I have researched whether concurrent Strength training and Endurance training improves endurance performance in cyclists. I have have read any number of articles (journal and magazine) and have heard the opinion of "experts", athletes and coaches from Cape Town to Vancouver, and still the jury seems to be undecided.

In fact, over the years, the "endurance sports jury" has seldom been able to reach consensus as to whether endurance athletes do in fact need to incorporate strength training into their program.

The endurance community, athletes and coaches, seems unable to commit to a definitive answer as to whether or not athletes should be incorporating strength training into their programs.

My belief is that Strength training encompasses any activities that overload the bodies structures and physiological systems (muscular, skeletal, neural etc). It does not need to be pushing heavy weights in the gym, in fact, I believe that some of the best gains in sport specific strength and power can be gained from body weight and non-equipment based activities.

I would perhaps even go so far as to say that Strength training could include activities such as running hill repeats, Big gear training on the bike or Swimming with paddles or fins.

Personally, I feel every athlete should have some form of strength training as part of their training routine, and it is this belief that got me thinking about the reasons why.

So here are 10 reasons, in no particular order of importance, why I believe all triathletes (endurance athlete) should be doing at least one strength training session each week:

Reason 1: Injury prevention
Strength training overloads the bodies connective tissue structures, forcing them to adapt to the greater loads and forces they experience. The stronger the structure, the more resilient it becomes to the training volume and intensity we apply to it during swimming, cycling and running.

Reason 2: Performance enhancement
A muscle that is more resistant to fatigue and is better able to generate greater force and power, all with less energy output is what every athlete is searching for. Progressively overloading the muscle will develop its ability to generate forces, all at a lower cost of energy expenditure.

Reason 3: Balancing muscle imbalances
Endurance sports are highly repetitive in nature and with this repetition, certain muscle groups get used far more than others, resulting in imbalances between opposing muscle groups. Using strength training to bring these "underused" muscles up to par with the stronger groups can alleviate the many risks associated with muscle imbalances. A good example is the Quads and the Hammies. The Quads deliver 66.6% of the power while the Hammies deliver 33.3% (the ratio is 3:1). Triathlon is very Quad dominant, and weak hamstrings result in deterioration of performance, so incorporating Hamstring strengthening will be of enormous benefit to you.

Reason 4: Reduce mental staleness
Mental staleness and boredom come into every athletes life at one time or another and by having a variety of modes of improving fitness and performance, we can minimize the risk of becoming bored. Strength training offers a completely different paced workout than traditionally highly structured S-B-R sessions. It also provides us with new challenges and allows room for a a little more creativity creativity.

Reason 5: Improved physiological parameters
Strength training has a direct impact on the composition of the body: increasing lean body mass (muscle mass), and this in turn plays a part in the reduction of the bodies fat mass. We all know that many physiological performance markers such as: movement economy, power to weight ratio and even VO2max, are influenced by body composition, so instead of spending $2000 on a new set of rims for your bike to make your rig lighter, why not work on increasing your muscle mass and thus increase your power to weight ratio?

Reason 6: Strength training is Interval training
After all the Long, Slow Distance training we do in our quest for improved endurance, a change in pace and intensity can be just what the doctor ordered. Strength training is a form of Interval training, with each exercise completed elevating the heart rate and exertion level, followed by a short break / recovery to move to or set up the next exercise. The ultimate form of Interval Strength training is best done in the Circuit Style of training.

Reason 7: Improves overall athleticism
I have often heard non-endurance athletes say that Triathletes are the fittest athletes around and if we are talking in a straight swim, bike or run, they might be correct. But when it comes to aspects such as agility, balance, reaction time, and general, functional strength and fitness, I do not believe we stack up that well. Strength training and functional training, not only gives us advantage in our sport, but develops us as all round sportsmen and women.

Reason 8: Helps to maintain postural alignment
We have all seen the impact our lifestyle and our training has on our body. We see our shoulders rounding forward from all the swimming and TT we do. We see our pelvic alignment changing thanks to tight Hip Flexors and weak Glutes. And this is just the tip of the ice berg. By Identifying Strong and Tight muscle groups (Pectorals, Hip Flexors, Calves, Abdominal muscles), and Weak and Long muscle groups ( Rhomboids, Glutes, Tibialis Anterior, Lumbar muscles), we can keep the body balanced and functioning efficiently and effectively.

Reason 9: Increased resilience
Improved tolerance of the body, i.e. its anatomical and physiological systems, to the stresses and loads we place on it can be enhanced by overlaoding the structures and systems using external loads (weights, bands, body mass etc), and this in turn will allow the body to better tolarate and even dissipate these forces, make it a more reslient organism.

And finally - some geeky stuff.

Reason 10: At the muscular level

  • Increases the force production capacity of the muscle.
  • Increases the strength of the Contractile Proteins: Actin and Myosin
  • Improves the ability of the muscle to apply forces as a result of Nervous system adaptations.
  • Possible hypertrophic response of the Slow Twitch Fibers to the Medium resistance - High volume training paradigm.
  • Improves co-ordination and synchronization of muscle groups during activity.
  • Increases Mitochondrial and Capillary density at the muscular level.
  • Increase the overall time to exhaustion of the muscle fiber.
  • A transformation of the overall percentage of FT-A fibers compared with FT-B fibers
There are many, many more reasons why strength training should (must), be considered an essential part of any endurance athletes training and I would even venture so far as to say that by cutting a swim, a bike and run session by 20 - 30 each, and adding 1 or 2 30 - 45 strength training sessions into the mix, you will be amazed and surprised by the outcomes.

James Greenwood is a competitive tri and multisport athlete currently training for Ironman Canada 2009. A level 1 Triathlon Coach, he holds a post graduate degree in Exercise Science, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA. James is also currently the resident health and fitness programs expert at MyPypeline.com, and has starred in a number of multisport specific fitness videos.
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