How does strength training improve endurance performance?
Improvements in economy
This article will focus on the performance improvements resulting from the completion of both endurance training and strength training. One way in which strength training improves performance in endurance athletes is through an improvement in economy.
What is economy?
We can think of the economy of our bodies as being similar to the economy of a car. If we have a more economical car, it will be able go further on the same amount of fuel compared to a less economical car. Alternatively, if the two cars arrive at the same destination at the same time, the more economical car will have used less fuel to get there. Our body's version of fuel is oxygen, which is what fuels our body's systems when we exercise. For endurance athletes, the economy of our body (the amount of oxygen we consume) is a better predictor of performance than more commonly used measures such as lactate threshold or VO2max.
Studies displaying significant improvements in economy as a result of strength training split athletes into two groups:
1. Athletes who completed normal endurance training PLUS strength training
2. Athletes who completed normal endurance training only
Athletes in the endurance and strength training group generally completed strength training twice a week for a period of at least 12 weeks, whilst the endurance training only group continued training as normal. All athletes in both groups completed a form or cycling or running economy test both before and after the 12 week period. These tests involved sitting at a pre-determined pace on the run or pre-determined power on the bike whilst having their oxygen consumption measured. At the end of these studies, only those athletes who completed both the endurance and strength training displayed a significant improvement in running or cycling economy, whilst participants in the endurance only groups had no change in economy.
What do these improvements in economy mean?
The significant improvements in economy in these athletes can improve performance in two ways:
1. The athlete now consumes less oxygen at the same pace or power, meaning they have more fuel for later, allowing the athlete to go further.
2. For the same amount of oxygen consumed (you can think of this as the same amount of fuel used), the athlete can now run faster or push a higher power on the bike.
Furthermore, neither of the groups observed a change in body mass, displaying that strength training in endurance athletes does not make athletes ‘bulk up’. In fact, in some studies the athletes who did strength training had a decrease in their skinfolds (displaying a decrease in body fat percentage).
The mechanisms behind these improvements in economy will be explored further in future articles, so stay tuned for more. We will also look into the types of exercises to complete, load and technique management, injury prevention and how to incorporate strength training into an endurance programme.
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