Before I begin, let’s be clear on what I mean when I mention ‘strength training’:
I am not talking about bodybuilding or ‘pump’ training, which stimulates puffy muscle and some degree of strength gains. This type of training is generally high volumes of 8-15 repetition sets, often comprising super-sets (immediate succession) with another exercise.
While bodybuilding training has its purpose for those competing, I feel it should be reserved for this small population of people (unless of course you want to build superficial mass and thus not maximise your strength and/or power-to-weight potential). Moreover, higher repetition training with sub maximal loads can be an appropriate choice for those of us with joint issues, who cannot tolerate higher loads.*
Proper strength training is resistance training that stimulates the neuromuscular (NM) system in a significant and meaningful way. This is usually achieved with a weight that is only able to be moved between 3-8 repetitions (reps). Training at such a high intensity necessitates a 3-4 minute recovery between sets to prime the nervous system for subsequent efforts.
The NM system is similarly strengthened by short, infrequent, sprints that are carried out at near maximal effort.
Challenging the NM system in this fashion is important because it increases the frequency and number of action potentials that stimulate muscle fibres. Moreover, lower rep ranges of high intensity induce myofibrillar hypertrophy and hormesis.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy (hypertrophy = muscle growth) induces a dense look (muscle that is more sustainable and powerful), as the myofibril is the smallest contractile unit of a muscle fibre. This is in contrast to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which essentially constitutes the fluid-centric surroundings of the myofibril within a muscle fibre (giving a soft yet bulky look; this muscle is transient and will generally diminish if not active for a 5+ days).
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can be useful for those wanting to ‘bring up’ a weak group or area of muscle(s), but if used as the foundation of a weights program will lead to PMS (‘puffy male syndrome’). This condition is commonplace in most suburban gyms, and is far from a desirable look…
Hormesis is a very important factor in anti-ageing, as it is the adaptive response to small doses of potentially toxic activities or substances. These things are potentially toxic in that they can kill a person if one’s exposure to it is prolonged. Hence, heavy resistance training alters our gene expression in an immensely positive way.
CRUX OF THIS ARTICLE (MY RECENT ANECDOTE)
Prior to a recent running event that I participated in, I had held a certain hypothesis for a while, without looking to deeply in to it.
My hypothesis was this: strength training alone (even in the absence of cardiovascular-specific training; i.e running in this case) can drastically improve one’s endurance capacity. And on the other hand, endurance training does not contribute to heightened strength ability, but diminishes it (as I experienced first-hand).
Now, to give you some context before I elaborate…
Between 2011-2013 I became quite obsessed with middle-distance running, and the competition side of things. Up until 2010 I had a decent aerobic ability, but considered myself more power-based as I was somewhat talented at triple jump, sprinting & tennis.
From 2011 until the end of 2013 I was running 40-60km a week, seldom missing a day of training, although I did have an injury-induced hiatus here or there. I was good at middle-distance events, but nothing more by AthsVic’s (Athletics Victoria) lofty standards. I had PBs of 17.27 & 35 minutes for 5km & 10km, respectively, in cross country.
Achilles tendinopathy dampened my enjoyment from late 2011 onwards, as my weight wittled down to a meagre 58.5kg. Family members and close friends frequently commented with concern to my well-being, but I would retort with the erroneous mentality that ‘the lighter, the better’, and “all distance runners have my weight-to-height ratio”. This was true, but I neglected the fact that this applied to fully developed elite runners who were paid to perform at the highest level.
I was only 18 years old, competing in grassroots athletics, and naively taking running way too seriously.
Anyway, in light of my injury frustrations and the havoc wreaked on my adolescent hormones (I looked about 14 years old when I graduated from year 12), I put running on the back burner in August, 2013. Christopher Walker, an entrepreneurial neuroscientist from LA, had been in my shoes and offered me invaluable advice to get me back on the right path.
Since then, I have taken a very minimalistic approach to training, training 3 days a week. These training sessions are ~60 minutes of the aforementioned type of strength training, and I try to walk 30 minutes or so on the days I do not train. I am often guilty of sitting all day though, and know I should move more frequently! Also, I will go for a few windsprints (nothing more than 100metres with long recoveries) if I feel zesty – this is perhaps once a fortnight.
Two years on, since following the incredibly effective programs designed by my friend, Gregory O’Gallagher (of Kinobody)…
I am now 80kg (180cm), 8% body fat (from a recent calliper-test by a PT), and feeling better than ever.
My development is not the major reason for writing this post though.
I reluctantly decided to compete in the Airlie Beach Running Festival 5km last Sunday, after 23 months of exclusively heavy weight training and 21.5kg extra baggage. Apart from one 3km jog done 3 days prior the event, I had not jogged more than 100 metres in one given instance.
I say ‘reluctantly’ because I usually hate doing things that I am not prepared for! This was foreign territory for me.
There I was at the start line, a beautifully sunny Whitsundays morning nonetheless, pre-meditating the pain that I would incur. I was always going to try my best, because of my competitive nature, but in no way expected a sub-20 minute time.
For a fairly undulating course, I was pleasantly astounded by my time of 18.48 (3min45secs/kilometre), which placed me 3rd in a field of 215 people.
Now, this time may not be impressive to the seasoned runner, but I feel it defies the law of specificity (to quite a large extent): which emphasises the importance of training in a way that simulates the event being trained for. My time was only 15 seconds per kilometre slower than my personal best, without running training.
I attribute one particular leg exercise, the ‘bulgarian split squat’, to the majority of the crossover effect of strength to endurance performance ability I experienced. This exercise is perhaps the closest exercise to running I have been doing, performing it once a week (3 sets: 5,6,8 reps; weight decreasing each set). Importantly, it is unilateral like running, and serves to maximally activate glute-quadriceps coordination and the deep core muscles.
Why does strength training, perceivably on the other end of the spectrum to endurance training, benefit endurance performance so profoundly?
- Resistance increases endurance via increased cardiac output (amount of blood ejected by the heart per minute). Cardiac output (Q) = stroke volume X heart rate, and strength training greatly enhances stroke volume by virtue of cardiac muscle hypertrophy, and ventricular volume.
- Resistance aids in lactic acid clearance. With every muscular contraction, breakdown of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) releases a hydrogen ion which can lead to an acidic cellular environment if not disposed of efficiently. Frequent resistance training accelerates the rate at which the H+ ion can be used by the mitochondria (aerobic powerhouse) to re-produce ATP. In short, aerobic energy production is facilitated.
- Resistance translates in to greater muscle motor-unit recruitment through action potential propagation. This is important because reduced action potential signalling is often a limiting factor in endurance events, when the nervous system fails to continually stimulate the desired muscle. In this instance, the muscles may still be capable, but they are not receiving the commands from the central governor (the central nervous system).
I write this article empathetically, both to those who think regular cardio (beyond the intensity of brisk walking) is the panacea for fat loss and body composition goals; and to those who fear adding too much ‘bulk’ will interfere with their endurance endeavours. The bulk misconception needs to be allayed, particularly for people who already train a lot.
A few strength training sessions substituted in for your runs will only benefit your progress. The truth is that your nutrition will determine how much added mass you gain, and I recall from my own experience how even 40km a week of running made it increasingly difficult to put on weight. While I lost a lot of weight, I was weak as hell and likely lost a proportional amount of muscle to fat.
It pains me to see older adults pounding either the treadmill or pavement day in, day out, going the same pace and intensity…Junk miles. Rather go for a nice, long walk or hike. I once dug myself this hole too, and with the privilege of retrospect, I would have ensured to establish a dichotomy between EASY and HARD days.
If I had my time again and was still competing in running events, I would run 2-3 quality sessions a week of near maximal effort, and supplement this with ~2 whole body weight training sessions, making sure to have a few easy days.
Strength training is even more-so apposite for the older population because of sarcopenia, age-related muscle loss. Sarcopenia is generally thought to cause a 1% loss of muscle per year after the age of 35, and is accelerated exponentially after 60.
Why would you want to accelerate this morbid process that drains your youthful muscle? Running at this middle-ground, sub-maximal effort is tremendously catabolic (breakdown of tissue). Infrequent bursts of high intensity efforts is anabolic and hormetic.
One should strive to enter their older adulthood with as much lean-mass as possible. This would undoubtedly contribute to enhanced quality of life in twilight years, and reduce the likelihood of incidents related to physical incompetence.
On a somewhat similar note, the constantly perpetuated myth that ‘your metabolism slows down as you age’ is only true if YOU slow down. Metabolism will remain high as long as we keep moving as much as possible. Incidental activity is a blessing.
Muscle mass will mostly be preserved if a few high quality resistance sessions are performed consistently. Gregory O’Gallagher’s philosophies have shown me that 2-3, 45 minutes sessions is all that is required. Of course, a wholesome diet will be paramount in whether or not connective tissue problems manifest themselves as one ages*.
If you have read to this point, I greatly appreciate your interest! I really hope that you can discern my intense passion for strength training, and are similarly surprised at how weight training can so impressively benefit endurance.
PS: Please email me with any ideas for future blog posts, or areas that interest you.