Bodywork

Lifting Heavy for Endurance Gains

Pairing your running with explosive, maximal strength training primes your muscles for peak running performance. Think loaded squats—not bodyweight circuits—when it comes to improving race times.

Rethink your resistance to maximal workouts—they might just boost your endurance.

Rethink your resistance to maximal workouts—they might just boost your endurance.     Photo: Nastco/ThinkStock

Running isn't about the six-pack or vanity fitness, but strength training deserves a spot in your program. Take Steve Spence: as a world-class marathoner, Spence incorporated resistance workouts into his training regimen and won the bronze medal in the 1991 World Championships Marathon.

It seems that Spence was onto something. That said, you'll see the most gains by optimizing your resistance trianing program. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that maximal and explosive training paired with endurance workouts lays a better foundation for running economy than a combination of bodyweight circuits and endurance training.

Essentially, maximal and explosive movements provide the most gains because they set off diverse muscle stimuli, according to the newly published study. This kind of training involves pushing your body to its muscular limits, and in quick, energetic movements to boot: It’s not the kind of practice you max out on right off the block.

Above all, it’s key to know your body and what it can handle as you phase in resistance training. “You might be in a situation where you do more lifting earlier in the season or when you are doing a buildup phase,” says Dr. Michael J. Joyner, a physician-researcher at the Mayo Clinic. “Or when you’re trying to do more speed work, maybe instead of lifting three days a week, you do every third or fourth day.” 

Yes, lifting weights can make your legs feel heavy on runs, but this usually goes away after a few weeks. Plan for this when preparing for endurance events. When you do lift, says study author Ritva Taipale, runners should train for maximal strength by cranking out three sets of 4-6 reps using about 80-85 percent of their one-rep max, with 2-3 minutes of rest between each set.

Taipale, a post-doctoral researcher in The University of Jyväskylä’s Department of Biology of Physical Activity, also advises runners to supplement maximal lifts with explosive exercises such as 6-10 reps at 30-40 percent of their one-rep max with 2-3 minutes of rest between each set. The combination of maximal and explosive movement produces more strength, which allow the legs to handle higher mileage.

But if you’re solely interested in maintaining your existing muscle condition, circuit training is the way to go.

“Circuit training can be done in addition to strength training (on separate days) to help maintain muscle condition,” Taipale says, “but strength training inarguably improves neuromuscular function more effectively than endurance training alone or endurance training with circuit training.” 

More About the Study Methods

Study author Ritva Taipale and her colleagues took 34 recreational endurance runners and divided them up into a maximal and explosive strength training group and a bodyweight circuit training group.

The maximal and explosive subset participated in workouts involving 3 sets of 4-6 repetitions of primarily maximal squats (using the Smith Machine) and maximal leg press using 80-85 percent of their one-rep max (the most weight you can lift for one rep). The explosive exercises within this subset included exercises such as 3 sets of 6 explosive squats at 30-40 percent of their one-rep max.

The circuit group completed aerobic bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and lunges.

Both groups performed endurance training below the lactate threshold along with their respective resistance workouts. The training methods were examined during an 8-week intervention preceded by an 8-week strength training prep period.

Overall, both groups improved, yet each one showed minimal gains in VO2 max. These results point to the increase in running economy and velocity due to strength, power, and muscular activation gains as the highlighting factors that set the maximal and explosive strength exercisers up for greater endurance improvements.

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