Strength Training: The Missing Link in Your Training Program
Prioritize strength training to improve performance, prevent injury, and enhance overall health and well-being.
By Scott Wrigley, MSc, CSCS, CPT, FNS, PN1, USAT Level 1 Coach, USA Cycling Level 3 Coach, US Masters Swimming Level 2 Coach
Endurance athletes are notorious for focusing all of the time available for training exclusively on their sport. While I do not recommend this approach, I understand why this happens as an endurance athlete myself and a coach for 10+ years.
We have more demands on our time and attention than ever before—family, friends, work, school, errands, chores, etc. The constant barrage of information from our phones, such as emails, texts, and social media notifications, adds to the pressure.
Many everyday athletes, which we define here at Endurance Forge as athletes whose full-time job isn't training and racing, have to actively work to fit training around non-negotiables such as work, errands, and family time.
Moreover, endurance athletes love their sport(s). We are a passionate group!
When this passion for sport(s) is combined with the limited training time, it is obvious how it is "easy" for athletes to choose to get out the door for another run or hop on the trainer for a ride and neglect resistance training.
However, the “easy” choice isn’t always the right choice. Research clearly shows endurance athletes should prioritize rather than neglect resistance training.
Why You Should Make Resistance Training a Priority
First, resistance training has been shown to enhance performance in endurance athletes.
A 2014 meta-analysis of 26 research studies showed that resistance training improved multiple parameters, including exercise economy, maximal anaerobic running velocity, time trial performance, velocity at VO2Max, and power at VO2Max (1). The researchers concluded that the data support the inclusion of resistance training in an endurance athlete's training program.
A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis of 16 studies reported that concurrent strength training (training resistance and endurance in the same program) stimulated small improvements in running economy (2). Both heavy and explosive (power) resistance training produced comparable improvements. The research team concluded that while heavy and explosive resistance training improved running economy over the short duration, long-term concurrent training was necessary to maximize benefits.
A 2017 meta-analysis of 28 studies found that adding resistance training to an endurance training program “was associated with moderate improvements in middle- and long-distance performance” (3). The performance improvements were associated with increased energy efficiency, maximal force production, and maximal power production. The researchers concluded that the results support pairing resistance training with sport-specific training to enhance performance.
Second, resistance training can help prevent injuries.
Resistance training stimulates growth and/or improved strength of connective tissues such as cartilage, ligaments, and tendons (4, 5). This is crucial as these tissues are generally not well vascularized and take longer to heal from injury. Resistance training can also improve skeletal strength through increased bone mineral density, increasing the resiliency of the skeletal system to injury (6, 7, 8).
A 2010 meta-analysis of seven studies examined the impact of neuromuscular training on preventing ACL injuries in female athletes. The researchers concluded that the data indicated both pre- and in-season training emphasizing strength training and plyometrics was effective at preventing ACL injury in female athletes (9).
A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis examined the impact of strength training on both acute and overuse injuries. This is of particular interest to endurance athletes due to the inherently repetitive nature of endurance sports and risk of overuse injuries. The researchers reported that a 10% increase in strength training volume reduced the risk of injury. The authors concluded that increasing both volume and/or intensity of strength training was associated with reduced sports injury risk (10).
Finally, strength training decreases the risk of morbidity (disease) and mortality (death).
A 2016 cohort study conducted over 15 a year period examined the impact of strength training on mortality in US adults aged 65+. The researchers found that older adults who reported strength training in line with current guidelines of physical activity decreased all-cause mortality by 46% compared to those that did not. This association remained after adjustment for confounding variables (another element that may impact the studied relationship and thus needs to be considered), including past medical history and health behaviors (11).
A 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis of sixteen studies examined the association between muscle-strengthening activities and the risk of major non-communicable diseases and mortality. The researchers found a 10-17% lower risk of all-cause mortality and non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, lung cancer, and total cancer. Furthermore, combined muscle-strengthening activities and aerobic activities were associated with decreased cardiovascular disease mortality, all-cause mortality, and total cancer mortality compared to muscle-strengthening activities with no aerobic exercise. The researchers concluded that the risk of major non-communicable diseases and all-cause mortality was inversely associated with muscle-strengthening activities (12).
The data clearly shows that adding resistance training to your endurance training program can enhance performance, reduce injury risk, and improve overall health, allowing you to enjoy your sport(s) for longer.
Beattie, K., et al. "The Effect of Strength Training on Performance in Endurance Athletes" Sports Med 44, 845–865 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0157-y
Denadai, B.S., et al. "Explosive Training and Heavy Weight Training are Effective for Improving Running Economy in Endurance Athletes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis" Sports Med 47, 545–554 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0604-z
Berryman, N., et al. "Strength Training for Middle- and Long-Distance Performance: A Meta-Analysis" International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 13(1), 57-64 (2017) https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2017-0032
Fleck, S.J., Falkel, J.E. "Value of Resistance Training for the Reduction of Sports Injuries" Sports Medicine3, 61–68 (1986). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-198603010-00006
Stone M.H. "Implications for connective tissue and bone alterations resulting from resistance exercise training" Med Sci Sports Exerc. (5 Suppl):S162-8. (1988) doi: 10.1249/00005768-198810001-00013. PMID: 3057317.
Karlsson M.K., et al. "Bone mineral density in weight lifters" Calcif Tissue Int. 2(3):212-5. (1993) doi: 10.1007/BF00298721. PMID: 8481835.
Mosti M.P., et al. "Maximal strength training improves bone mineral density and neuromuscular performance in young adult women" J Strength Cond Res. (10):2935-45. (2014) doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000493. PMID: 24736773.
Hong A.R., Kim S.W. "Effects of Resistance Exercise on Bone Health" Endocrinol Metab. 33(4):435-444. (2018) doi:10.3803/EnM.2018.33.4.435
Yoo J.H., et al. "A meta-analysis of the effect of neuromuscular training on the prevention of the anterior cruciate ligament injury in female athletes" Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc. (6):824-30. (2010) doi: 10.1007/s00167-009-0901-2.
Lauersen J.B., et al. "Strength training as superior, dose-dependent and safe prevention of acute and overuse sports injuries: a systematic review, qualitative analysis and meta-analysis" Br J Sports Med. (24):1557-1563. (2018) doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-099078.
Kraschnewski, J.L., et al. "Is strength training associated with mortality benefits? A 15year cohort study of US older adults" Preventive Medicine. Volume 87 (2016) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.02.038.
Momma H., et al. "Muscle-strengthening activities are associated with lower risk and mortality in major non-communicable diseases: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies" British Journal of Sports Medicine (2022). doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2021-105061