The Paradox of Endurance Sport Training: Why these athletes need to lift heavy by Christopher Connelly


[Christopher Connelly earned his Masters Degree in Exercise Science and Nutrition from Sacred Heart University where he competed for the D-I Track & Field / Cross Country team. Chris completed the coaching mentorship program at Athletic Lab]

In all sports whether a team sport, individual sport, endurance sport, etc, there is always a balance between general and sport specific training. General training is as simple as it sounds. This would be weight room or conditioning work that is meant to help gain strength, power, speed, and improve aerobic or anaerobic capacity. For team sports, this would be their resistance training including traditional lifts (squats, deadlifts, presses, pulls), Olympic lifts, and plyometric drills. This would also be their running and sprint work that does not include sport specific movements such as quick decelerations, changes of direction, or time with any equipment used in the sport (ball, stick, bat, etc.) This is meant to train general function that can help support sport specific training.

Sport specific training is anything that has aspects of the sport or aims to simulate the same demands as the sport. For example, in team sports most of the sport specific training comes from their team practices. They work on aspects of the sport by doing drills and activities that look to simulate game situations or even work on tactics that may take place in a game. These sports can also spend some of their time in the weight room doing exercises that work on similar muscular or movement pattern demands as their sport. This is meant to help the transfer of skills to sport performance but can in cases increase injury risk or lead to dysfunction.

This is why there needs to be a balance between the two sides of training. Too much sport specific training and athletes run the risk of injuries and dysfunction. Too much general training and they run the risk of spending time and adding fatigue without significant benefit to sport performance.

Endurance sports such as running, cycling, swimming, and any combination of these are a unique example of how this balance between general and specific training can be hard to maintain. In the case of team sports, practices can contain general conditioning such as running or sprint drills that can help improve aerobic/anaerobic capacity without doing anything sport related. This is never the case in sports such as running, cycling, and swimming because whether it’s a lower intensity or higher intensity day, the mode of the exercise is always the sport. Runners are always running during a practice and the same goes for cyclists and swimmers. This is the paradox; their training is always sport specific even if it’s a simple recovery day. This is one reason why these are so many overuse injuries and problems with dysfunction.

So how can these athletes get the general function training that they are so desperately missing out on? This is where strength training comes in for these athletes. Some people may say that they, or their athletes regularly strength train so “what’s your point?” In the endurance training world, there has always been the belief that strength training shouldn’t been “too heavy”. This is why in recent years they have really bought into the wave of “functional training”. But what this leads to is the majority of these athletes doing a lot of corrective exercises and movements that can help postural stability, but don’t push their neural thresholds. This type of resistance training is still important and should be a part of every endurance athlete’s training program, but it can’t be the only thing they do in the gym.

Most endurances coaches would hesitate or disagree with this next point but for most endurance athletes, this could be the key to their next jump in performance. Endurance athletes need to do heavy lifting! This has always been the opposite of what endurance coaches have believed or wanted for their athletes and for more than it seems, this is still the case. Whether it’s because they don’t trust the athletes or think they will be injured, the idea of heavy lifting for these athletes is usually not a popular one. But more and more the research points towards heavy lifting leading to significant benefits for these athletes, with practically no downside.

In an extensive review paper from Rønnestad and Mujika (2013) went into depth on the effects of heavy strength training and explosive strength training on running and cycling performance. They looked at many different factors that influence running and cycling performance and how they are affected by these modes of strength training. The findings of this study are in the table below (Table 1). Their paper looked at many different studies that investigated this topic, showing that the research is very supportive for heavy strength training to improve endurance sport performance.

One big takeaway is that heavy lifting and explosive strength training can actually improve exercise economy over time. Other reviews have found similar benefits (Alcaraz-Ibañez and Rodríguez-Pérez, 2017, Berryman et al, 2017).  Some may argue that acute bouts of heavy lifting will lower exercise economy, thus athletes inexperienced with resistance training and athletes first starting this type of program will be worse off. Unless the volume or intensity is too high for the athlete then this shouldn’t be the case. There is research that investigates the acute effects of resistance training on collegiate level runners and found that if there is any effect on running economy, it returns to baseline by 24 hours post resistance training bout (Marcello et al, 2016). There are studies that report changes in motor control with increases in max strength than can contribute to improved movement economy. They also report that improvements in anaerobic capacities through heavy strength training can lead to improvements in economy in endurance activities (Østeras et al, 2002, Stone et al, 2006). Vikmoen et al (2017) states that these improvements in economy may not be from added benefits rather than counteracted negative effects leading to a positive change.

Although the research strongly supports heavy lifting for endurance athletes, many people still aren’t ready to trust it. The research shows us how heavy lifting can improve certain factors that are linked to improved performance. Hopefully these following points can show how heavy lifting improves the mechanisms behind how these factors improve our performance.

First off, of course these athletes mostly can’t jump straight into max load lifting because it is the opposite of what they are used to. This lifting will have to be programed with an appropriate starting point, gradually progressed and integrated with their endurance training. But when done appropriately, this can provide the high neural threshold, big motor unit stimulus that endurance athlete’s lack. Heavy lifting will allow them to improve motor patterns that they can’t through sport training, leading to more efficient movement and better dynamic stability. Most importantly they will start developing greater rate of force development (RFD). Rate of force development will determine how quickly and powerfully we can produce force and achieve a given task. There can still be exercises that work on unilateral movements and postural/pelvic stability, but they should be programmed around the big hitters that are bilateral and meant to move the most load. These are still an important piece because these work on fine tuning what we build with the big hitters.

Think about this for a second. When athletes are young and developing, the first instinct shouldn’t be to start doing a full spectrum of highly sport specific movements and unilateral work. Coaches should teach them to properly move and recruit muscles to develop motor patterns before they test them with movements that are too intricate. Once they can move well with efficiency, then they can start bringing in more intricate and sport specific movements when appropriate. This should be the same with athletes that show weakness or dysfunction, especially endurance athletes. If they are lacking efficient motor patterns and muscular recruitment, and then stress these deficiencies with exercises that don’t allow them to be efficient, they will most likely run into more problems. The same thing can be said about exercises that require too much guidance from their strength coach. If these athletes can’t show some proficiency and strength in heavier loaded exercises such as a bilateral squat, dead lift, or even pushups and pull ups, this is where their time should be spent until they can perform the exercises well, with load, and with minimal queuing or assistance.

This next point may also bring a lot of hesitation and doubt but let’s think in terms of a CrossFit athlete for a moment. The top CrossFit athletes in the world are the best for one simple reason. They are better than everyone else in terms of maximum strength and power. Their respective max efforts are higher than their competitors so when they are faced with lifting the same weights, it is relatively less intense for them. They spend less energy to do the same work.

This same concept can be used with endurance athletes. If these athletes can train more heavy loaded lifts such as heavy squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifts, different presses and pulls, they can improve their maximum strength and power which in return would make their other resistance training and sport training relatively less intense. Now that their training is at a lower relative intensity, they can train harder without expending any more energy than they were before, without the intensity being too great, and still allowing for optimal recovery. These athletes will develop higher RFD and allow for more efficient force production leading to higher repeatability of muscular efforts and more efficient recovery. One study found higher force production over a lower volume during strength training produced greater strength and particularly RFD gains and greater transfer to endurance performance (Piacentini et al, 2013).

Sometimes strength coaches or sport coaches get too focused on certain factors of training and lose sight of the foundations of athletic performance. Often times with endurance sport, the coaches believe that they should avoid too much resistance training stimulus because they don’t want it to take away from their sport training stimulus. This can lead to the athletes pushing their limits on sport training volume. In many cases, pulling back this volume and supplementing with heavy strength and explosive strength training will lead to much greater benefit than the added sport training volume. The improved general function and motor patterns helps improve the efficiency of the sport training. This is an example of the quality of training being more important than quantity. Substituting strength training (up to 40 %) for endurance work in well-trained endurance athletes may produce greater gains in strength and endurance characteristics as a result of better fatigue management (Mikkola et al, 2007, Skovgaard et al, 2014).

With this said, these results can only be obtained if the endurance sport training and strength training programs are integrated and treated as one program. This is what will allow for appropriate fatigue management and program progression (Bazyler et al, 2015).  If the two sides of the training are not meshed together or the sport and strength coaches do not communicate, then both sides of the training may feel negatives impacts.

To bring it all together, endurance athletes are at a risk that team sport athletes are not at. Endurance sport training is inherently always highly sport specific because when they practice or train, it is always the mode at which they compete. A great way for them to combat this problem is to use heavy resistance training as their general function stimulus. This gives them the huge benefit of improving maximal and explosive strength which when you are an endurance athlete at a lower body weight, is usually hard to come by. Through training lifts such as heavy squats, dead lifts, Olympic lifts, and other presses and pulls, they will also improve their performance in their other resistance training exercises. This may include more sport specific movements, unilateral movements, hip/trunk stability work, or even plyometric work. Improving plyometric exercise performance will add more of a power and RFD benefit which can also be achieved through Olympic lifts and faster velocity lifting. When introducing a resistance training program to any athlete, it should have an appropriate starting point and be gradually progressed as they acclimate to the loading and demands of the exercises. It should also be integrated into the endurance sport program to ensure the programs work together and not against one another. If done appropriately, endurance athletes will gain benefits that not only directly improve performance, but also help the efficiency of their sport training, to further increase sport performance.


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