Does endurance running while concurrently strength training help or hinder athletic performance?
If you’re a runner, you’ve no doubt heard it before: strength training will make you a better runner. But is that still the case when you move into endurance running? After all, you’re likely already contributing a lot of time to putting miles in during training, so how can you possibly fit in multiple strength training sessions as well?
Can an endurance runner efficiently incorporate strength training into their training regimen and will it be beneficial? What happens to a runner who does incorporate some sort of strength and conditioning program compared to ones who do not? What is the purpose of strength training for an endurance runner and how can it be incorporated effectively to enhance your training without chancing the risk of over training?
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN STRENGTH TRAINING IS COMBINED WITH A RUNNING PLAN?
Let’s start by evaluating the true definition of strength training, which according to the Medical Dictionary (2012), is: “a period of training in which high levels of volume (weight resistance) with minimal rest periods resulting in muscular hypertrophy.”
The term resistance training is also associated with strength training: “Repetitive exercises in which the contraction of a muscle is opposed by an applied force or weight. It is used to develop muscle size, strength, and endurance.” (Medical Dictionary, 2012).
Pondering over these definitions alone might make you agree that, yes, you want all of this! But, does the data back up the notion that it’s beneficial, or provide information on what happens to runners when they incorporate strength training?
Well, over the course of a research project conducted by Carl D. Paton & Will G. Hopkins (2004), where 22 relevant training studies were analyzed, it was determined “that explosive resistance training increased body mass by ~1%, presumably via an increase in muscle mass.Any direct harmful effects of this increase in mass on performance were inconsequential….”
In another study that specifically looks at strength training for endurance runners, the authors conclude: “the findings of this study show that both maximal and explosive strength training performed concurrently withendurance training are more effective in improving strength, power and muscular activation in recreational endurance runners than concurrent circuit and endurance training.” (Taipale et al., 2010).
Further, it was also determined that “Improvements in strength, power, and muscle activation during the preparatory and strength training intervention periods appears to have contributed to enhanced endurance performance by improving vVO2max and RE. ” (Taipale et al., 2010).
So the purpose of incorporating a proper strength training program alongside a running plan is to gain ~1% of weight (mainly in muscle), get stronger, and improve running economy.
DOES AN ENDURANCE RUNNER BENEFIT FROM CONCURRENTLY STRENGTH TRAINING?
The topic of benefits has to be on top of the list of any athlete. Will you benefit from such programming? If there is no benefit, then why even bother? These questions, of course, make all the sense in the world, and every athlete should be asking them regardless of their choice of sport. What doesn’t make sense is to do any training that is NOT beneficial to your goals.
There have been numerous studies that have looked at strength training and endurance training to see how they correlate. For the purpose of this article, we looked specifically at studies using runners and how strength training affects their outcomes.
In a 2016 study, their findings demonstrate that there are indeed clear benefits an endurance runner might realize during the course of their training when incorporating at least one strength training session per week.
Worse though, is that an endurance runner’s reactive strength can be negatively impacted when there is a lack of strength training at all. The timing is unfortunate as well, as this same study concludes that a runner’s reactive strength tends to diminish throughout the race season. This would appear to suggest that by not incorporating strength training at all, an endurance runner may unknowingly be performing below their true potential.
The same 2016 study had this to say: “In fact, the intervention group in this study were able to improve reactive strength by a further 6.8% with only 1 session per week, while maintaining maximal strength. This study showed that in distance runners who do not perform strength training, reactive strength can deteriorate by 7.9% throughout the racing season period.” (Beattie et al., 2016).
That is quite the finding! Albeit this finding discusses incorporating strength training just once per week — imagine the potential should an endurance runner incorporate a properly periodized program with strength training included more than once per week.
Numerous other benefits were found to have made a positive impact to an endurance runner’s overall performance — both in training and racing.
“The combination of improved running mechanics, neuromuscular efficiency, and strength may result in a decrease in oxygen consumption, thereby improving running economy and ultimately performance. Indeed, the combination of HRT and plyometric training may facilitate additional improvements in running economy via accumulation of adaptations previously observed when either type of training is performed alone.” (Barnes et al., 2013).
It’s undisputed that adaptations can be made to promote peak performance in sports-specific training. Now, the research begins to demonstrate the true potential that can be reached in a singular sport such as endurance running. Having a more efficient running economy comes not just from run training, but from a variety of adaptations that are only achieved through strength and resistance training. Even better, incorporating plyometrics (speed, agility, and quickness training), may give a runner improvements to their running economy that are not capable of being realized otherwise.
While the Barnes et al. (2013), study elaborated upon the concept, this notion was previously confirmed in a 2008 study: “Time to exhaustion at pretest MAS increased by 72s or 21.3%.” The study continued: “…the only logical explanation for the improvement in RE (Running Economy) and thus in time to exhaustion at pretest MAS (maximal aerobic speed) is the MST (Maximal Strength Training) performed during the intervention.” (Støren et al., 2008).
So, yes, there are numerous benefits in participating in the concurrent training of both strength and endurance. Running economy improves, muscle is maintained, and you can essentially extend your levels of exhaustion to points beyond prior capabilities. This would suggest that there is a definite advantage for an endurance runner to do both.
“In the majority of athletic scenarios, maximal dynamic strength is of greater importance than static strength, and therefore likely to be more meaningful to the athlete and practitioner.” (Eddens et al., 2018).
HOW DO YOU INCORPORATE STRENGTH TRAINING INTO ALREADY EXISTING TRAINING?
First and foremost, consider hiring professionals if you haven’t already. Utilize a CSCS coach (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist). I’m a running coach, but I’m not a certified personal trainer or strength coach, a nutritionist, or certified in anything other than running. If I want to learn to eat better, I should hire a nutritionist. If I want to get stronger and improve my running economy, why wouldn’t I do the same and hire an expert?
Wilson, et al. (2012), concluded in their findings that: “Our data suggest that coaches can incorporate strength training for individuals attempting to primarily increase endurance performance without a fear of interfering with their aerobic capacity.” The key here is without fear of interfering in aerobic capacity. A professional is well versed in how to achieve this result and will plan accordingly for your personal goals, schedule, and capabilities. The more minds working toward your success, the better.
Coaches are also educated in periodization: when to push heavy weights, light weights, take a rest day, push through fatigue, when to incorporate plyometrics and explosive movements, etc. to suit your goals and your athletic seasons (in-season, post-season, offseason, and preseason). Basically, they know when you should do what to achieve the desired end result.
All of this takes time to incorporate consistently into training, but it’s entirely possible. Ferrauti et al. (2010), likewise deduced: “To ensure a better coordinative transfer of strength training effects (adaptation of running technique) and to increase the physiological effects with respect to running economy, a sufﬁcient long strength training period (e.g., 6 months before the marathon or starting already during the basic endurance training period) is recommended for recreational marathon runners. The authors recommend the inclusion of well-structured, periodized strength training programs…”
In the study by Beattie, et al. (2016), titled The Effect of Strength Training on Performance Indicators in Distance Runners, it is suggested that “A general maximal strength–orientated programme during the preseason is an appropriate and efﬁcient method for improving both maximal and reactive strength capabilities in distance runners. This study demonstrated that this structure of strength programming can signiﬁcantly improve economy and vVO2max over a 20-week preseason period.”
The data does indeed suggest that concurrently incorporating both strength and endurance run training can be very beneficial to an endurance runner, potentially even elevating their performance.
Mikkola et al. (2007), reiterate this finding: “The training also led to more economical sport-specific performance. The improvements in neuromuscular characteristics and economy were obtained without a decrease in maximal aerobic capacity, although endurance training was reduced by about 20%.”
Can we become more economical, stronger, and firing on all cylinders while also running less, thereby minimizing impact from running?
If one of the most important things for any athlete — those with little experience to tons of experience — is maximizing time, then incorporating strength training is paramount. If you want to do well and continue to see improvements, regardless of whether you are a professional or an amateur runner, making the most of your training time should be top priority.
When considering incorporating strength training into your weekly regime, understanding what you will benefit most from is critical. Bilateral training, eccentric training and accentuated eccentric loading, and variable resistance training may produce the greatest comprehensive strength adaptations. Bodyweight exercise, isolation exercises, plyometric exercise, unilateral exercise, and kettlebell training may be limited in their potential to improve maximal strength but are still relevant to strength development by challenging time-limited force expression and differentially challenging motor demands. (Suchomel et al., 2018).
An understanding of where you will not benefit it just as crucial. Training to failure may not be necessary to improve maximum muscular strength and is likely not necessary for maximum gains in strength. Indeed, programming that combines heavy and light loads may improve strength and underpin other strength-power characteristics. Multiple sets appear to produce superior training benefits compared to single sets; however, an athlete’s training status and the dose-response relationship must be considered. (Suchomel et al., 2018).
In short, find a coach who knows how to incorporate this into your training, one that asks you what your short-, mid-, and long-term athletic goals are. Ensure that your team of coaches are willing to work together to ultimately help you achieve these goals. Most importantly trust the process and make sure to have FUN!
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