SCIENCE TALK: Energy systems and strength training

There are three energy systems in human body. I’m not going to explain how they break down, to avoid making this post extra long. I’m going to briefly introduce them and explain their relationship to strength training especially for distance runners and why runners should vary strength training types.

The ATP-PC (adenosine triphosphate – creatine phosphate) – short duration, maximum intensity, last less than 10 seconds. Such as 100m sprint, high jump. It doesn’t need oxygen and there are no by-products in the system. In any active the first few seconds body use stored ATP supplies, before CP kick in to support declining ATP.

Anaerobic glycolysis energy system – short duration, moderate intensity, most effective in 30-60 seconds, but last up to 2 minutes. Such as 400 to 800 meter running. Carbohydrates from muscles, glycogen and blood glucose are the only fuel source and the lactic acid is the main by-products.

Aerobic energy system (oxidative system) – long duration, low intensity. Such as long distance running, football. System is activated at very beginning but becomes predominant after 1 minute. System use two fuel sources; aerobic glycolysis or the glucose (broken down from carbohydrates), but longer period it also use aerobic lipolysis or lipids (fat). Aerobic system by-products are carbon dioxide and water. It last as long as there are sufficient level of blood glucose, these can be always top up during the exercise.

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Even though you are long distance runner, you need ATP-PC and anaerobic energy systems to even start running. Also we are not running at the pace the whole marathon or every exercise. What role these energy system play in runner’s strength training? Runners often think they need to train light weight, long sets with long breaks. Wrong!

Short interval running is excellent way to use ATP-PC and anaerobic energy and train lactate tolerance, and of course the main way when speaking about running. Let broke down running form more, running a long distance and low intensive weight training both develop endurance. To be able to run long distance you need that endurance, but you also need good running form to be more energy-efficient and avoiding injuries. Leg joint takes body weight over three times each step during running, so you need to strong base. Strong leg and core muscles, doesn’t mean bulky look.

Some studies shows that running doesn’t increase flexibility but making lunge with weights increases flexibility more than without weights. Also weight lifting recruit more muscle fibres than when we run. This neuromuscular stimulation send signals to muscles that we don’t use during running. By stimulating these muscles we can recruit them to take part running, this can provide more energy.

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Table 1. Dr. William A. Sands, Jacob J. Wurth & Dr. Jennifer K. Hewit, Basics of strength and conditionin manual, 2012
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Table 2.

In table 1 can be seen amount of repetition considering the training goal. Table 2 shows how much ATP is restored considering the time elapsed between sets. Developing strength means 1-6 reps, with heavy weights. The time between the sets depends how many sets you want to do, we can see that 3 minutes break restore almost all of the ATP, which means that body is more able to perform 6 reps, whereas only 30 seconds means that you are not able perform many reps or sets.

Do 2-3 sets of 8 reps, moderately short time break, to develop strength.

So, do you need to do only heavy weight training now on? 

No. To be able make progress no one can training the whole year by doing the same exercise week after week. There are some elite group like Nike Oregon which train speed all around the year, but they also take couple training break during the year and are accustomed their body that. Most of the runners break training in different cycles; building basic such as endurance, speed, race reparation and these can be break down even more. Same goes with strength training. Remember that some exercises which are good for runners are not even able to perform with heavy weights.

Should you train like body builder?

No, weight training is only supportive training, running is still the main thing, even though there are few runners who can lift massive amount of weight and still run fast times, most of the people can’t do that. If you are not familiar to lifting heavy or even strength training start easy. Runners only need to do run specific exercises and exercises which help them recruit muscles that can help them during running, no hit the maximum every time or compete bench press with others.

If you are not sure when to train strength and when endurance in the gym, or what kind of exercises you should perform, ask strength and conditioning coach who is familiar with runner strength training or the running coach who is familiar strength training.


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