Strength train to improve aerobic endurance performance and lose fat. I’m not big on aerobic training, but a fascinating new study conducted on elite cyclists compared regular cycling training (just cycling, no training) with strength training in conjunction with regular cycling training. The strength training program consisted of only lower body exercises (4 sets of leg extension, incline leg press, hamstring curls, and calf raises).
Concurrent strength and endurance training (concurrent group) resulted in improved cycling economy, better 45-minute time trial performance, and an increase in type IIa muscle fibers that are powerful but fatigue resistant. The group that only performed cycling training with no strength training (enduarnce group) did not see these gains.
The study was one of the first to compare the two modes in elite athletes, providing extremely convincing support for a dual program that includes resistance training for endurance athletes. It’s well established that strength training will improve anaerobic capacity in sports with intermittent, intense spurts of activity such as basketball and football, and this study confirms that it’s an essential component of exercise modes that require a more aerobic energy system.
Muscle hypertrophy is a common concern for elite endurance athletes in sports such as soccer, running, and cycling–especially those in which muscle forces are generated to support the body mass against gravity. This study showed that a 16-week concurrent program resulted in no increase in body mass and they decreased fat mass by an average of almost two percentage points. In comparison, the endurance group decreased fat mass by an average of 0.8 percentage points and maintained body mass. The concurrent group did gain lean mass , but the fact that they had no increase in body weight and lost fat, is a preferred body composition to their pre-training state.
Researchers found no increase in either group in the cross sectional area of the quadriceps, which indicates no hypertrophy occurred. They do note that the increase in lean mass in the concurrent group was likely due to body composition remodeling and hypertrophy of other muscles such as the hip extensors or low back extensors, which may have contributed to better time trial performance.
Although muscle fiber area didn’t change from baseline, there was an increase in the proportion of type IIa muscle fibers and a decrease in type IIx fibers in the concurrent group, indicating a more powerful muscle fiber composition. Even more convincing is that maximal voluntary force production increased by 12 percent in the quadriceps in the concurrent group and performance increased by 8 percent in the 45-minute time trial, whereas the endurance group had no changes in either. Short-term endurance performance (measured with a 5-minute all-out cycling test) found that both groups had statistically similar performances, with the concurrent group performing slightly better. Maximal oxygen uptake was unchanged in both groups.
Better performance in the group that did both strength and endurance cycling was likely due to improved muscle strength and rapid force capacity due to the fiber type shift from type IIx to type IIa fibers. Researchers suggest neural adaptations contributed to improved strength and rate of force development since no hypertrophy was seen.
Be aware there was no decrease in vascularization in the concurrent group. This is an important variable for endurance athlete because it allows more oxygenated blood to reach muscles faster—as measured by the average number of capillaries in contact with each myofiber.
Additional benefits of strength training for endurance athletes include increased insulin sensitivity and possibly less acute oxidative stress from their regular aerobic training. Another obvious advantage is better structural balance and fewer injuries—strength training is essential!
Aagaard, P., Andersen J., et al. Effects of Resistance Training on Endurance Capacity and Muscle Fiber Composition in Young Top-Level Cyclists. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 2011. Published Ahead of Print.
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