In this post, we are talking about how you can optimize your approach to training for an endurance race AND lift heavy things! There are many opinions out there about whether you should- or shouldn’t- do “this” or “that” with regards to resistance training for endurance exercise.
Before we dive in, I want to go over why there is some confusion. For starters, the body uses and creates energy for exercise in a number of different ways. Endurance exercise has the tendency to be more aerobic in nature and utilizes glucose and and stored fat for the majority of the exercise. This would be like running a 5k, doing a Triathlon, or even just walking around the mall. If the intensity is very high, you will burn a bunch more stored carbohydrate to facilitate a higher energy turnover.
Resistance exercise mostly uses a short term system that creates a rapid supply of energy to be used and replenished quickly. With some longer sets, a person may tap into their stored carbohydrate sources and use that for energy. With that said, there are three systems that help your body kick the can at exercise. Obviously, this is more complex and #sciency, but for the purposes of this article, that’s what you need to know.
Additionally, energy systems in the body are not like light switches in a house, where as when you leave a room and enter a new one you turn the lights off and then on. They work together synergistically. Think of them more like a dimmer switch. One system may be brighter at times than others.
So, if these two types of exercise (crushing weights and crushing endurance races) have energy systems on opposite sides of the spectrum, the question becomes, “How can I do both and be healthy, feel great, and get the best possible results?”
What is the main goal right now?
All things considered, the component that should be most prominent in your program is the one that is the specific event or goal you are working towards. For example, if it is an endurance event, then schedule more endurance volume than lifts. If you are trying to add lean muscle and get totally ripped out of your pumpkin pie, emphasize the lifting. If you are trying to create the holy grail (oh lawd) and do both at the same time, then you will need to scale back and focus on balancing it. Just keep in mind, it’s all about understanding that one may impact the other and knowing how to train so your endurance training doesn’t pull from your strength training, and vice versa.
Here comes the "What if my gainz are ruined by my running/biking/swimming?"
Contrary to: "If I get too big it will hurt my aerobic capacity, therefore my VO2 max will suffer, and I won't be able to shuttle ATP efficien...." yadda yadda yadda.
Essentially, as long as you are consistent with your training, you can keep your strength AND aerobic fitness . Remember, if balance is what you seek- you probably won't become the strongest person ever as well as the fastest endurance athlete. There is some give and take there. One experience I'll bring up:
After my marathon last year, I was so burnt out, that the idea of running was not my favorite. This is typical. I needed some time off from running, and then slowly got back into it. Meanwhile, I had been continuing to lift, get stronger, and put on size. When I did finally get back into running, it was a Certified Strugglefest. I just hadn't been keeping up with it. The point is, that whatever your current goal is; continue to do some aerobic training on a very basic level so this doesn't happen to you.
Specific Work Capacity
Work capacity is the ability to perform a task for a given period of time. Your main goal needs to make up the bulk of your training so the body can adapt and become better at the task. This will increase efficiency, improve work rate, and help your recovery become quicker. For example, I used to tell people that to get better at building fitness for soccer, you simply need to play a lot of soccer. Now, there's a lot of things that you can do to enhance it, but without the actual training stimulus, you won't get the desired effect. The same is true for endurance training and the same is true for lifting weights.
Applying it to let’s say… a marathon program, resistance training is important for the strength aspect of being able to hold up physically throughout the race. It's a long race- your body is going to get tired.
But, that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing you should do. You need to get your miles in to build up specific work capacity so your body is able to produce energy for long training sessions. This also will help you become more efficient at creating and using that energy.
On the flip side of the coin, this is also why many endurance athletes completely neglect strength training, and the reason there are many myths out there about it. They want to get better at their sport so why would they do anything else then run, bike, swim, etc. Well, for starters there is strength maintenance. Remember the spectrum from above. If you are really good at creating energy in an aerobic fashion, you might lose some of that strength and power you once had if you don’t keep up with it. Obviously, this doesn’t happen overnight, but there are a lot of other reasons you should add it to your program: enhance your speed, increase your efficiency, and make you less injury prone.
Maximize Recovery and Reduce Unnecessary Stressors
When you are training for a race, it becomes obvious that it takes a toll on your body. You experience physical and mental fatigue, irritability (sorry Meg), have aches and pains, and want to eat everything in sight. The key to executing a solid training program is doing everything you can do in your power to make sure you recover from each workout. This also includes minimizing excess stress on your body. Eating right and hitting your caloric requirement, regeneration work such as foam rolling and stretching, staying hydrated, and getting quality sleep (laying off alcohol too, friends). I can’t emphasize this enough.
If you have things in your life that stress you out and take away from your training, remove them. All of your focus should be on the training process, because it is a long process. Consistency and quality of work adds up over time, and that can be the difference between you feeling awesome the whole race and you having to mentally grind it out instead. I talked about this in another blog post: (Click Here)
Metabolic Cost and Neural Fatigue
Ever wonder why you might be super fatigued one day, and feel like you’re hopped up on Skittles the next? Think of this as a car. You have the engine (the brain), and then all of the moving parts like the wheels, axles, fuel (muscles and stored energy). Sometimes stuff goes wrong with the engine (stress, overtraining, laziness), but then other times it might be a flat tire or you run out of gas (improper nutrition, no warm up, sore from the day before). All of these factors tie into each other, so it is truly a balancing act of work and rest; both for your brain and the rest of your body.
The key thing here is that certain activities will have a different effect on your body. Metabolic cost refers to the energy that your body burned through: carbs, fats, proteins- they are all calories and your body needs to replace them. Neural fatigue refers to how your brain responds to the training. When you are overloading the muscle, the brain has to work harder neurologically to move the weight. Generally, fast, heavy, and skill oriented movements that require a lot of focus have a tendency to wipe you out. Why? Higher risk and increased stress.
So: The key for long term progression is making sure you keep those two factors away from each other. Don't expect to lift heavy and run a high threshold tempo back to back. You'll need to space those out a few days from each other so you can recover from each session. You can however, perform lower intensity runs/bikes/lifts in between.
Streamlining the Plan
Now, I can say all this science jargon and in reality, none of it matters if it doesn’t work for you- the athlete. Figure out how you can apply some of these concepts to your training schedule. You will see improved levels of fatigue resistance, decreased stress, and better performance.
When you are training, sometimes less is more. You don’t have to push yourself to the brink of exhaustion every time you train- you just need to be smart in your approach. Executing a training program can’t be done as if you are competing every day. Learn to accept the process and follow along with small progressions. Hopefully this article has made you realize why you CAN keep strength training while you are training for an endurance race.