Strength train for better and faster endurance performance. If you run, swim, row, or cycle, perform heavy strength training to get faster and prevent muscular atrophy.
A new study in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that in experienced endurance athletes, strength training adaptations are reduced because the endurance exercise has a contradictory effect that blunts the physiological benefits typically associated with strength training. The following important findings came out of this study, confirming previous evidence:
• Endurance athletes will not gain body mass or achieve any significant muscle size increases from strength training. They need not be reluctant to include heavy lifting in their programs.
• If your goal is to gain muscle mass, do not do endurance training, especially intense, high volume training. Hypertrophy and strength gains will be significantly blunted if you do endurance exercise.
• Everyone will benefit from heavy strength training: endurance athletes will get stronger and faster, and recreational athletes can get stronger, bigger, and faster.
This study compared the effect of a periodized 12-week strength training program on strength and hypertrophic adaptations in a group of elite cyclists with no strength training experience and a group of recreational athletes without strength training experience. The cyclists did their regular cycling training along with the lifting program, and the recreational athletes only performed strength training and were not permitted to do any endurance exercise.
Body composition, weight, height, and dietary intake were comparable at baseline. The strength training program was for the lower body only and followed a typical periodized program in which participants lifted loads ranging from 4 to 10RM. They used a varied tempo in which the concentric phase was either 1 second or explosive and the eccentric phase was 2 to 3 seconds.
Results showed that the recreational group gained much more strength, power, and muscle than the cyclists. The recreational group increased 1RM strength by 35 percent compared to 25 percent in the cyclists. The recreational group increased squat jump and rate of force development by nearly 15 percent, whereas the cyclists made no gains, confirming that endurance training blunts power output. Endurance training is thought to decrease the athletes ability to produce high force during low muscle shortening velocities. Lack of adaptations in rapid neural activation, or ability to recruit high-threshold motor units quickly, is a contributing factor.
Hypertrophy was measured by cross sectional area (CSA) in the quadriceps. The recreational group increased the CSA of the quad by 8 percent, which was evident in body mass gains. Interestingly, the cyclists had no increase in body mass but they did increase CSA by 4 percent indicating minimal hypertrophy. Because the total muscle gained was minor and there was no increase in body mass, researchers state the endurance training impairs the hypertrophic response. This impaired response has been seen in at least five other studies of elite endurance athletes.
It is noted that it might be possible for endurance athletes to gain muscle with concurrent training if they were to supplement the diet with more protein and create a positive energy balance. Dietary analysis showed that although the cyclists ate significant calories and protein (108 grams a day), they didn’t increase either or take any extra amino acids or supplements during the strength training program. Possibly boosting BCAA, high-quality protein, and carb intake would provide a better anabolic environment for endurance athletes who want to gain muscle.
Take away from this study the awareness that your training program must match your goals. If you are an endurance athlete and you want to get faster but don’t want to gain mass, perform heavy strength training—you’ll prevent muscle atrophy and gain strength and speed.
If you also want to gain muscle and burn fat, plan your diet to increase amino acid intake. If your goal is strictly muscle and strength building, don’t do endurance training at all.
To read more about strength training for endurance athletes, read Ten Reasons Runners Should Include Weight Training.
Ronnestad, B., Hansen, E., et al. High Volume of Endurance Training Impairs Adaptations to 12 Weeks of Strength Training in Well-Trained Athletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2012. 112, 1457-1466.