Last week when I hosted my Q&A on Facebook, a former client, Trevor, asked a question regarding endurance training and balancing that with strength training for health and longevity. While I answered the question in the video I thought it deserved a deeper dive as I think this topic is very important. In today’s post I outline the many benefits of strength training, both as an endurance athlete looking to perform in their sport, and for athletes concerned about the overall health and longevity.
Here’s something I’ve been thinking about if you feel like answering during the Q&A!
We often hear from health experts in our space that lean muscle mass correlates strongly with longevity and healthspan, and we should be doing everything we can to gain or preserve it as we age. How should athletes think about that in terms of training for muscle mass vs performance? As we know they are sometimes at odds. One could go all in on resistance training for hypertrophy at one extreme or only train for ultra endurance at the other. I realize it depends on individual goals, but I’m interested more in the topic of an ideal balance, if there is such a thing, somewhat irrespective of goals. Where do you find yourself on that balance?
Thanks for the excellent question, I really appreciate it!
I think in answering your question there are three things we need to look at:
- Why is having more muscle/strength beneficial for longevity and healthspan?
- Will endurance exercise take away or contribute to longevity and healthspan?
- How does personal preference play into this and does it have an effect on longevity and healthspan?
We know that as we age that a few things happen that work against us from a longevity and healthspan perspective.
This trifecta of aging can severely increase our chances of dying prematurely as all three factors work together to ultimately contribute to older individuals falling and breaking a bone and here is how.
The downfall all starts with a lack of physical activity. The more sedentary you are, the more your flexibility will start to decrease. Due to limited flexibility, you are going to start to put yourself in compromised positions when doing everyday tasks. For example, maybe it forces you to use a stool because you no longer possess the range of motion to reach over your head. Being higher up on a stool will put you in a position you are not used to and therefore challenges your balance. Balancing is extremely hard to do and challenges even the fittest individuals. With a lack of strength training, the muscles you use to balance will not be strengthened and makes you more likely to fall. When you fall you are more likely to break a bone because your bones are more brittle. What are the downstream consequences of breaking a bone?
It is a guarantee you are going to have to go to the hospital in order to have x-rays and be diagnosed. At best you might be there for a few hours, at worst you end up having surgery and being there for several days or longer. Once you are in the hospital, your risk of getting some kind of infection will go up and since your health is already compromised, you will have a greater risk of passing away due to that infection. Hip fractures are extremely common when older adults fall and it has been shown that if you break your hip, your risk of dying from all causes goes up, including things like dementia, circulatory disease, respiratory disease, and digestive system disease.
What endurance athletes need to recognize is that you don’t need to spend hours in the gym strength training and the strength training does not require putting on a bunch of lean mass. Instead all that is required for optimal healthspan and longevity is maintaining their muscle and building strength, neither of which requires putting on more mass. Most recreational endurance athletes can spend just 2 days a week in the gym for 30-45 minutes and send the signal to their body to keep their muscle mass. If they focus on low rep training, somewhere in the range of 1-5 reps, they will easily maintain if not increase their strength while not adding a ton of mass to their body. In my eyes, that is a “win win situation” for any endurance athlete.
One potential negative to endurance exercise might be the development of atrial fibrillation, a common cause of an irregular heartbeat that can make you more susceptible to heart attacks and strokes. One study showed nearly a 5 fold increase of AF in athletes. However, many endurance athletes do not develop this condition, so while endurance exercise may contribute to the development of the condition it is not the only cause and it is not a guarantee. Training age, sex, your sport, and your genetics all play a role in whether you may develop AF or not.
The other “problem” with endurance exercise is that in order to train for longer events, athletes tend to put more of a focus on cardio based exercise while sacrificing strength training. In addition, some endurance athletes avoid strength training because they think (incorrectly) that strength training is going to add mass to their body, which would in turn negatively affect their performance. Younger endurance athletes may be able to get away with this lack of strength training, but as you age you become more and more likely to lose muscle mass, flexibility, and bone mass due to the aging process as described above.
There are a lot of benefits to exercise besides the physiological ones, and we should consider some of the other benefits and their effect on healthspan and longevity as well. One such benefit is community. Having a community means you are going to have more social interactions which has been shown to be a key factor in mortality. My personal opinion is that endurance sports lend themselves more to community vs strength training. Often in endurance sports you train and race with like minded people and form relationships from doing so. Strength training is more of a solo endeavour in most cases (with the exception of CrossFit). Having a community and social interactions are a very important piece to long term health.
In addition endurance exercise is (typically) done outside, in nature vs strength training is done indoors in the gym. Being exposed to the sun and nature have many additional health and longevity benefits.
Finally your enjoyment of the exercise is going to play a key role in your mental health and how long you might stick to your exercise practice. If you hate doing strength training, but I tell you that you need to strength train 6 days a week, I guarantee you wont stick to it and end up giving up and doing nothing all together. That certainly is a worse outcome for your health and longevity. If you are that person, then work in the minimal dose of strength training necessary and do what you love to do.
In addition endurance training has many positive benefits to health and longevity as well.
“Eleven case control studies on life expectancy in former athletes revealed consistently greater life expectancy in aerobic endurance athletes but inconsistent results for other athletes.”
My mindset on this has shifted over the past 2-3 years. Three years ago I trained for a Spartan Ulta and put in a TON of endurance training. I didn’t necessarily hate the training, but what I didn’t like was the time commitment and how I felt in the months after the race. I was beat up, trying to do anything strenuous in the months after did not go well. After that I started to do more strength training to counteract the endurance training I was doing. I grew to enjoy the new challenge of strength training, and at the same time I didn’t notice my endurance getting any worse. In fact in my 2019 race season I probably did the least amount of endurance training and far more strength training than I had ever done before and had arguably the best race season of my life. So personally my training is now more balanced 50/50, where I do strength work 3 days a week and then endurance work the other 3 days. I find that I have more muscle mass now than I ever had and feel strong and mobile as well. Funny enough there is even some research that backs up a mix of both endurance and strength training can benefit both adaptations.
So if you are an endurance athlete we know strength training is not only important for your performance, but also for health and longevity. If you are looking for the minimal effective dose of strength training to make sure you don’t lose muscle mass as you age here is what you should do.
- Prioritize what you enjoy! If you hate strength training there is no reason to go crazy and sacrifice your enjoyment of endurance sports.
- Strength train for 30-40 minutes 2-3 times per week.
- Focus on exercises that are going to engage the most muscles, like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. Perform variations of these to make it more specific to your sport of choice. Trap bar deadlifts make more sense than traditional deadlifts for athletes. Single leg split squats will benefit runners more than barbell back squats. Make the exercises give you the most bang for your buck!
- Keep the reps low and the weight heavy (for YOU!).
- Periodize your training. In the offseason of your endurance sport, prioritize strength training and put your endurance training in maintenance mode. During your endurance sports race season put the strength training in maintenance mode and prioritize your endurance training.
Now it is up to you! Just a small amount of strength training can have significant improvements in both your performance in sport and your overall health and longevity. Try implementing some of the steps above and let me know how it impacts you. Hope this helps answer your question, please let me know if anything is unclear.
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