Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

Ask 10 different endurance athletes if strength training is important and if they incorporate it into their overall training and you’re likely to get many different responses. Answers will vary from “very important” and others will tell you that strength training has no role in endurance sports, or “I have no time”. Let’s look at the research pertaining to strength training and running…

One concept that we have to understand before we delve into the research is that of “running economy”, or RE. RE is basically how fuel efficient you are. It’s the same as a car – if your tires aren’t properly inflated, if your engine needs serviced, if you’re driving too fast or if you’re driving a heavy vehicle, you will use more fuel to get where you’re going. In running, we can look at the amount of oxygen you consume per minute and see how that varies when you run at various speeds. The amount of oxygen you need to take in at a given speed is your running economy. In other words, if you need to consume X liters of oxygen per minute to run at 8 minutes per mile and then you do a different type of training for 4 weeks and retest your RE and now you need less liters of oxygen per minute to run at 8 min/mile, it would mean you are now running more efficiently and should be able to run further at that pace, or faster without working harder.

A study in 2008 took a group of runners and had them perform half-squats: 4 sets X 4 reps 3X/week X 8 weeks in addition to their normal endurance training . They found that the RE improved 5% and time to exhaustion at max aerobic speed improved 21%.(1)

There are many more studies like that one, but I’m not about to list every one of them. The point is: strength training improves running economy. The next question is usually “how many reps do I do?” A 2009 study took runners and split them into two groups: one group did lighter weight and high reps (3 sets of 12 reps) and the other group did heavy weight and lower reps (3 sets of 6 reps). Both groups continued with the same running schedule and all the strength exercises were the same (leg press, parallel squat, leg extensions, leg flexions and calf raises). The only difference was the amount of resistance and the number of reps. In the end, “there was a significant improvement in RE in the high weight/low rep group (6.2% improvement), but not the low weight/high rep group (only 1.9% improvement). (2)

No time to add strength training you say? Let’s look at a study that replaced 32% of the training time with explosive strength training. Over a 9 week period, the runners had their RE improve by 5% and their 5K time improve by an average of 3.8% – that’s over a minute if you’re a 9 minute miler!(3)

In the interest of brevity, we’ll end this article here, however, there’s much more benefits of strength training including injury prevention and hormonal responses. Should you have any questions regarding this article, please email us at contact@activespineandsport.

1. Storen et al., Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Jun;40(6):1087-92
2. Guglielmo et al., Int J Sports Med. 2009 Jan;30(1):27-32
3. Paavolainen1 et al., J Appl Physiol 86: 1527-1533, 1999