When it comes to endurance sports such as running or triathlon training, most athletes in Singapore know the value of strength training. Yet at the same time, weight training is poorly prioritise in endurance sports.
For most parts, endurance athletes focus largely on their discipline. Marathon runners would almost exclusively run while triathletes would swim, cycle, and run. A handful of these sportsmen may commit some time to stretching.
What if I told you strength training has a massive role for endurance sports? Not just in performance but also injury prevention!
As part of the Online Running Symposium organised by the guys behind Movement Assessment Technologies, I had the pleasure to listen to physiotherapist Trang Nguyen speak on the topic of strength training.
Who is a physiotherapist?
If you are not already aware, physiotherapists are the ultimate archenemy of chiropractors. Essentially we really dislike each other because we compete within in the same market space and we both want to close you as our client/patient.
Kidding. As long as you are evidence based, I will get along with you regardless of your profession.
Physiotherapists are allied health providers. They work within the healthcare system to deliver health goals that are outside of the main scope of practice for a medical doctor.
In private practice, most physiotherapists work in musculoskeletal health – that is muscle and joint pain or injury – and this often include sports injuries.
As in should be clear by now, physiotherapists and chiropractors in private practice do very much operate within the same scope.
Trang is not just a physiotherapist. She is also a strength and conditioning coach as well as an endurance athlete.
Running is not bad for your knees
While research has repeatedly demonstrated that running is not inherently bad for your knees, running itself does come with risks of injury.
Read more about the truth about “wear and tear” in osteoarthritis.
Trang shared that 92.4% of runners will get injured in their training and competing time. Out of which, up to 78% of which are overuse injuries.
The numbers may sound scary but what these numbers are saying is that running is not dangerous. The high risk injury occurs because people train too hard too soon.
It’s essentially a behavioural or understanding issue.
Let’s get this straight. Pain and injury occur because of loads you are not prepared for.
Rather than calling it internal loads vs external loads, which may be confusing to some, I prefer to call it capacity vs loads.
Super, super important to highlight that there are variables that we can’t proactively control for (e.g. age and injury history) and there are also variables that are modifiable (e.g. sleep, trail runs vs road running)!
Modifiable = you can take action to change it today to make a difference tomorrow. Sounds good?
Just think of a marathon training plan, it’s not just about running as much as possible. You’d probably include some short runs or speed training into your workout.
For those who are more interested in the technical aspects of a training program, you may want to look into tempo runs or interval training.
Lastly, it should be important to not that non-physical factors play a role too. We may not think about it much but work stress, relationship problems may also contribute to load.
The cup analogy by Greg Lehman also explains the same concept of load in a different approach.
If you were to keep loading your body (cup), the cup will overflow and it will lead to pain or injury.
To prevent that, endurance athletes have the option to apply good load management principles or to increase the capacity of their cup. You can do increase your capacity or robustness with strength training.
Why should runners strength train?
Of all the presentations I’ve watched so far, Trang resonates the best with me because it’s full of data!
To start Alexander, Barton & Willy (2019) published that strength training can improve running economy, time-trial performance, and maximal sprint speed.
For the exact numbers, we’ll have to look across various papers:
- Increase 1-rep max by 33.2% and rate of force development by 26%
- Increase musculotendinous stiffness (very similar to why heavy slow resistance helps heaps with tendinopathy, tendinitis injuries)
- Improvement across counter movement jump, 5-bound distance test
- Improvement in running economy by 2-8%
- Increase time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic speed (MAS) by 21.3%
- Faster time trial performances by 2-5%
- Faster 10km time trial with LESS mileage if you add sprint and plyometric training (it’s not all in the mileage!)
- NO CHANGE IN BODY COMPOSITION
You hear athletes in Singapore – from amateur to Team Singapore – making comments such as they do not go to the gym because they don’t want to get bigger/more muscular. Here’s the awesome news: you can get better performance, less injuries, and maintain your body composition by going to the gym.
Going to the gym alone doesn’t make you the next Schwarzenegger. It’s about good, sports-specific programming.
- Running myth: strength training should be high repetition low load to improve running performance
- The effect of plyometric training on distance running performance
- Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance
- Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners
- Explosive Training and Heavy Weight Training are Effective for Improving Running Economy in Endurance Athletes
- Effects of intermittent sprint and plyometric training on endurance running performance
- The Effects of a Sport-Specific Maximal Strength and Conditioning Training on Critical Velocity, Anaerobic Running Distance, and 5-km Race Performance
You are welcome.
When in doubt, always seek out a personal trainer or a strength and conditioning coach to help you with writing a good training plan. There’s substantial research to support the value of engaging in cross training, full body workouts.
How to run faster?
By strength training, not just racing in running events.
How often should runners strength train?
Good question. Two to three times per week.
You may also want to consider your overall training load as well as the intent of your training. Are you looking to only to build strength or also to engage in running specific workouts or running conditioning exercises?
When it comes to pre- and post-competition period, you would want to taper strength training down to once a week.
Trang very succinctly pointed out, if you are dropping your training volume, why wouldn’t you do less strength sesh?
How to program strength training?
Again, this is when I highly recommend that you book in with some one who knows what they are talking about to work with them.
As mentioned earlier, twice or thrice a week is ideal. You’d want to keep it going both during the season and off season. The reason is simple: the benefits you get from strength training doesn’t last forever.
Remember, you can expect to lose most of the benefits from as little as six weeks from your last weight training.
There are some coach who would recommend higher repetitions (e.g. 15 repetitions) exercises for a strength workout for endurance athletes. It should be noted that a strength programme typically works around 3 to 5 repetitions.
When it comes to endurance athletes, keeping to a 6 to 8 rep range would likely be more strength-focused compared to a 15-repetition set.
Rest is important. If you are looking at training twice a day, make sure you have at least a three hour break between your gym sessions and your other training sessions.
Needless to say, sufficient nutrition intake will optimise the value you are getting out of these training. Make sure you are having enough carbohydrate and protein intake before and in between sessions.
There’s no hard and fast rule to how you pair your workouts. For most people, it’ll make sense to do get a light run in during strength days. For some of you who are looking to train with pre-fatigue legs, you may choose to do a short heavy lifting session before your run.
Be super careful with this! You still want to apply good load management principles to reduce your risk of injury. Remember, majority of running injuries are due to overtraining! Hint hint: repetitive strain injury.
Does strength training make you bigger?
No. You’d have to be on a hypertrophy program to optimise for muscle mass gains.
If you are unsure of how to program, seek professional help.
What strength training should runners do?
Definitely squat, deadlift, and calf raises are in the list.
Trang specifically highlighted that running is a unilateral limb sport. In the sense that when you run, you are on one leg at any given time. I 100% agree.
So, I’ll say make sure to include one leg squat, deadlift and calf raises.
Why should I strength train since I can just stretch?
Because stretching doesn’t work. There’s so much literature on that right now.
To be premise, stretching doesn’t improve performance (in fact, reduces performance for sprinters) or reduce risk of injury.
When it comes to flexibility, there are way more efficient ways to go around about achieving that than stretching. Strength training being an option.
I have written extensively about stretching so please do read it if you are interested to learn more.
If you are a straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth person, Nuzzo’s commentary on why flexibility should no longer be considered a major component of physical fitness is worth a read.
I hope you’ve found this information useful. I personally enjoyed physiotherapist Trang’s sharing a lot.
In Singapore, most chiropractors and physiotherapists would take a manual therapy approach to treatment (e.g. myofascial release, soft tissue therapy, chiropractic adjustments, dry needling). Even those within the sports chiropractic or sports physiotherapy context, “hands on” treatments are still the bread and butter.
Here is the thing, research doesn’t support such modalities as being the better option.
I know strength training for better endurance performance and reducing risk of injury is not intuitive. It will take time before more of us start to come to terms with that. At the end of the day, these numbers speak for themselves.
If you are willing to embrace the difference the right care can make, do reach out to Trang for an online appointment. If you would like to work in-person with me, feel free to book in with me via the form below. I promise you that I only engage in evidence-based practice.