Should Endurance Athletes Avoid Weight Lifting?

Long distance runner

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If your main sport requires endurance to move your body weight quickly over long distances, is there any real benefit to adding extra muscle? This is a question many ultra-distance athletes grapple with. Having extra muscle mass should technically increase speed and performance and reduce muscle fatigue, but carrying that extra muscle weight over many miles may also result in a greater energy requirement that could burn more calories and make bulky athletes less efficient over a long racecourse. So what is the ideal training technique and the ideal body composition for ultra-sport athletes?

Although most, if not all, high-level, well-rounded athletes include both strength and endurance training in their routines, there is relatively little research that shows a clear performance benefit of general strength training programs for endurance athletes.

Strength Gains Not Necessarily Linked to Endurance

Several studies have found that endurance athletes can greatly increase their strength by adding sport-specific weight training to their program. However, these strength gains did not always result in improved endurance or, more importantly, improved performance.

Even in shorter distance events, it's hard to find a direct link between more strength and better performance. A study designed to determine whether building sport-specific strength would improve sprint-swim performance found that although the swimmer's strength increased by 25-35%, it did not improve sprint-swim times. The researchers concluded that the increased strength did not translate to an improvement in stroke mechanics, even though the athletes were physically stronger. A similar result was found in a study of rowers who, although they all demonstrated gains in strength after adding weight training to their routine, this added strength did not transfer to the more complex action of rowing.

A study of national-level cross-country skiers added explosive strength training to the typical aerobic workouts to determine if increased leg strength improved endurance. One group of skiers performed plyometric exercise and squats (80% of 1 RM). And although they significantly improved their jumping height and leg strength, there was no change in their VO2max or measures of the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds.

Professional cyclists who added heavy resistance training in leg press, quadriceps extensions and hamstring curls to their regular training had strength gains of about 25%. However, this increase in strength did not result in improved cycling performance. For cyclists, the exact opposite occurred. Their 40 km times slowed from 58.8 minutes to 61.9 minutes. The cyclists also complained of feeling "tired and heavy" while riding and even reduced their weekly training distance by about 20% during the study. 

Although most research has found that heavy resistance training programs may not improve endurance, this doesn't mean endurance athletes should never lift weights. The key is to lift weights in ways that do not restrict the volume of beneficial, sports-specific training that an athlete does.

How Athletes May Benefit From Strength Training

  1. For athletes who are relatively new to the sport and not highly trained, sport-specific weight training can improve performance. Untrained or unfit individuals will benefit from an increase in general fitness, be it an improvement in strength or endurance. This explains why greater muscle strength increases endurance performance in these individuals.
  2. For highly-trained athletes who already possess a great deal of sport-specific strength, further strength gains are less helpful to enhanced endurance. At the highest level of competition, increases in strength and power are not as critical as the development of correct technique. For elite athletes, the concept of specificity of training and more advanced training techniques, including sports psychology principles may be more helpful than strength. 
  3. Endurance athletes can also benefit from weight training routines in the off-season. When endurance training volume decreases and the athlete is spending more time resting and recovering, turning to the weight room can be a way to maintain overall conditioning and strength, while letting the body recover from long endurance training

If you are already an elite athlete, it may be more important for you to practice skills and general sports technique during your racing season and lift weights in the off-season. If you are new to a sport or still find you fatigue more easily than then your teammates, you can focus on sport-specific training routines and weight training as you develop your sports skills. In this case, the order of your weight and cardio training may make a slight difference as well.

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