Can training with weights and other resistance training improve endurance performance? Like a happily married couple weights and endurance training appear to be two halves of a perfect sports conditioning marriage. However, like any good relationship there’s going to be the odd conflict and element of discord.
We did a bit of snooping around and looked into whether these two opposites really do attract?Let’s begin with the assumption that weight training benefits endurance athletes, by focussing on the sport of rowing. Rowing requires an anaerobic contribution of about 30% for the 2k Olympic race distance.
Consequentially rowers train their anaerobic system with high-intensity, short duration 30 sec to five-minute intervals with very short, often 1:1 recoveries, for example.These workouts target all muscle fibre types, but specifically recruit the fast twitch variety – these contribute much of the power required for these turbocharged efforts.RELATED: RECOMMENDED PLANS FOR YOU
Logic might say that weight training these fast twitch fibres will be beneficial, especially if we consider that the 2k rowing race is completed in around six minutes – with somewhere between 200 and 240 plus strokes – this is an amount of ‘repetitions’ that could easily be repped out in a standard power weight training session comprising of 4×10 repetitions on six exercises at 70-80% of 1 rep maximum.
However, logic does not always apply and this type of weight training (nor indeed other types) may actually have little direct benefit to rowers in terms of improving their endurance. Researchers looked at the effects of three different weight training programmes on 18 varsity rowers during their winter training (1).
One group performed 18-22 high-velocity, low-resistance repetitions, and another lowvelocity, high-resistance repetitions (6-8 reps). All exercises were rowing-specific and were performed on variable-resistance hydraulic equipment four times a week for five weeks.
“Like a happily married couple weights and endurance training appear to be two halves of a perfect sports conditioning marriage…”
A third group did no resistance training at all. All groups performed their normal endurance rowing training. So what happened? When tested on a rowing machine the researchers found no difference between any of the groups in terms of peak power output or peak lactate levels (lactate, is present in the body at all times and it’s levels increase the more intensely exercise is performed).
So weight training had no performance benefits. Ohio researchers came up with similar results(2). Their elite male weight-training rowers displayed no increase in VO2 max, when compared to a rowing only group, who improved their VO2 max by up to 16% during pre-season training (VO2 max is a measure of maximal oxygen uptake).
Before we start to consider some possible reasons, let’s take a look at some more research, this time from a different sport – swimming (3). Twenty-four experienced swimmers were surveyed over 14 weeks of their competitive season. They were divided into two groups of 12 and matched for stroke specialism and performance.
One group performed weights three days a week, on alternate days for eight weeks whilst the other group did none. Exercises were selected for their swimming specificity – both fixed and free weights were used. The swimmers performed three sets of 8-12 repetitions on: lat pull downs, elbow extensions, bent arm flyes, dips and chin-ups.
The weights were progressively increased over the duration of the training period. Two weeks away from their major competition a tapering period was implemented. So what was discovered? As with the rowing studies, it was found that weight training did not improve swim performance, despite the fact that those swimmers who combined resistance and swim training increased their strength by 25-35%.
So, our weight training and endurance couple, seems to be buckling under the pressure of increased scrutiny, despite putting on a brave public face that says that they are work well together. It looks like divorce could be on the cards, especially after a certain Mr Paavolainian is called to the witness stand.
Paavolainian and his researchers considered the effects of weight training and other power training methods on the performance of X-Country skiers(4). Would pumping iron equate to improved polling? Seven skiers performed explosive strength training, as well as plyometrics (jumping exercises) – weight training wise they performed 80% of 1 RM squats regularly.
Another eight of their peers performed three weeks of endurance based, high repetition strength training for the legs and arms. At the end of the survey no difference in VO2max or other measures of endurance performance were discovered. It seems then for ‘Mr Resistance Training’ and ‘Mrs Endurance Training’ that the divorce papers might well need to be served.
However, perhaps there are mitigating circumstances? Considering the swimming research – weight training was introduced into the competitive phase of the swimmers, perhaps not the best time to do so. It’s actually possible that their performances could have been impaired by the added training load, rather than improved by it.
For the rowers’ performance to stay the same, may now not sound as bad as it first did. Paavolainian got one group of his skiers to perform very dynamic exercises and admitted that their ability to express peak power improved accordingly, but what good is this to a X- Country skier who requires one of the most highly developed aerobic systems of any athlete?
Ok, the strength endurance group also showed no positive benefit, but perhaps they were doing the wrong weight training – more on this later. Sports scientists have argued that maximum strength is of little importance to sports with a maximum strength requirement of less than 30%(5). The rowing findings are more difficult to deal with, but there is a possible answer.
It’s argued that when an endurance athlete reaches a certain level of performance strength – which can be developed through their normal CV training or with weight training (or other resistance training) – that further improvements in weights based strength will not create further improvements in sports performance.
As the rowers in the studies were high level performers it could be argued that this explained the outcomes i.e. as they already had more than enough ‘performance’ strength, developed over years and years of correctly executed rowing.
The disintegration of the happy union
Trying to make further sense of the seeming disintegration of the happy union, further research offers a very succinct explanation as to why weight training and endurance training could be the wrong bed-fellows(6).‘Some of the most important and influential factors that result from physical conditioning occur at the cellular level in the muscles, that is, the majority of training effects are peripheral.
The number and size of mitochondria (cellular powerplants), the amounts of energy producing chemicals that are stored, and the concentrations of key enzymes associated with particular energy systems are increased. Training is specific and selective of the types of muscle fibres used.
That selectivity will determine the nature of training effects and the type of performance that is improved.’ Basically it’s being argued that training different energy systems at the same time can produce a confused physiological state.
To further clarify: how can fast twitch type muscle fibre be expected to gain in its size and power generating capacity through being weight trained, if it is being relentlessly bombarded in the same training phase, perhaps workout, by extensive long slow distance work or intense interval training, that as well as bolstering its slow twitch counterparts, will ‘slow’ fast twitch fibre – basically a state of physiological confusion results.
Is there really any benefit to weight training if you are an endurance athlete?
“If you’re a X-Country skier, or marathon runner, then weight training to improve your performance may not be directly relevant”
All this leads us to the million-dollar question, is there any real benefit to be had from weight training if you are an endurance athlete as a direct performance enhancer? First, you need to look at the specific strength requirements of your sport.
If you’re a X-Country skier, or marathon runner, then weight training to improve your performance may not be directly relevant, as a session cannot really be constructed in the gym that replicates what you’ll go through in a race.
However, weights and other resistance training can still be important: a marathon runner should expect to improve their performance by improving their foot strike, through plyometric and running drills and perhaps more specific weights exercises like the split squat and lunge.It’s vital that the marathon runner, and all other similar endurance athletes construct a training programme that channels their resistance training gains into actual performance.
Tips to use the right weight /resistance training for your sport
Circuit resistance train Choose a weight training system that develop as close as possible the physiological and neuromuscular responses/patterns produced/required by your endurance sport. As an example, circuit resistance training is a great option for the endurance athlete.
It targets slow twitch muscle fibre and can develop VO2 max and improve lactate threshold (the point when your body switches to producing more of its energy anaerobically, as opposed to aerobically). Use a weight at 50-60% of 1RM and multipe reps and sets with little recovery, for example 5 x 30 (on 6 exercises). Training this way appears less likely to interfere with the development of enhanced endurance capacity.
Consider the order and recovery aspects of your training You also need to very carefully consider the training variables of ‘order’ and ‘recovery’, when combining endurance and CV training. Maximise your recovery time between the two methods in your workout schedules and perhaps even consider weight training your legs in a separate specific workout or even in independent training phases – see next.
More research – researchers looked at the effects of weight training on aerobic/anaerobic CV performance(7). Sixteen male college athletes experienced with strength training, submaximal aerobic training and high intensity anaerobic interval training took part in a study to see whether the type and intensity of aerobic training affected concurrent strength training after four, eight and 24 hours’ recovery.
One group performed steadystate CV work at 70% of maximum heart rate and another 95-100% MHR intervals with 40% MHR recoveries. Both then performed 1RM maximum strength testing on bench press and leg press. It was discovered that for both the steady-state and the interval training groups that strength training gains were compromised by the endurance work, unless adequate rest was allowed.
Predictably the participants’ leg muscles were negatively affected by their aerobic training, as measured by the leg press, although bench press performance was not. In consequence the researchers recommended that, 1) at least eight hours be allowed between aerobic training and strength training, and 2) if both workouts have to be performed on the same day and that lower body strength training should be performed on a different day to any aerobic training.
Develop strength in a specific training cycle Further developing the planning theme – you could consider the possible benefits of developing strength in a specific training cycle distinct from your endurance training, particularly at the beginning of the training year. This can prevent physiological confusion and provide you with the best conditions to develop stronger, fatigue resistant muscles.
Periodic returns to weight training could then be used to ‘top-up’ strength levels. Under these conditions a Canadian study of rowers discovered that a group that strength trained for five weeks before five weeks of endurance training phases profited from a 16% increase in VO2 max and 27% improvement in lactate tolerance after the 10-week programme.
A group that trained in the reverse order only gained a 7% increase in VO2max and displayed no improvements in lactate tolerance (8). The explanation? It’s argued that the strength before endurance group gained ‘quality rowing muscle’, without compromise and were able to use it to row harder and faster with greater fatigue resistance when they endurance trained.
Working out for weight training gains alone, may have enabled them to push beyond their ‘normal’ previously conditioned rowing power levels and give their fast twitch fibres time to adapt.
Weight train to avoid injury
Finally, if you are an endurance athlete you should use weight training (and other resistance methods) to avoid injury – it’s pretty much undisputed that doing this will provide you with insurance against injury, by strengthening soft tissue (ligaments, tendons and muscles). Our ‘Marathon Hero’ training plan strongly advocates the inclusion of strength sessions for this very reason.