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Article - 3 November 2011

Q&A: Does lifting weights hurt your speed?

Q. I am new to triathlons and have previously been an avid weightlifter and short distance runner. I enjoy weightlifting but am worried it is detrimental to my speed. What's the general rule on weight for triathlons. Will lifting hurt my distance training?

A. Weight training is a controversial topic amongst endurance coaches. The reason for this is that when we train with weights, the trained muscles become bigger and therefore heavier. Running is a weight bearing activity which means there is an energy cost incurred in countering the force of gravity. Therefore the lighter we are, the faster we can run. The same can also be said of cycling up hills. But at the same time we need to remember that a larger muscle is also a stronger muscle, and this can be beneficial to the runner in at least three important ways:

Weight training has been shown to slow the natural loss of strength and bone mineral density associated with ageing.

Firstly, in the prevention of injuries. When running, every time our foot hits the ground, an eccentric muscle contraction occurs in the muscles of the leg. The force travelling through these muscles can be as much as three times our body weight. Essentially the leg muscles are acting as brakes against the force of gravity. This repetitive braking force leads to substantial exercise-induced muscle damage which is why we will often feel aches and pains in the leg muscles the day after a hard run. This damage can become an injury if recovery time is neglected. But by lifting weights, for example performing simple leg squats, where we are contracting muscle fibres both eccentrically (lowering the weight) and concentrically (lifting the weight), we can raise the threshold at which muscle damage occurs. In other words, by making the muscle fibres stronger and more resilient, we have made them less prone to injury.

Secondly, strength training which incorporates an explosive element, such as hopping, bounding and sprint type exercise, has been shown to improve running performance. In one study, a team of Finnish researchers showed that this type of strength training significantly improved 5km running performance as a result of improved neuromuscular adaptations and specifically the ability to produce force rapidly as the foot strikes the ground, which results in a shorter ground contact time. In other words, this type of strength training improves how efficiently we move. This concept of ‘efficiency’ or ‘economy’ in running – essentially how well we use energy to run at any given speed – is one of the most important determinants of success in distance running. Therefore, if we can improve it through specific weight training exercises (see Triathlon Plus issue 0028) so much the better.
Strength training which incorporates an explosive element, such as hopping, bounding and sprint type exercise, has been shown to improve running performance.

Thirdly, weight training has been shown to slow the natural loss of strength and bone mineral density associated with ageing. Therefore the benefits of incorporating upper body weight training exercises for runners, for example, simple press ups, should not be overlooked by the older runner or cyclist. Triathletes, due to the inherent cross training aspect of the sport, are at an advantage in this regard due to the upper body exercise of swimming. But even here, swim specific weight training can reduce the prevalence of shoulder related injuries and some studies have even shown performance improvements from weight training.

So what I would suggest is that you continue weight training but ensure it is specific to triathlon performance. Therefore, you could combine traditional weight training movements with plyometric type movements as a way of getting the most out of your weight training sessions. It may also be a good idea to progressively build your strength in the off season but only maintain that strength with far fewer sessions and lighter weights during the race season when shedding fatigue ahead of races should be your priority.

Published in Triathlon Plus - Read the full article >

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