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Strength Training, Part I: Science vs Reality

The following was taken from a recent webinar delivered to our athletes.

As always, we’ll start with a quick review of what we believe to be the biggest determinants in the success of endurance athletes.

Our topic here, strength training, is an important driver of that second factor. When used to build stabilizing muscles and help compensate for the imbalances caused by the repetitive motion of swimming, biking and running, and strength training keeps athletes training year round, year after year, by helping prevent injury. Let’s see what evidence exists to back this theory. We’ll start by talking about what strength training does not do, by looking at some of the weak science that is out there.

There is a problem with the above studies. They don’t apply to us as endurance athletes. Why? We are not “moderately trained” (like the top study) or coming off the couch (like the forth study). We are well-trained athletes. Unlike the sprint athletes and soccer players (referenced in the third study) we do not rely on explosive strength and speed for our performance. As such, we will not benefit from the same stimuli as the athletes referenced here.

Many good things likely came from theses studies – just not for triathletes. The problem comes when the media gets their hands on these studies and embellishes a bit for their headline story stating, “7 Strength Training Moves to Make Your Faster!” without qualifying that it doesn’t apply to fit athletes.

Let’s look at a study that is a bit more relevant to fit athletes.

So, strength training can make you a better runner, if you follow a very low rep/heavy weight protocol and do it in addition to your normal running program.

The reality is that for most of us, this type of strength training is not realistic. First off, it takes a bit of adaptation to work up to a low rep/heavy weight program. For most endurance athletes, it could take the bulk of the off season to even reach that point. Second, the strength training was done in addition to regular cardio. This means the training load would be really high. There is a really good chance that the study was done with a college run team or run club. Most people reading this are closer to 40 than they are 18, and adding strength training would require a reduction in cardio training in order to adequately recover from weight lifting.

Let’s just be really clear here: Most strength training plans do not make you faster. And the ones that do are not realistic for us age group triathletes.

Then why do it?

The above study is one of several pointing the idea that muscular strength is positively correlated to joint health. While this particular study relates hip strength to low back and lower extremity (i.e. knee and ankle) pain avoidance, conversations I have had with doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists bring to light several connections between muscle and tendon strength and joint health up and down the kinetic chain.

The bottom line is this: We use strength training to help our athletes avoid injuries that they didn’t know they were going to have.

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