This has been a big part of conventional wisdom. Another piece of conventional wisdom is to lift for a very finite period of time in the off-season and then scrap strength training altogether for the vast majority of the year. But, more and more, there is a growing body of information speaking to the benefits of strength training – and not just for part of the year but nearly year-round.
One such study published very recently looked at the effects of a half-year period of heavy weight training in top Masters cyclists. The cyclists were split into two groups; for 25 weeks, one group performed 1-2 sessions per week of lower body resistance exercises in addition to their normal cycling training. The other group did no resistance work, and simply carried on with their normal cycling training. At the end of the 25 weeks, both groups began their competitive season, during which they were monitored for the following 8 weeks.
The results left little doubt to the benefits of adding in weight training. Compared to the cyclists who only cycled, the weight-trained Masters cyclists had significantly greater maximal aerobic power and were able to produce more sustainable power at lactate threshold - widely acknowledged as the most reliable indicator of race performance. Even more telling, when these cyclists ceased weight training, they gradually lost their competitive advantage. After 8 weeks, they were no better than the cyclists who hadn't weight trained at all. So, if you don’t use it, you lose it!
This particular study was focused on Masters cyclists, but can certainly be extrapolated out to any Masters endurance athletes. Question: Are any of you reading this surprised by these findings? You probably shouldn’t be. Heavy weight training can improve the performance of all endurance athletes by helping make muscles work more efficiently and stimulating endurance adaptations. When you take a step back, what this article is telling me is that bucking convention is the path to better performances – something ORION Training Systems has been doing for the past quarter century.
So, what’s the definition of “heavy”, you might be asking. Good question! If you are a regular follower, then you know I believe that how we lift weights needs to mimic the phase of training we are in. If we are focused on high-end sprinting, then we should be focused on explosive, fast movement exercises and plyometrics. If we are focusing on improving our LT (lactate threshold), then sets of 10-15 reps with controlled, slower movements to near failure makes sense. And so on. To me, “heavy” is generally defined as singular to multiple sets of 4-15 reps. And, lifting sessions are additive to our primary sports. So, we shouldn’t strive to spend an hour per session in the weight room. We can get a lot of adaptive benefit from 25-45 minutes, with 30 being great. In the off-season, we can throw iron around 3 days a week and reduce this to 2 days for most of the year, finally cutting back to 1 day per week during the heart of our competitive seasons. As stated above, for the final push – call it 3-6 weeks – we can cut weight training out altogether. This will minimize the degradation of the benefits while allowing our muscles to be more fresh for our key workouts that are meant to sharpen the point of our spear as we head into our most important races, our key events.
If you’re a Masters endurance athlete and have shied away from lifting or have only lifted for part of the year, make a commitment to yourself that you will continue lifting for the vast majority of the year. Change up what you do and how you do it based on the nature of the key workouts of any given training cycle. Be regular with your lifting – other studies show that lifting 2 days/week nets about 80% of the gains lifting 3 days/week provides. And, finally, challenge yourself. Use Q-tips to clean the wax out of your ears or remove eye make-up. Hit the weight room with purpose and the right frame of mind so you set yourself up for some enjoyable progress and, ultimately, better race performances.