A question that often gets asked by endurance athletes is should I lift weights? As with nearly every question to do with training, fitness or nutrition the only correct short answer is “well it depends”. It depends on a lot of factors. The most important factor is to first try and understand what is strength training in the context of endurance training and performance. Strength training is generally thought of in terms of lifting heavy weights or pushing/pulling against resistance machines and doing classic body building or weight lifting exercises like deadlifts, squats, cleans, curls and everyone’s favourite the bench press (how much can you bench? 😊). This classical definition of strength as the ability to exert force defines strength in an isolated laboratory setting, but we need to apply strength to the sport or activity we are preparing for. That classic definition obviously has no time constraints in how long it takes to exert the force.
Increasing your 1 rep max and % of body weight lifted is often seen as important. Well it could be if your goal is to be world class at 1 rep max in the deadlift but there’s no endurance event I know of that hands medals out to the person with the highest 1 rep max. So I would question if that is strength training for endurance athletes. Strength training to have any purpose or meaning for an endurance athlete must benefit the sport that is your primary focus. Endurance athletes doing what they do can be distilled into the concept of “applying force at speed through (often complex) coordinated movements”. This is especially the case in swimming and running and so strength training if it has any meaning must enhance those movement patterns.
Recently I came across some real wisdom towards defining strength training from two masters of athletic strength and conditioning. Franz Bosch has come up with the simple but devastatingly incisive description of strength training as “coordination training with resistance” and Vern Gambetta develops that concept further by defining strength training as “coordination training with appropriate resistance”. So resistance is involved and it’s appropriateness could mean heavy weights for power athletes like rugby players that have to overcome large heavy objects (other players) but much less so for endurance athletes. Endurance athletes have to be fast and move freely and efficiently so for them the coordination part of the definition is key. So strength training for endurance athletes should focus on complex coordination puzzles for the body and mind to solve which sometimes may involve appropriate weights or resistance. This approach could include lots of single leg exercises and complex movements like lunge to single leg high knee lift, planks with cable pulls, hot salsa etc.
Does this mean there’s no place for deadlifts and overhead squats well here it comes again – “it depends”. Including a limited number of these classic lifts during the early off season phase of training may do little harm but as you approach race season you really need to focus on Strength Training as defined by those two wise master coaches:
Coordination Training with Appropriate Resistance.