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Weight training and endurance training partnership?

By: John Shepherd
From: Does weight training and endurance training make the perfect sports conditioning partnership?
Link: Concept2.co.uk

About The Author

John Shepherd is a specialist sports, health and fitness writer and is Ultra-FIT magazine's contributing editor. He has authored two best selling fitness books: Ultra-FIT: your own personal trainer and The Complete guide to sports training - both published by A&C Black. John was an international athlete.

Does weight training and endurance training make the perfect sports conditioning partnership?

Let's begin with the logical assumption that weight training benefits endurance athletes by focussing on rowing. Rowing requires an anaerobic contribution of about 30% for the 2k race distance (although this can vary between individuals and in regard to age). In consequence rowers train their short term anaerobic systems as they race sharpen. These workouts are of high-intensity short duration, for example, 30 seconds to five-minute intervals, with very short often 1:1 recoveries. These workouts target all muscle fibre types, but specifically hit the fast twitch variety (type IIa and type IIb). These fibres contribute much of the power for these turbocharged efforts. Logic says that weight training these fast twitch fibres will be beneficial as weight training tends to target fast twitch fibres.

Rowing research

Bell1 and associates looked at the effects of three different weight training programmes on 18 varsity rowers during their winter training. One group performed 18-22 high-velocity, low-resistance repetitions (thus targeting slow twitch fibres), while another did 6-8 low-velocity, high-resistance (fast twitch targeting) repetitions. All exercises were rowing-specific and were performed on variable-resistance hydraulic equipment four times a week for five weeks. A third group did no resistance training. All groups carried out their normal endurance rowing training. So what happened? When tested on a rowing ergometer the researchers found no difference between any of the groups in terms of peak power output or peak lactate levels (lactate is produced at all levels of energy production and is part of the energy creation process. The greater its level, the more intense the workout). So weight training served no purpose. Similar finding were made by researchers at the University of Ohio2 whose elite male weight-training rowers displayed no increase in VO2 max, when compared to a rowing only group who improved their VO2 max by up to 16% during pre-season training (VO2 max is a measure of aerobic capacity and references the maximum amount of oxygen the body can process).

Research from other sports

Tanaka and team3 looked at the effects of weight training on swimming. 24 experienced swimmers were surveyed over 14 weeks of their competitive season. The swimmers were divided into two groups of 12 and matched for stroke specialities and performance. One group performed resistance training three days a week, on alternate days for eight weeks, the other group did no weight training. Weights were selected for their swimming specificity - both fixed and free weights were used. The swimmers performed three sets of 8-12 repetitions on: lat pull downs, elbow extensions, bent arm flyes, dips and chin-ups. The weights were progressively increased over the duration of the training period. Two weeks away from their major competition a tapering period took place. So what did the researchers discover? As with the rowing studies it was found that weight training did not improve swim performance, despite the fact that those swimmers who combined resistance and swim training increased their strength by 25-35%.
Paavolainian et al4 considered the effect of weight training (and other power training methods) on the performance of x-country skiers - long considered the epitome of aerobic athletes. Seven skiers performed explosive strength training including plyometrics (jumping type exercises). In terms of weights they performed 80% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM ) squats regularly. Another eight of their peers performed three weeks of endurance based, high repetition strength training for the legs and arms. At the end of the survey Paavolainian cited no difference in VO2max or aerobic or anaerobic threshold.

Why weight training and endurance training might not actually be the perfect couple

Tanaka introduced weight training into the competitive phase of his swimmers - perhaps not the best time to do so. It's possible that the swimmers' performances could have actually been impaired by the added training load, rather than improved by it. Paavolainian got one group of his skiers to perform very dynamic exercises and admitted that their ability to express peak power improved accordingly, but what good is this to a x- country skier who requires one of the most highly developed aerobic systems of any athlete? Additionally the strength endurance group also showed no positive benefit, but perhaps they were doing the wrong weight training - more on this later. Or as the exercise scientist Saziorski5 suggests as theirs was an ultra-endurance sport weight training held little direct relevance to improving their performance in the first place. He believes that maximum strength is of little importance to sports with a maximum strength requirement of less than 30%.
The rowing findings are more difficult to explain but there is a possible answer. It's argued that when an endurance athlete reaches a certain level of performance strength - this can be developed through their everyday CV training or with weight training (or other resistance training methods) that further improvements in weights based strength will not bring about any further improvements in sport performance. As the rowers in the studies were all at a high level of performance it could be argued that they already had more than enough 'performance' strength developed over years and years of correctly executed rowing technique. The author is aware of the comments of top rowers, such as Jonny Searle who have a similar belief in the direct contribution to rowing.
The interference effect - why weights and endurance training can get in each others way
 Shepard6 offers a very succinct explanation as to why weigh training and endurance training can be the wrong bed-fellows:
'Some of the most important and influential factors that result from physical conditioning occur at the cellular level in the muscles, that is the majority of training effects are peripheral. The number and size of mitochondria, the amount ... of ATP and CP (energy producing chemicals) that are stored and the concentrations of key enzymes associated with particular energy systems are increased. Training is specific and selective of the types of muscle fibres used. That selectivity will determine the nature of training effects and the type of performance that is improved.'
Basically he's saying that training different energy systems at the same time can produce a confused physiological affect. How can fast twitch type IIb fibre be expected to gain in its size and power generating capacity through weight training, if it is being relentlessly bombarded in the same training phase, indeed workout, by extensive long slow distance work or intense interval training designed to improve its endurance?

Can weight training be of any use to rowers and endurance athletes?

1. Select the best weight training option for your sport:

Choose a weight training methodology and exercises that develop as close as possible the physiological and neuromuscular responses/patterns produced/required by your sport. As an example circuit resistance training can offer a great deal for the endurance athlete as it targets slow twitch muscle fibre and can develop VO2 max and lactate threshold. Use a weight set at 50-60% of 1RM. It seems less likely to interfere with the development of enhanced endurance capacity. Concept2's weight training plans follow a similar methodology.

2. Carefully consider the training variables of 'order and recovery' when combining endurance and CV training:

Maximise your recovery time between the two methods in your workout schedules and perhaps even consider weight training your legs in separate specific workouts. Sporer et al7 looked at the effects of weight training on aerobic/anaerobic CV performance. Sixteen male collegiate athletes experienced with strength training, submaximal aerobic training and high intensity anaerobic interval training took part in a research study to see if the type and intensity of aerobic training affected concurrent strength training after four, eight and 24 hours of recovery. One group performed steady state work at 70% of heart rate max (HRMax) and another 95-100% intervals, with 40% HRMax recoveries. Both groups then performed 1RM maximum strength testing on bench press and leg press. It was discovered that for both the steady-state and the interval training groups that strength training gains were compromised by the endurance work unless adequate rest was allowed. Specifically the participants' leg muscles were (not surprisingly) negatively effected by their aerobic training as measured by the leg press, although bench press performance was not. In consequence Sporer recommended that at least eight hours be allowed between aerobic training and strength training if the athlete must do both workouts in one day and that lower body strength training should be performed on a different day to any aerobic training.

3. Develop weights' strength in a specific training cycle:

Expanding on point 2 coach/athlete could consider the possible benefits of developing strength in a specific training cycle away from endurance training, particularly at the beginning of the training year to minimise the interference effect. Periodic returns to weight training micro-cycles could then be used to 'top-up' strength levels. Under these conditions a Canadian study of rowers8 ) discovered that a group that strength trained for five weeks before five weeks of endurance training profited from a 16% increase in VO2 max and 27% improvement in lactate tolerance after the 10 week programme, whilst a group that trained in the reverse order only gained a 7% increase in VO2max and displayed no improvements in lactate tolerance. The explanation? The strength before endurance group gained quality rowing muscle, without compromise and were able to use it to row harder and faster with greater fatigue resistance when they endurance trained. Working out for weight training gains alone, may have enabled them to push beyond their 'normal' previously conditioned rowing power levels.

4. Weight train for injury prevention:

Finally, if you are an endurance athlete you should use weight training (and other suitable pre-conditioning exercises) to avoid injury. Doing this will bolster your soft tissue (ligaments, muscles and tendons) against injury.


There are rowing coaches that believe in the value of heavy and lighter weight training routines for their charges. However, the majority of research indicates that weight training will have very little direct effect on improved endurance. Coach/athlete will have to account for the training maturity of the athlete, their strengths and weaknesses, their injury history and the time in the training year when deciding when and what type of weight training to perform. Careful monitoring should also be applied for evaluation. Note: weight training (and other resistance methods) IS very important for injury prevention.


1. Bell, G.J., Petersen, S.R., Quinney, A.H., Wenger, H.A. (1993). The effect of velocity-specific strength training on peak torque and anaerobic rowing power. Journal of Sports Sciences, 7, 205-214, 1989. back
2.Medicine and science in sport and exercise, vol 26 (5) p575 1994.
3. Tanaka, H., Costill, D.L., Thomas, R., Fink, W.J., Widrick, J.J. (1993). Dry-land resistance training for competitive swimming. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 25, 952-959.
4. Paavolainen, L., Hakkinen, K., Rusko, H. (1991). Effects of explosive type strength training on physical performance characteristics in cross-country skiers. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 62, 251-255.
5. In Dick F - Sports Training Principles p238 Theroy and practice of strength development A and C Black 4th edition 2002.
6. Shepard RJ Aerobic vs Anaerobic Training for success in various athletic events.
7. Spoorer - Effects of aerobic exercise on strength performance following various periods of recovery. Journal of strength and conditioning research 2003 nov17 (4) 638-644.
8. Sequencing of endurance and high velocity training - Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Science vol: 13:4 pp214-19 1988.

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