Strength training for older endurance athletes


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This week’s Jockology column in the Globe and Mail looks in more detail at a study suggesting that masters cyclists get more benefit from strength training than younger athletes. (I blogged very briefly about the study back in June.)

Exercise physiologists call it the “principle of specificity”: Swimmers gotta swim, cyclists gotta cycle, runners gotta run. That’s why many endurance athletes believe that other forms of training, like lifting weights, simply waste time that could be devoted to doing more of their main sport.

Of course, as with any good rule, the most interesting discussions involve figuring out when it should be broken. It turns out that the principle of specificity may apply less rigidly to older athletes than it does to their younger counterparts, according to a new study from researchers in France. The difference: The steady loss of muscle as you age means that you get an extra boost from weight training – even in endurance sports like cycling. [READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE.]

The article is accompanied by a nice graphic from Trish McAlaster suggesting three key lower-body strengthening exercises that might benefit aging endurance athletes:

15 Replies to “Strength training for older endurance athletes”

  1. The line between training specificity and singular dimensionality is a bit blurry. Runners should run, obviously; but no one suggests that a 5k runner run only 3.1 miles. Running should be varied; some long and slow, some fast and short. Likewise, I think resistance training is beneficial for any endurance athlete. Improved body composition tends to lead to better times, via having less dead weight to carry. And stronger legs are faster legs, not to mention less injury prone. I’m aware of several studies that demonstrate the efficacy of weight training for runners and cyclists, and none that contradict those findings.

  2. @Alex
    Agreed that specificity is a hazy concept: it’s not really a training rule, it’s more of a starting point for discussion. After all, the relevant question isn’t “Does doing 30 minutes of strength training three times a week improve my performance?” It’s “Does doing that 3x30min strength training improve my performance more than adding 3x30min of running would?” And there’s no general answer to that question: it depends on all the details of the individual’s situation, starting most obviously with how much he or she is currently running.

  3. Great post on a very interesting balancing act. Another factor that needs to be considered is the weight gain that could potentially occur due to muscle hypertrophy. Is a cyclist more likely to benefit from weight training on a flat TT vs. a hilly TT (where gravity plays more of a factor)? In the end, it is all about the power/weight ratio…not just lift weights to increase power.

  4. I agree with Alex. I’ve seen quite a few people improve their running dramatically by running less and doing more “CrossFit” type workouts. I didn’t just see this effect in older runners either. I’m not suggesting that everyone should cut their mileage and start doing this type of training, but I’ll bet a lot of people would be shocked by the results if they did.

  5. I’m age 69, a runner for 41 years. I find that there are two ways to build and strengthen type IIb trainable fast-twitch fibers in my legs: (1) traditional hill exercises (bounding, leaping, etc.) as taught by Arthur Lydiard, and (2) doing very heavy deadlifts at the gym, no more than 10 sec per set, no less than 85% of 1-rep max weight. I’ll let you guess which one has led to repeated injuries… Yep, hill bounding, though (sadly) very enjoyable, is strictly verboten for my aging tendons. I learned of the effect of deadlifts from Barry Ross, who coached Allyson Felix’s weight training when she was still in high school. It really works. Those IIb FT fibers are so important – they supply “power to the ground,” which a Harvard study (cited by Ross; see shows is the key contributor to running speed, far ahead of stride length or frequency.

  6. @Sean: For me, weight gain from muscle is more of a hypothetical than a reality! But you’re right, there are certainly tradeoffs. If you haven’t seen this post from a few weeks ago, you might be interested: it gives some insight as to what exactly the tradeoffs of extra weight are for cyclists. (Power scales with increased mass to the exponent of ~0.67. The oxygen cost associated with drag on flat courses scales as ~0.32, and the oxygen cost associated with gravity on uphills scales as ~0.79.)

  7. @Derrick: Ah, the Swiss Army Knife of leg exercises! Have you considered doing biceps curls as you lunge? 🙂

    @runbei: Hill bounding is definitely a good way to build leg strength — though I’d go a step farther and say that simply running hills is an excellent form of functional leg strengthening for runners, with a lower chance of injury than bounding, especially for inexperienced runners.

  8. @alex
    Can’t disagree with any of that. As with so many things in fitness, the answer is probably some elaborate version of “it depends”. Because it basically always does. And don’t get me wrong, any excuse to get out of ever doing heavy squats again, I’ll take.

  9. I find the study questionable. The older group in the study was likely in far worse shape than the younger group and therefore of course they are going to get substantially more gain from a 3-week lifting program than the younger group – likely an almost-universal trait of older “athletes”. If the study was done with 3 weeks of extensive aerobic training I’m sure the older group would also gain substantially more than the younger group, which would say that older people need to do more aerobic training. Perhaps you lose strength more quickly, I’m not arguing that, but maybe the real conclusion is that older athletes just need more training in general.

  10. @alex
    Haha, you and me both. Just checked out that post, pretty cool- it really makes you wonder how a guy like Armstrong could dominate in the mountains, yet still win a 8km, flat prologue!

  11. @BMan
    “The older group in the study was likely in far worse shape than the younger group and therefore of course they are going to get substantially more gain from a 3-week lifting program than the younger group – likely an almost-universal trait of older “athletes”.”

    The study made every effort to control for that. These were well-trained cyclists, not sedentary people. Weekly hours of training were 7.7 in the older group and 7.4 in the younger group. VO2max was 3.77 +/- 0.57 l/min in the older group, 3.86 +/- 0.99 in the younger. Maximum aerobic power was 300.4 +/- 32.4 W in the older group, 318.7 +/- 85.2 W in the younger group. Neither group had done any weight training in the previous year. Statistically speaking, these groups were essentially identical — and yet the response to three weeks of weight training was dramatically different in a statistically significant way.

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