Its been a solid year now that I’ve been regularly lifting weights and doing strength training to support my running and triathlon habit. What started as a necessary evil to rehab my knee has morphed into a necessary habit. In the offseason, I’ve been regularly doing strength work twice a week. Last season, I dropped that to once a week with more stretching and bodyweight exercises.
The weights have given me more speed, more stamina, and stronger ligaments and tendons allowing me to stay active with my arthritic knee. This gym work (along with smarter recovery time as a master’s athlete) has led to an uptick in the consistency of my training, and that has led to an improvement in my face results, including a new 10k PR last year at age 41.
After years of mostly neglecting the strength side, after a year of consistent lifting, I feel like I have a strong base to shift the focus of some workouts to heavier weights and lower reps.
The proverbial wisdom for a long was that endurance athletes should stay away from lifting weights at all because it would add bulk and mass to their frame, slowing them down. That whole line of thinking has been mostly debunked. In fact, the majority of studies show now that higher weights, lower reps are what actually can give endurance athletes the most bang for their buck in the gym.
Heavy sets have been shown to have a direct correlation on endurance markers like time-to-exhaustion and time trial times.
In addition to improving your strength and max force, the heavy weight regime will continue to build up strength in your tendons, ligaments, collagen, and bone density safeguarding you against injury.
So how much should you lift as a runner or triathlete? As a general guideline, you should aim to lift the heaviest weight that you can maintain throughout the sets, without compromising form. You should start with 3 sets, 8-12 reps per set. As you get stronger and increase the weight, you should drop the number of reps.
What do you need to be aware of? The two biggest strength training mistakes I most often see are poor or incorrect form, usually be trying to lift too much weight and not resting enough between sets.
Simply put, you need adequate rest between sets in order for your muscles to recover enough to be able to continue to lift at maximal strength.
It’s this second part that I struggle with the most and the reason so many earnest attempts at consistently hitting the gym have failed in the past. I hate sitting around. I’ve been most successful this past year doing tabata/HIIT style workouts that have me lifting, but constantly moving with burst of cardio.
Waiting and recovering feels like wasted time but it’s necessary time. If you don’t recover enough, your body not only won’t lift as much the next time, but it will start tapping different energy stores. It will essentially change the type of workout your doing whether you know it or not.
Obviously doing heavy sets during or close to the season isn’t recommended. That time should be utilized with sport-specific training. Any strength work should be used as maintenance.
The off-season or early base phase when volume is lower is the best time to target a heavy lifting program.
Of course, just lifting heavy sets shouldn’t be your total program. You should also be sure to include additional exercises to ensure balance, alignment, and well-rounded athleticism.
And don’t jump directly into doing big sets. You need a solid base otherwise what you are doing to protect you from injury will surely lead to injury.
Together that combination of strength training will build a bullet-proof and faster endurance athlete.