesson e.g. Mon:legs/Wed:core/Fri:upper body. Is there any disadvantage to doing this?

At February 19, 2008 1:29 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

bahzob--The only downside if I am reading what you are saying correctly is that you will only work one movement/muscle group once a week. If you are in strength maintenance that is OK. But to build greater strength you will need more than once weekly.

At January 21, 2010 9:09 AM , Blogger Chris said...

Hi Joe,

How do you feel about "metabolic" or functional circuit-type weight training during early base period? Obviously performing several intense exercises in a row places a higher stress on one's system (mostly anaerobic, I assume?), but at the same time this is a very effective way to drop excess lbs and gain functional strength. Will incorporating these types of routines 2-3x weekly have a detrimental effect on building aerobic endurance via cycling/running workouts?


At January 21, 2010 10:47 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Chris--In prep and base 1 the focus is on general anatomical adaptation. Anything you can do to boost general fitness then, so long as it is specific to your limiters (such as body weight for ex), is good. After that (Base 2 etc) training needs to start moving toward greater specofocity to your sport.


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