We often equate endurance athletes such as long distance paddlers and runners to aerobic animals; those animals that rely heavily on oxygen delivery and use in the muscle over very prolonged periods of time. Compared to the Olympic weightlifter, there is nothing explosive about an endurance sport. Thus, it follows that endurance athletes will train to enhance their ability to delivery and use oxygen and avoid muscle hypertrophy and explosive strength training. An endurance paddler or runner can spend over 20 hours a week paddling or running as part of his or her training regimen. That doesn’t leave much time for supplemental training or pursuing another type of activity to combine with the primary one.
While devoting the majority of training specifically to their sport, an endurance athlete might add an endurance weight training program (such as circuit training) to compliment their activity. But, is it possible that the endurance athlete is missing out on something by not lifting heavy weights with the goal of increasing neuromuscular strength and power? A research group in Finland tested the effects of 3 different types of strength training on endurance performance in runners. Several recreational male runners who were taking part in a marathon training school were recruited. The group was divided into three types of weight training programs; maximal strength training, explosive strength training and circuit weight training. The circuit trained group was the control group and used only body weight as a form of resistance (such as squats, lunges, push ups and sit ups). Following 9 sessions of weight training prep, each group engaged in their respective weight training program for 8 weeks. Maximal strength training consisted of heavy load resistance while the explosive training consisted of power lifts and squat jumps. The runners continued their running program while strength training.
They measured several performance variables related to distance performance including aerobic capacity (VO2max), running velocity at VO2max and running economy
What they found:
- Circuit training did not increase VO2max, velocity at VO2max or running economy
- Neither maximal or explosive strength training increased VO2max
- Both maximal and explosive strength training increased velocity at VO2max and running economy
- Both maximal and explosive strength training increased muscle activation and strength
What does this mean to the endurance athlete? Since the beginning of time, endurance performance has been attributed to the cardiopulmonary system’s ability to delivery oxygen to the muscle and the muscle’s ability to use that oxygen. Typically, this is assessed by measuring VO2max. Traditionally, very little of endurance performance has been attributed to neuromuscular function, until lately. The neuromuscular adaptations that come about through maximal or explosive strength training (that which requires maximal recruitment of muscles) do seem to play a significant role in endurance performance. More recently, the running velocity sustained at VO2max has been given consideration as a true endurance performance predictor. Another good predictor is running economy, which simply means the ability to run at a faster pace for a given amount of energy expended. There is evidence that neuromuscular adaptations contribute to both of these predictors of performance.
Bottomline: as an endurance athlete, it may be to your benefit to strength train your muscles. It will not increase your aerobic capacity, but it might improve your paddling speed and that’s what it’s about in the end. As paddlers, you use your torso and leg muscles significantly. Because your arm and shoulder muscles are smaller, it might be safer to begin a strength training program by focusing on your lower body first. Before engaging in upper body strength training, first work those smaller support muscles in your shoulder. For instance, internal and external rotation movements with a thera-band or pulley are excellent exercises to strengthen those rotator cuff muscles and help you avoid injury. After some training of the smaller muscles, continue with larger multi-joint lifts such as bench press, lat pulldown, shoulder press or seated row.