What Can Aerobic Athletes Learn from Strength Athletes?

For too long, many people have been unwilling to bridge the gap between how aerobic athletes and strength athletes train. It is as though they are on different sides of the training fence and anyone who suggests that there should be similarities in the way these two groups train is considered an outcast. But recently, research shows that things have started to change; at least in terms of what an aerobic athlete can gain from training like a strength athlete. There are so many obvious benefits, that we now know it is not wise for an aerobic athlete to hold onto the notion that strength training isn’t useful for their purposes.

Here are some of the benefits of strength training for aerobic athletes:

Strength training will help avoid injuries

There is a popular saying that if you repeat one movement too often, you’re going to sustain an injury in the overworked area. This is true because, while the body can adapt to becoming very good at the one thing, it starts to become very poor at the things that are not being tended to. Long distance runners, for example, tend to end up with bad knees. Some believe that this is because of the impact running causes to the leg and hip joints.  But this isn’t necessarily the case, because the body eventually adapts to the impact sustained. The actual reason why the knees end up hurting is because the work of running results in an imbalance in the muscles of the upper leg. Distance running doesn’t require a lot of hamstring strength and as a consequence, the hamstrings do not develop well enough to hold the knee in a safe manner. This lack of development decreases the structural strength of the knee and therefore increases the risk of injury.

Strength training will help to eliminate pain caused by muscle imbalances

Many cyclists suffer from knee pain because their IT bands are extremely tight which causes their knee caps to track incorrectly during peddling. (IT Bands – iliotibial – are a tough group of fibres that run along the outside of the thigh.  They function primarily as stabilizers.) This IT Band pain can be avoided if the muscles that pull the knee cap in the other direction are strong enough to hold the knee cap in line. Strength training is the only way to correct this weakness and allow for pain-free riding.

Because strength training improves the body overall, aerobic exercise will seem easier

In almost all sports, performance improves if the athlete is able to generate more relative force from their muscles. The easiest way to increase relative force is to get rid of extra body fat and increase muscle mass. Contrary to popular belief, strength training is much more effective at reducing body fat than performing aerobic exercise. In fact, there is growing evidence that aerobic exercise stops being an effective method for fat loss after about 8 weeks as the body adapts to the demands of the movement. Once this happens, fat loss tapers off and the body stays the same. More often than not, if food intake is not reduced to adjust for this decrease in calorie-burn fat will begin to accumulate and the athlete will be LESS powerful.

Strength training will help make the muscles more powerful, thus increasing relative strength

Making the muscles stronger will boost relative strength. From a practical stand point, a muscle that produces more force will propel an athlete further with each movement when compared to muscle that is weaker. Imagine an athlete who is able to add an inch to stride length because of strength training. Given that stride rate tends to remain stable over the course of a 24 mile marathon, that extra inch is going to mean fewer strides are needed to complete the run, so a runners time will decrease by a significant amount. Even if the stride length only increases by 1 cm, the improvement is going to be dramatic.

Strength training will make the body more efficient at recruiting muscle fibres

The nervous system adapts to the needs of strength training and it becomes more efficient at recruiting more muscle fibres. This improved coordination of firing will result in a further increase in force production. This is different from increasing the strength of the muscle in that a weaker muscle can produce the same amount of force as a stronger muscle if more muscle fibres are recruited, but the outcome is improved stride length and increased force production.

The diet of strength training athletes is very close to the ideal diet for aerobic athletes

Contrary to popular belief, aerobic athletes do not need to consume massive amounts of carbohydrate. However, it must be said, that they need more carbs than the average under-active person.  They should take in similar amounts of protein and good fat as the strength training athlete consumes. The type of carbohydrate consumed should include slowly digested carbohydrates, like oatmeal or sweet potatoes, as well as carbohydrates that are immediately available for energy, quickly digested carbohydrates such as Gatorade, dextrose, maltodextrin, etc… at the time of greatest physical exertion. This is exactly the same way strength training athletes eat. It ensures they get enough energy to fuel their workout and enough protein and fat for body repair.