Most endurance athletes know that to be competitive, there is no substitute for training in your sport. For example, there really is no better way to become a faster runner than, well, running. However, while you may not want to look like a body builder, throwing weight training out the window is also a bad idea. Your constant endurance training will still keep you light and fast, unless you purposely change your eating to focus on building more muscle mass. However, the ideal endurance competitor will utilize both endurance sport training and weight training to create a more well-rounded athlete.
Why weight train?
It’s simple, weight training works muscle groups that help stabilize you when you run, bike, or swim. You have a better energy transfer throughout your entire body if you have a strong core. You have better running form if you have good upper body strength. With a powerful upper body, you don’t slump your shoulders when you get fatigued during a run, you can power through longer on your swim, and you hold your form more efficiently on the bike. While the majority of your speed and endurance comes from training in your sport, you will also enhance your performance by adding in total-body weight training.
Another benefit is that better stabilization means less chance of injury. When you work with free weights, you force your body to balance to move the weight. Any areas of weakness will show up. The better you get at safely lifting the weight and balancing your body during the motion, the more you build up your injury prevention and become a more well-rounded athlete.
What type of lifts are best?
I am not a fan of machine weights. Why? Because they don’t force you to learn balance and can mask your weak areas. When I first moved from machines to free weights, it felt awkward. I hadn’t developed balance and never learned to stabilize my weak areas. However, I persevered, and now am feeling more comfortable with staying off the machines. When you lift free weights, your body naturally develops strength around your ankles, knees, hips, back, and shoulders. Machines take away that full-body stimulation that only free weights can offer.
You can also hit many more muscles groups with compound lifts. These compound lifts stress more muscle groups while you do natural movements. For example, the squat, deadlift, and benchpress work more of your body than doing an entire line up of 10 – 15 machines. These lifts are some of the top exercises in an endurance athlete’s tool bag. Before trying these for the first time, please make sure to research the correct form for all lifts to avoid injury. Let’s look at my the three lifts more in depth to discover how it benefits your during training, and on race day.
The deadlift is a great lift that targets the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. Stronger muscles mean better stabilization when you need to support your body during a run, especially if you take a misstep. Muscles that can support the force of motion gone awry can mean the difference between a few weeks with your feet up nursing an injury or lacing up with fresh legs to train the next day. While the increase muscle strength in these areas is an immediate bonus, you also improve the strength of your tendons and bone density over time. Stronger bones and tendons mean less risk of stress fractures and more tendon support during running, resulting in less injury. The entire skeletal system gets this benefit when you pick up the weights safely from the floor.
The deadlift also helps you correct and identify imbalances that you may not realize during a run. When an athlete with weak hamstrings tries the deadlift, they will have an issue pulling the bar off the ground. A runner with tight hamstrings will have trouble leaning down to pick up the weight. And, the athlete with a weak back will have an issue with locking out in the final phase of the lift. Going through the motions of the deadlift will uncover these hidden imbalances and correct them.
The squat is a great exercise that works the quads, gluts, hamstrings, and hip flexors. Your spinal erectors, abdominal muscles, and calves also pitch in for added stability. You even get the benefit of increased flexion, extension, and muscular stability of the hips, ankles, and knees during this lift. Getting stronger in squat will translate to improved running performance, as it will give you that final kick by increasing muscle fiber recruitment to get you up a monster hill or push you to the finish line.
The Bench Press (and other upper body lifts)
A strong upper body, while sometimes less prized by those who see the endurance power coming only from their legs, is essential to creating a powerful stride, providing power on the bike, or pushing through the water. While the swimming benefits are clear, as your upper body is the main source of propulsion, runners and bikers also create more speed when they build up their upper torso and arms. When you’re running, your arm swing directly coincidences synergistically with your opposite leg swing. If you move your arms faster, your leg pacing will match. If you have a strong upper body, your arm swing will power your leg swing to faster movement and more endurance over the miles. Also, a strong core and upper body will prevent your head from dropping and shoulders from rounding, which you often see on tired distance runners when their form breaks down.
The bench press, which focuses on your chest muscles, is a great lift to accomplish the additional power needed for better endurance performance. However, if you don’t include other upper body work, you won’t remain balanced. Other exercises that you will want to add to your upper body training plan include, but are not limited to, barbell rows, seated cable row, lat pulldown, and Pendlay rows. Again, make sure you research proper form or enlist the help of a trainer before attempting these exercises to ensure you do them safely.
Weight lifting is essential to improve the endurance athlete’s form, function, and fitness. While nothing can prepare you for racing your sport like actually training in your sport, those athletes who include routine trips to the weight room will enjoy more efficiency and less risk of injury. There is no substitute for the long workouts required to train for endurance sports. However, approaching them knowing your body is balanced, stronger, faster, and better able to handle the unexpected misstep is worth the time invested in the gym.