Hopefully there has been enough publicity and promotion over recent times for everyone to realise that the sedentary lifestyle of many Australians is at concerning levels. This sedentary lifestyle can go hand in hand with weight and obesity issues, and lead to chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, that could otherwise be completely avoided.

The recommendations for adult Australians (18-64yo) is to complete 150 – 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week, or 75 – 150 minutes of intense physical activity. But what is often missed in these guidelines is another two critical recommendations: firstly to perform 2 sessions of strength training per week (which we’ll cover in this blog) and secondly to minimise the amount of time we spend sitting and in sedentary postures (but that’s for another time).

Within the clinic, it is nice to see that many of our clients are (at least) aware of the activity guidelines, and try and participate in some form of walking, swimming, riding etc, however the vast majority are not aware how important it is to add strength (or resistance) training to your weekly schedule.

Even when in the gym, many who are trying to do the right thing tend to lean towards the slower, endurance, cardio based activities (which is great) but aren’t so keen to join the “big guys and girls” down near the back mirrors. Well…you don’t need to necessarily join them, but perhaps we could all take a modified leaf out of their strength training regimes.

As we get older, the necessity to do strength training increases. As we age, the fine balance between muscle growth and muscle breakdown naturally tips to the side of muscle breakdown (a process we call sarcopaenia) and results in a progressive catabolic (to break down into smaller pieces) effect on our muscles. So as we get older, and certainly from middle age onwards, it is critical that a strength component is added to your fitness regime to help offset the sarcopaenia process.

But for the purpose of this article, we’re going to focus on why strength is important in athletes, and we’ll make the focus even more specific and look at strength in endurance athletes, as there has been a long held belief amongst endurance athletes that stretching is the panacea, and strengthening will result in bulking up and slowing down. In the average endurance athlete program, there is miles and miles of running. And they’ll usually find a spare hour a few times a week to stretch. But if there happens to be a few left over minutes in their week – they’ll run another mile!

Whilst stretching may have some benefits, if stretching is the main thing you do to prepare for running you’re not going to reduce your injury risk or increase your performance! In fact research shows that strengthening can reduce injury risk by up to 69% whereas stretching only reduces risk by around 4%. So for any person out there participating in physical exercise, it seems that the one thing you should add to your program is strength training!

So if we can prove to you that strengthening is good for endurance athletes, then hopefully you can transfer that across to the fact that strengthening is important for us all, young or old, fast or slow, athlete or non athlete!

One of our great physio/running educators, a guy by the name of Rich Willy has studied endurance athletes extensively, and talks about some of the common myths in the running athlete fraternity. Here’s a summary:

  1. Strength training will make me run slower

A common misconception held amongst endurance runners is that resistance training will result in weight gain, therefore resulting in a decrease in running performance. However, total body mass, or weight, does not increase when resistance training is added to an endurance running program. Quite the opposite, improved running economy (the amount of oxygen consumed at a given pace), and faster running performances have been observed in runners who add resistance training to their training routines. For instance, one study showed that 6 weeks of heavy weight training improved 5km race times by nearly 4% in moderately trained runners, whilst no changes were observed in a control group of runners.

  1. Strength training should be high rep, low weight to mimic the endurance demands of running

While heavy strength training results in improvements in endurance running performance, the same effects have not been observed with light, circuit-type resistance training. Furthermore, one of the optimum qualities we need for good tendon function and lower injury risk in tendons, is stiffness! Tendon stiffness improves best with slow, heavy resistance training. In contrast, low-weight, high-repetition resistance training has minimal effect on tendon stiffness. So many runners have experienced Achilles tendon pain and plantar fascia problems – it would appear that strength (not avoidance of exercise, and certainly not stretching) might be the key to prevention and treatment!

  1. The gluteal muscles (“glutes”) are the most important muscles for running

“Strengthen my glutes” is the catch cry of every runner starting in our Pilates and Strength classes. But perhaps it should be “Strengthen my calves”! No doubt the gluteal muscles are important for running, however the calf and the thigh muscles are actually more important during running. Interestingly, the calf muscles contribute about 50% of the force that supports our body during endurance-paced running, however our calf muscle strength declines about 31%  between 20 and 60 years of age … perhaps contributing to the syndrome we call “old man’s calf”: in other words, that relentless calf cramping and straining that occurs so easily during running as we get older. So make sure you add calf (and remember there’s two distinctly different components to your calf that need to be trained individually) and thigh strength to your gym regime.

  1. Runners should do “functional” exercises

Another great catch cry of recent times has been that exercises must be functional – in other words, gym exercises should mimic the action of running. However functional movements practiced during resistance/strength training exercises do not seem to transfer across to running. Sometimes we just need to isolate strength gains to the targeted muscle group and this is best done with simple single joint exercises. So we’re not saying avoid functional exercises, we’re just saying that a runner’s resistance training program should consist of a mix of multi joint (functional) and single-joint exercises to ensure that their muscles and tendons are loaded adequately.

Along with the above mentioned benefits of strength training, other studies have also shown further benefits such as boosted metabolism, better bone structure and less risk of osteoporosis, improved sleep patterns, sharpness of mind, and lower stress levels.

And one final point – strength training doesn’t need to occur at a gym. There are so many different ways to get your resistance training in, you might just need to check in with your physio or Exercise Scientist for ideas!

So if we’ve exposed the myths around the potential adverse effects of strength training, and all the research says that strength helps improve performance, reduce injury risk, and overcome the natural age-related loss of muscle tissue… there’s only one thing left to do: make sure strength and resistance training is  a part of your training regime twice week!

Anthony Lance

SSPC Physiotherapist


References available on request