Whether it is used to maximise sporting prowess or to stay fit and active, endurance training is an excellent fitness option. However, it can also be damaging on our joints and various soft tissues including tendons, ligaments and muscles. For endurance athletes, those who compete in ultra long distance events with a view to pushing their physical capabilities to the limit, the risks are further magnified. From soft and connective tissue injuries such as muscle tears and ruptured tendons respectively, the repetitive strain placed on joints, and the massive, and prolonged impact our bones must endure, endurance sports do pose a risk and most endurance athletes will sustain an injury (or injuries) at some point in their career. From patellofemoral pain syndrome to Achilles tendinopathy to medial tibial stress syndrome, iliotibial band friction syndrome, plantar fasciitis and lower extremity stress fractures, the various overuse injuries often encountered by endurance athletes can stifle, or even end one’s competitive aspirations for good.
Photo: Breaking Muscle
To offset the likelihood of injury, many endurance folk are turning to resistance training. Strength training can be employed to improve our performance for endurance events. Through balanced weight training we may correct structural imbalances which may encourage improper motor patterns. If, for example, one side of your body is weaker than the other, your stride will adversely be affected. By strengthening your weaker side you may, on the other hand, become a faster and more efficient runner. Strength training can also reduce chronic pain and joint discomfort.
Though an established training modality for most endurance athletes, resistance methods often take a backseat to more endurance-specific training protocols. Big mistake. By incorporating additional resistance work and, for some, reducing our endurance output we may recover better and become stronger and less susceptible to injury. Let’s explore some of the additional ways resistance training may build better, more resilient endurance athletes.
Increased bone density
Stronger bones can absorb a greater impact without becoming damaged. And nothing builds stronger bones than hard, heavy resistance training. Many long distance runners encounter medial tibial stress syndrome (commonly known as shin splints), a painful condition which may severely curtail our training efforts. By strengthening the tibia bone with anterior tibialis and calf raises, for example, we may lessen the impact cumulative stress places on this region. Aside from strengthening muscle tissue to enable a greater anaerobic output when pulling ahead of the competition, weight training, in particular that involving heavy (80% or more of our one repetition maximum) compound lifts such as the squat, deadlift and bench press, also promotes the increased calcification of our bones, making them both larger and stronger. As well, strength training will also increase protein synthesis of the tissues that connect bone to muscle (tendons) and bone to bone (ligaments), thus enabling them to provide greater support.
Greater joint stability
Resistance training is without equal for building bone density and strengthening the muscles that control our joints. Joint instability often arises due to an imbalance between the various muscles that act on our joints, or a general weakening of the surrounding musculature. For example, strong front quads and weak hamstrings may, over time, promote excessive straining of the connective tissues which stabilise the knees. This may lead to injury. Because endurance athletes place tremendous repetitive stress on their knees, in particular, it is essential that they train all of their leg muscles, including related muscles such as the hip flexors and commonly neglected areas such as the tibialis anterior, with equal intensity. By developing strength and size throughout our physique so as to offset muscular imbalances we create greater joint stability. Rather than receiving undue punishment, our joints, when protected by muscle, become more resilient and better functioning.
The strength to endure
By easing off the endurance and including more resistance (ensuring that optimal recovery from both is achieved), we may become better athletes, and less susceptible to injury. As well as assisting injury prevention, resistance training can also increase muscular endurance, improve speed and boost agility and overall athletic performance. So to cultivate the strength to endure, you may want to incorporate harder, heavier strength training into your current programme.
This post was written by David Robson in conjunction with Gym and Fitness Australia. David also doubles as a trainer, health and fitness educator and mentor to both established elite athletes and novice trainees alike. He has written professionally for Muscle & Fitness magazine, FLEX, bodybuilding.com, New Zealand Fitness, Inside Fitness, ALLMAX Nutrition, and Status Fitness magazine.