Feel fit, improve performance, and save yourself some frigid training during the cold months.
Ah, strength training. The nemesis of endurance athletes everywhere. While some of us wrangle with the subtle underlying stress of neglected strength training over the last month (or two or three), others of us walk ourselves into denial, telling ourselves that we don’t even need to worry about doing strength training as endurance athletes. After all, we say, we already put so much time and energy into our training. Why would we need more?
No matter which category you fall into, I greet you with empathy. Old habits die hard, and even for the disciplined endurance athlete, it takes conscious effort to develop new habits like doing strength training once or twice a week. No doubt, I’ve had my own struggles with giving strength training the priority it warrants.
But it seems to me that a lot of the challenge in making strength training part of our routine stems from uncertainty; what are we losing by neglecting strength? Lifting heavy weights, at face value, doesn’t seem particularly translatable to running miles through the mountains.
If you’ve struggled to create a strength training habit because you’re not sure what you stand to gain from it, this article is for you. Here are 9 powerful reasons why you should integrate strength into your routine today and make it a habit for the long term.
1. Strength is essential for all-around health.
Running aside, most athletes are interested in being healthy people. In fact, it’s often what draws us into endurance sports in the first place. Strength training initiates adaptations in the body that are distinct from those produced by endurance training. One study showed significantly elevated levels of testosterone and human growth hormone in male athletes in the post-exercise period for strength training. The same study also showed increased blood sugar controlling factors in the post-exercise period for both men and women. It’s also known that, without strength training, muscle mass is lost as we age. Consistent strength training ensures we’re able to remain healthy and active later in life.
2. Strength is essential to performing your best as an endurance athlete.
Something that’s often lost in conversation about endurance training is that endurance itself is a metabolic quality. Metabolism– our ability to produce energy– is only half the picture. The other half is that we need strong muscles to translate energy into forward motion and to handle the impact of each foot strike*. A high metabolism won’t make you any faster if your leg is too weak to propel you forward.
*Another way to think about it is this: a strong muscle can burn a lot of energy quickly, and a weak muscle burns energy more slowly. In some ways, the faster we are able to use energy, the better we can perform. For a full discussion on how this works, check out my post on the metabolic basis of endurance.
"Consistent strength training ensures we’re able to remain healthy and active later in life."
3. Strength is a skill, connecting the mind to the body.
Strength training connects the mind to the body. When we lift a heavy weight, we force hundreds of thousands of muscle fibers to fire all at once. Endurance exercise doesn’t utilize all your muscle fibers, and by strength training and building that brain-to-muscle connection (called neuromuscular activation), you’re more easily able to activate the muscle you already have in endurance exercise. As a result, you stand to either perform better or feel more comfortable at a given speed.
4. Get stronger without gaining weight.
One of the most often cited reasons endurance athletes give for not strength training is that they don’t want to bulk up; adding muscle weight to their body, athletes think, will slow them down since they have more weight to carry around with them. In general, the opposite is actually true. Most endurance athletes will not gain substantial weight by adding strength training to their regimen unless they are also significantly increasing their calorie consumption. Without a net-positive calorie intake, athletes that do both endurance and strength training stand to improve lean body mass, either maintaining muscle mass while eliminating fat mass (leading to some weight loss), or increasing muscle mass while reducing fat mass (weight stable). There is a common term for this– “strength-to-weight ratio”-- which is highly advantageous for endurance athletes.
5. Improved running economy.
Researchers have observed that runners who strength train are able to more efficiently translate the oxygen they absorb (through breathing) into speed. At the very least, athletes may feel their effort is lower during comparable efforts, as a result of improving their running economy. The benefits of improving running economy could also include running faster and with less effort over a similar distance.*
* Running economy is a bit of an enigma in the sport. What is known is that the quality of running economy indeed benefits performance, and that strength training has clearly been shown to improve economy. What remains unclear is the mechanism: exactly why does strength training improve running economy?
6. Reduced injury risk.
The bane of an endurance athlete’s existence is overuse injury. As many as 80% of runners report experiencing an overuse injury at some point in their training.
Overuse injuries most commonly occur in tendons and ligaments: tissues that don’t heal and adapt as quickly to training as muscle does. Injury to these tissues is often the result of mechanical issues with running technique. By including strength training in our training routine, we help address both issues: we build greater durability of tendons and ligaments, developing a trait known as tissue tolerance, and also address muscle imbalances that can help improve our running mechanics.
"By including strength training in our training routine, we help address both issues: we build greater durability of tendons and ligaments, and also address muscle imbalances that can help improve our running mechanics."
7. A way to stay consistent and improve when other challenges arise.
Most athletes have some pretty foundational reasons for training, whether it be to maintain their general wellness or to engage in the practice of consistent self-improvement. When we are faced with an injury, one of the most challenging parts of dealing with the issue is that it breaks our routine of training, as rest might be required for an injury to heal.
Strength training is more easily isolated to specific parts of the body, meaning that even as we rest our injured leg, we’re still able to train our core, back, and other parts of the upper body. We’re able to maintain a routine of training even when faced with unanticipated challenges.
8. It doesn’t take very much time (unless you want it to).
Another commonly cited reason endurance athletes neglect strength training is time. Endurance training already takes up a lot of our time and energy, so many of us don’t know how and where to fit additional strength training into the schedule.
First, endurance training should never take up every minute of training time you have in your schedule. If it does, we’re better off reducing that training time by 15-60 minutes a week to make time for strength work.
Second, strength training doesn’t need to be a huge time and energy commitment for endurance athletes. As endurance athletes, we’re mostly concerned with our ability to move our own weight efficiently in long events, so a lot of the strength training that supports this goal can be done with bodyweight only, allowing us to do strength training at home in chunks as small as 1 to 5 minutes. Got 5 minutes left of your lunch break? Try 3 sets of split jump squats. Only 60 seconds between video calls? Perfect for a quick wall sit. Some is always better than none.
9. It’s winter (in the Northern Hemisphere anyway).
Welcome to the cold months! Whether we’re facing icy sidewalks, frigid cold, or fleeting daylight, training in the winter is an added challenge for many of us, forcing us to call on a little bit of extra grit to go out and face the elements for our run*. It’s a time when working out in the comfort of your home, or at a nice climate controlled gym can be a welcome relief. Strength training lends itself to these environments well. Build up some extra strength now so that when the weather turns and the days get longer, you can prioritize time spent outside!
*If you’re like me and you enjoy skiing away the winter, even better! There’s a lot of benefit to changing sport focuses slightly, throughout the year, as it tends to help shore up imbalances and reduce the risk of burnout. Regardless, make sure to keep strength training in your regimen!
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