You may have read recent claims that lifting heavy weights can improve your endurance ability – but is there any truth in it?
It may sound bizarre but there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that the right sort of strength training can help improve endurance performance. Of course, scientists and coaches have long known that a properly designed strength programme can improve muscular power and strength-to-weight ratio, which can help in some aspects of triathlon – for example, a stronger sprint for the line, more power to overcome headwinds on the bike and sustain higher swim speeds.
Even more importantly, improved muscle strength can help to prevent injury, the ultimate performance killer! What’s intriguing is that a number of recent studies indicate that adding some strength training to your programme can increase your swimming/cycling/running ‘economy’ – in other words, how efficiently you use oxygen – which can then significantly improve your endurance performance.
Economy in endurance sports like tri refers to how efficient your muscles are at producing force during sub-maximal exercise (not flat-out). The better the economy of your muscles, the less oxygen you need to use to propel yourself along at a given speed. But be aware that economy isn’t the same as technical efficiency. For example, you can cycle faster for the same effort by adopting a more aero position on the bike even though your muscles aren’t actually contracting more efficiently. Muscle economy, on the other hand, is related to the chemical and biomechanical efficiency within contracting muscle fibres.
The good news is that your muscle economy isn’t fixed. By improving certain aspects of your fitness, muscle economy also rises. So, improving your running economy by say 3% means that for the same level of perceived effort and running speed, you now require 3% less oxygen, which also means less fatigue, particularly over longer distances. It’s for this reason that adding strength work to your tri training could help boost your endurance performance.
Strength training shouldn’t be added in a way that pushes you into an exhausted or overtrained state. If your routine pushes you to the limit already, you’ll need to replace or shorten a couple of sessions before adding any strength work. Any strength routine should also be constructed to produce maximal strength gains without resorting to long, draining resistance workouts. If you’re an experienced strength trainer, you may already know how to combine a variety of exercises to achieve the desired effect. If not, it may be worth seeking help from a tri coach to devise a plan to produce the results you want safely and efficiently.