In the not-too-distant past many endurance athletes and their coaches held a widespread belief that endurance athletes, like cyclists and distance runners, should not participate in weight training. Several decades of sports medicine later and we find that many endurance athletes are finding benefits from days spent in the gym with respect to strength gains, but, as we will discuss below, for more highly conditioned athletes this does not necessarily translate into sport specific performance gains.
Developing increased strength, especially in the off-season is a good way to gain strength and will hold more immediate benefits for those who are new to sports.
Often weight training is characterized as anaerobic training, meaning that the body goes into significant oxygen debt, as opposed to aerobic training where the body is going for prolonged periods at a steady and more sustainable pace.
A well supervised and conceived weight training program will increase muscle but not increase bulk as was the wisdom of decades gone by. Even athletes like 7-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong do weight training to improve their strength but does it improve his cycling performance?
The answer from several studies conducted on highly conditioned cyclists is probably not. In fact in one study where weight training was mixed with cycling time trial times actually increased and cyclists complained of feeling sluggish and heavy. Of course, the time to weight train is not during the height of your competitive season for long distance endurance athletes.
It is important to note that it is the “average Joe” that benefits most from this type of strength training. A great many studies have been conducted on highly conditioned athletes over the years and it has found no major correlation between improvements in strength and event specific performance.
In fact, after I looked at the study data, it became apparent that the individuals who benefit most from strength training are those who are relatively new to an endurance sport. This is probably explained by the fact that everyone who is new to a sport benefits from any increase in conditioning related activity.
For many highly competitive athletes at the highest level of competition getting increases in strength and power are not as critical as the development of correct technique. For cyclists learning proper pedaling technique or, for runners, learning proper stride can be much more beneficial to time improvement.
So many sports like swimming, running and cycling are so technically specific and often performance is determined specifically by gains in technique, or the power output to body weight ratio. Athletes in these sports are looking for ways through technology, equipment and innovation to shave the smallest amount of time to give them the competitive edge.
When all is said and done, weight training will help you gain strength, but whether or not these strength gains will transfer to specific endurance sports is unclear.