This article was first published in 2012. It was updated in 2022 to improve the formatting.
If you’re more of a pavement pounder than a gym rat, you probably skip over my monthly musings and head straight for Tim Don’s cardio column. But this month I’m talking specifically to runners, cyclists, rowers and anyone else who prefers long cardio sessions. Because I know how you can get leaner, stronger and faster at your chosen discipline. And yes, the answer lies in strength training. So even if you hate the thought of being stuck in a gym lifting metal, bear with me. You may be surprised at the benefits it offers.
Whatever your distance, strength training will make you faster because of increased leg strength and a greater efficiency in using energy and oxygen, or, in runner’s terms, an improved VO2 max. Research on endurance athletes who introduce strength workouts into their training found a 5% increase in running economy and an astonishing 21.3% increase in the time they could run at their maximum aerobic speed.
Most of the energy burned in the body stems from your resting metabolic rate, which is affected by your proportion of lean muscle to body fat. Body fat slows that rate and produces substances that make you fatter, including aromatase (which turns testosterone into oestrogen) and adipokines (which slows metabolism). Lean muscle tissue improves metabolism instead, so to be a better runner you want more muscle and less fat.
Strength training will rid you of nagging injuries and help you correct structural imbalances that increase injury risk and lead to inefficient movement patterns. For instance, the vastus medialis oblique (VMO) is a common weak link in the quad, and weak calves are thought to contribute to shin pain. Weight training can also decrease chronic pain and minimise aches and joint discomfort from continually pounding the pavement. Heavy strength training triggers protein synthesis in the connective tissues and also increases bone strength.
Scientists have become concerned about the negative health effects of endurance training because of the daily physical stress it causes – it’s been shown to produce a high level of oxidative stress, which can lead to chronic inflammation. Strength training helps you avoid the debilitating impact of this stress. A moderate-to-heavy strength training programme has been shown to increase antioxidant levels and counter oxidative stress by increasing your body’s testosterone and reducing cortisol, making you healthier, stronger and faster.
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One of the world's premier strength coaches, Charles Poliquin has successfully trained professional athletes and Olympians worldwide. Poliquin writes a monthly column for Men's Fitness about how to train as effectively as possible.