Exercise Economy: The Strength Relationship

A brief overview of strength training in relation to exercise economy in endurance sport.

Still here? This is where things get a bit more interesting, in my opinion anyway! I get excited when I read about S&C in endurance sport, whether its strength training or plyometrics. It’s usually all stuff I wish I knew when I was racing. I had some great coaches/mentors as an athlete and I’m sure they knew these things, but I had very selective hearing and was a bit stubborn, but hindsight is a great thing and we learn from our mistakes. All the information and research is out there, if you are doubtful try keep an open mind, science doesn’t lie.  


Strength and Conditioning or Physical Preparation are increasingly becoming more popular, it’s been around in the elite sports environment for a longer time and often isn’t talked about but it’s now becoming available to everyone. It might not be for everyone though. If you are time limited and it has to replace an important session, you’ll absolutely be better spending your time actually out on your bike, in the pool or running. If, however, you have time to add it in or already go to the gym finding someone who knows what they are doing will make a huge impact! Like I said before do your research before spending your cash.


Scope of practice, probably the most important thing to consider when adding S&C to training and if you keep reading week on week I’ll probably mention it more. Not all, but most sports coaches don’t programme resistance-based training because it’s not within their skill set/knowledge base, and if it’s not something they know about they shouldn’t experiment on athletes. If you’ve never done resistance (barbell, weight training, I don’t mean core and circuits) and your coach suddenly implements it, with no background or qualifications (a weekend course isn’t enough) it might be worth asking why now? and do you really know what you are doing is going to work? The art of making a good programme isn’t knowing the exercises to use or all these complicated exercises you might see on social media now. It’s knowing how to do the basics well and for a good S&C coach it will be their bread and butter. It involves knowing how many reps, sets, rest, what load/intensity to use and when to move from one phase to the next and ultimately what’s best for each individual athlete they work with, not what they expect you to be. Getting any of these wrong won’t make you a bad athlete but it might waste your time, be unachievable and blunt adaptations in the rest of your training. 


When I say S&C training to an endurance-based athlete or coach what comes to their mind is core work and circuits. Both are valuable tools and not to be forgotten. But, as primarily an S&C coach, I would use circuits for training your cardiovascular system and not for strength gains. However, circuits can be an excellent introduction to strength-based training while gaining cardiovascular adaptations. When I talk about S&C for sport performance, I mean the use of compound exercises: squat, deadlift, hip thrust and pull ups for example along with power exercises: clean, snatch, push press and hex-bar/barbell jump squats. Not forgetting core, mobility and assistance exercises as well. There is often a lot of difficultly placed around these exercises but there doesn’t have to be, using appropriate regressions and progressions. I should state the use of these exercises isn’t to make your muscles bigger or become a weightlifter. In terms of sport, the goal is and always will be to make you better at your sport.

Image taken from: Beattie K, Kenny IC, Lyons M, Carson BP (2014) The effect of strength training on performance in endurance athletes.  Sports Med  44: 845-865.

Image taken from: Beattie K, Kenny IC, Lyons M, Carson BP (2014) The effect of strength training on performance in endurance athletes. Sports Med 44: 845-865.

This diagram is taken from published research (Beattie et. al., 2014) and shows the ways exercise economy can be influenced in endurance sport. Exercise economy: the energy required to perform at certain level of intensity, improving exercise economy is performing at the same level of intensity for less energy cost. Obviously, the long slow distance, tempo and interval training on the left is important and there is never a substitute for going and doing your sport. That being said, there is a whole load of other things that can’t be ignored if you are looking for optimal performance or just getting better. 


The way I like to think about the muscles, tendons and all the connective tissue in between in the legs is like a big coil spring. We all know the stiffer the coil spring or specifically the more elastic the muscles are when extended/pulled longer the greater the force it produces to return to its original state. The stiffer/more elastic your muscles are the less energy is wasted in recruitment of the muscles to push the pedals or take off the ground on each footstep. The less energy required for you to use your muscles concentrically the faster you can go for the same relative effort (exercise economy). In sport this is a pretty big deal!


Now we know this. I would consider each pedal stroke or time your foot touches the ground in a running stride to be a sub maximal effort and I’m sure you will agree? So, if we want to improve muscle recruitment and neuromuscular coordination and the quality of the connective tissues one of the ways to do this is through loading strength and resistance based movements. The greater the load you can move the better the muscle recruitment you can use in your sport. 


So now I’ve explained the very basic reasoning behind resistance-based training for exercise economy, albeit briefly, we can go back to the compound exercises I mentioned earlier that are a way of efficiently moving the greatest load possible by the body to gain that muscle elasticity (Stiffness), recruitment and neuromuscular coordination. It’s not about trying to recreate cycling, running or swimming in the gym but with just more resistance because that would probably be more likely to injure you. It’s about assisting the muscles to do what they do better and that’s something a squat does efficiently. 


It should be said that these exercises usually do not have a direct correlation to your sport performance, just because you squat big doesn’t mean you’ll be good at your sport. It’s all about improving yourself: muscle strength, recruitment, co-ordination, and the relative numbers that you produce. These improvements will improve your economy, resilience and give you the platform to improve performance.

If you are interested in S&C / Resistance based training get in touch!

Next time you are out training think about that muscle spring and imagine if it was stronger.


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Have a happy weekend.