Strength training for women

by: Matt Dixon

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend venturing into the murky depths of online endurance forums, but if you do, you would almost certainly see a discussion thread around the merits of strength training, with more than enough naysayers electronically screaming that there is no role for strength and conditioning within the life of an endurance athlete! I can only bear to read a few lines of these types of discussions, but as with many other topics, those on both sides of opinions often blow past each others point of view, and search for slender validation of their own stance. It is an impossible argument. While I don’t envision heading into the forums to state my case, I will make this statement:

Strength training is critical for female endurance athletes and fitness enthusiasts. 

I say this with the additional context that I believe strength and conditioning to have strong relevance for all athletes, male or female, but add ‘critical’ to the female group. Let's dive in and find out why.

The role of strength training in endurance sports
There are many world-class endurance athletes who never complete strength and conditioning training. This undeniable fact doesn’t mean that it should be the precedent for all athletes to follow, as proper strength and mobility training can play a wonderful supporting role in your overall endurance performance. There are several benefits from a consistently applied program:

  • Improved neuromuscular awareness and synchronization: Learning new skills and technical improvements requires athletic awareness, and a global strength program will assist to improve the athlete’s overall sense of movement and coordination. I often say triathletes aiming to put finger to nose may well poke themselves in the eye, but strength, stability and coordination work will improve this brain-body dialogue.
  • Increased fibers into the usable mix: You increase power and resilience through specific endurance training, but supporting with strength work increases the fibers available for us, to leverage under fatigue. It's a great addition, especially in conjunction with strength-based sport specific training such as low RPM work on the bike, or hill based running.
  • Injury risk reduction: Often touted as ‘the reason’ to add strength, for me it is simply another benefit. Improving mobility around the joint, muscle health and elasticity not only reduces risk of injury, but also improves the potential of the body to recover from hard training more effectively. It is important to note that strength, as a standalone, won’t reduce risk of injury. You must include a smart training plan, properly executed, as well as recovery, sleep, fueling and many other factors, but it’s role is there.

There are other benefits, but let’s stick to these three. All good reasons to find time to integrate strength into any endurance program, but let’s now consider the female athlete. As Dr Stacy Sims (my good friend, and doctor of nutrition and environment physiology) says; ‘women are not small men’. This is a simple, yet effective, lens to look through. Women face a host of hormonal and physiological differences than the typical male athlete. As Stacy outlines in her book, ROAR, it is critical for women to place a higher focus on strength training. Much of this relates to the lower muscle mass that most women have, relative to male peers, but also the fact that estrogen stalls anabolic growth, and progesterone turns up catabolism (the breakdown of muscle tissue). As women age, the regression becomes more pronounced, hence why I like female athletes to begin to prepare for the inevitable aging and hormonal shifts, by integrating strength training throughout their athletic career.

Approaching strength
To be effective, there a few elements that are important for all female athletes to follow when approaching strength training:

  • Consistency: You want to have strength be a part of your training program throughout the year. At the height of race season it may take a back seat, but it is still present. During the rest of the season, aim for 2-3 sessions of high value work each week
  • Overload: Simple core work or a touch of yoga is not strength training. You need to integrate some heavier load, with good form, and/or plyometric based explosive work. This creates the stimulus necessary for positive strength effects. When I say heavy, it is close to maximal effort, while able to maintain form.
  • Progress: You must progress the emphasis throughout the season, and ensure that form remains central to the approach. You can always retain focus on mobility around the joint, some stability and core work, but you want to mix in and mix up the principles of overload. It is a life-long health endeavor, but also an endurance performance catalyst.

If you can commit to consistent and specific strength program you are one step on the path to a great platform of health, developing a tool against anti-aging, and also ensuring you lay the platform to have a little more spring and explosive potential in every pedal stroke, step or arm pull. Add to this the development of resilience and assistance in maintaining form under fatigue, strength training is a key to your overall performance.