In this post we discuss why strength training for masters endurance athletes is crucial for both health and performance.
Here she is (on the left) with her silver medal from a recent International Biathlon Union Sprint Masters event in Norway.
Dominique originally came to me with a back problem that was affecting her biathlon performance and proving difficult to resolve.
Despite not knowing one end of a rifle from the other and my only experience of skiing being the famous Primrose Hill tea tray run, I agreed to help.
Why was I confident I could make a difference?
Because Dominique was in her 40s and had never strength trained before.
Note that strength training, resistance training and weight training are all essentially the same thing. I’ll use them interchangeably in this post.
Why strength training is crucial for masters athletes
Passed the age of 40 our bodies begin to under go predictable changes.
The most significant of these is a gradual loss of muscle mass which is known as sarcopenia. Left unchecked sarcopenia may result in the loss of up to 50% of your muscle mass by the age of 80.
Masters athletes aren’t immune unfortunately. This is particularly true if your event is endurance based like Dominique’s.
Whilst endurance training such as running and cycling can off set some age related changes, it has little effect on the most profound, strength.
This is perhaps counterintuitive. If you look at the legs of a road racing cyclist for example, you would expect them to be relatively strong.
Think about the challenge their leg muscles have adapted to however. Repeated contractions for hours at a time.
Imagine if you were to recreate that challenge on a piece of resistance training equipment in the gym. A leg press for example. You’d have to use a very light weight if you wanted to leg press for 4 hours right?
Can you see therefore how this type of training neglects strength?
Note the example I gave is for the muscles being used in the activity. The muscles which aren’t used are being neglected entirely.
In fact depending on how many hours you spend endurance training, they may even atrophy as a result. Take a look at a professional cyclist’s upper body if you want to see an extreme example of this.
Strength training prevents loss of power
This loss of muscle affects one fibre type in particular, type 2 or fast twitch muscle fibres. These muscle fibres help you generate power.
As a result your ability to produce large amounts of force quickly is diminished. You start to feel more like a diesel engine than a Tesla. You can’t close gaps quickly or blast your way up hills like you used to.
Strength training has been shown to reduce this effect however.
This study compared elderly runners, swimmers and strength trained individuals with younger populations and age matched controls. They found the strength trained group had almost identical maximal isometric torque production, speed of movement, and cross-sectional muscle area as their younger counterparts.
The endurance trained group showed deficits in all these areas by comparison.
It seems strength training is able to preserve the function of muscle even while the ageing process is taking place. This study on masters sprinters provides further proof.
Strength training can help prevent injury and pain
Perhaps the most critical role of strength training is to help you avoid pain and injury.
Being injured sucks and will obviously impact your participation in the sport you love.
More commonly however I see endurance athletes who are in a state of chronic pain. Cyclists who suffer with ongoing back issues for example, or runners who have Achilles tendon problems that never quite go away.
Chronic issues like this can really suck the joy out of training and racing. They can usually be improved with good quality strength training however.
Take Sean for example. Sean is in his mid 40s and still enjoys racing his bike around the U.S. Here he is looking a bit like Sean Kelly no? Just me?
Sean was finding his power output had fallen off a cliff in the last year and his shoulder was giving him constant pain. He could barely lift his bike off the car rack without wincing in agony.
He told me he’d been riding his bike 3 times a week and performing a few home exercises like planks and push ups. His condition seemed to be getting worse rather than better however.
We discussed the importance of good quality resistance training and I set him up with a very simple gym routine. This is what he had to say after 12 weeks of following the programme.
“Since hitting my 40s I encountered a noticeable decline in my performance. My power numbers and general stamina levels had sharply declined despite actually increasing my training load. I also suffered a shoulder injury that impacted not only my road and gravel cycling, but also everyday life due to a lack of mobility and pain when carrying out simple tasks.
After consulting with Paul I undertook a weekly programme of weight training specifically designed to strengthen my body and also help me regain movement and reduce the pain in my shoulder.
Despite having used weights before, I was amazed at just how quickly I started to see results. The pain and movement in my shoulder improved almost immediately.
My shoulder is now almost 100% better. I have also noticed a gradual improvement in my athletic performance on the bike.
My top end power has increased and I am able to hold max-out efforts for longer. My general stamina levels also seem to be improving. Moreover, I feel much more robust on the bike and have experienced a reduction in general aches and pains — particularly during a recent endurance gravel event.”
Good quality strength training is the difference that makes a difference
You may have noticed I keep stressing good quality strength training. Applying this type of exercise without care and attention to detail can leave you in a worse position than if you’d done nothing at all.
Both Dominique and Sean had been dabbling with exercises they thought would help them, but neither had noticed any significant improvement.
Just as your endurance training must be customised to your body, so must your strength training. This not only includes the exercises you use but also how you apply them.
As we age we tend to blame aches, pains and deficits in performance on getting older. Endurance athletes are no different.
Whilst we can’t stop the ageing process completely, regular strength training can have a profound impact on many of these changes.
If you’ve noticed your performance is declining and you’re suffering with an ever increasing inventory of aches and pains, strength training will likely help.