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Applying the Principles of Minimal-Dose Resistance Training to Endurance Athletes

A 2022 study in Sports Medicine reviewed the fascinating field of minimal-dose resistance training. Even very small strength training stimuli can lead to major benefits in the general population when done consistently over time. Here's why.

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Running training is boring. Yes, I am obsessed with it, but that is not a point in its favor. When I was a kid, I would play sports video games for hundreds of hours without ever actually playing a game. Instead, I would play the “Franchise Mode,” imagining myself as the general manager and coach, doing decades of roster moves to try to get the Cleveland Browns or the Charlotte Hornets or whoever to win a few more games over time. I let the computer simulate the actual games, pumping my fist with each win like I was Tiger Woods at the Masters.

In the least shocking news of the century, I didn’t have many dates in high school.

So yes, I am obsessed with running training and have written thousands of articles and recorded hundreds of podcasts on the nuances of the field, but I’m not oblivious to how it may seem on the outside. Running training for top performance is mostly understood, with the small variations being interesting to me and other sickos. Run lots, mostly easy, with some sustainable speed work, and high-output strides. Repeat for 10+ years, with minor changes to spur new adaptations. Even with all the wrinkles I write about, most elite athlete running training is 90% similar.

But you know what’s not boring? Strength training. No one does the same shit. My co-coach Megan and I are PASSIONATE about a low-stress, repeatable approach to strength characterized by Mountain Legs and Speed Legs, done 3 to 5 times per week. Other coaches think that’s a crock-pot of BS (to them I respectfully say, “scoreboard”). But we admit that we only know some of what works for some of our athletes. There are professional runners that do max deadlifts, and pros that wouldn’t touch a weight with a twelve-foot pole. There are beasts that spend 6 hours a week in the gym, and bosses that would lose a mixed-martial arts fight to a slight breeze. 

What the heck is going on?

I’m not going to answer that today. I am writing this on July 4th, and all I plan to lift today is a double cheeseburger. Instead, I want to highlight a wonderful new review article that may motivate you to believe in small amounts of strength work, even if it’s not a formal routine.

The 2022 review in Sports Medicine by Jackson J. Fyfe, D. Lee Hamilton, and Robin M. Daly is on the world of minimal-dose resistance training. Countless studies indicate that resistance training has great benefits. But adherence to strength programs is low. The review presents evidence that the minimal dose of resistance training needed to spur benefits across the population can be very low. And I think that points toward the importance of doing strength work for all athletes, even if it’s a quick dose once or twice a week.

RELATED: The New Rules Of Strength Training For Trail Runners

Minimal-Dose Resistance Training Overview

You probably know that resistance training is key for health for most people. “Use it or lose it” applies to just about everything with our bodies over time. Across the population, resistance training is associated with lower all-cause mortality, reduced musculoskeletal pain, reduced blood pressure, and even less incidence of anxiety and depression. That’s especially important with age. As the authors say: “Even in those already meeting aerobic exercise guidelines, meeting muscle strengthening activity guidelines independently reduces the risk of age-related losses of muscle mass, strength, and function.”

For advanced athletes, strength training is especially important for bone health and bone mineral density, with many endurance athletes measuring low on scans. Plus, many studies (like this one from 2008 in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise) show that it could have a positive impact on running economy. My guess is that your response to these paragraphs is “no shit, Sherlock.” 

But why is strength training so hard to be consistent with, even knowing how beneficial it can be? For myself at least, after I run, I don’t want to do shit, Watson.

An emerging field of Exercise Epidemiology seeks to quantify and address these problems. I love these next two studies from the field. A 2020 study in Sports Medicine Open provided a striking summary of the problem: 50% of adults meet the aerobic exercise recommendations of greater than 150 minutes per week, but only 10-30% manage the recommended 2 strength sessions per week. That’s a staggering offset, especially when those 2 strength sessions can be relatively short. A 2016 study in PLoS One out of Australia on nearly 200,000 individuals found that under 10% were meeting strength guidelines! 

The authors of the 2022 review summarize the problem: “Such poor engagement with resistance training is likely due to numerous potential barriers including time constraints, a high perceived difficulty and/or complexity, and limited access to facilities and equipment.” Even in athletes that run tons of miles per week, adherence is a major issue. When I write about strength work, I try to keep routines to 10 minutes or less because I have seen in myself that unless the barrier to entry could be jumped by a tortoise, I am going to fall off within a few weeks.

That’s where minimal-dose resistance training comes in, involving substantially lower session volumes. For aerobic exercise recommendations, the American College of Sports Medicine indicates that brief, vigorous exercise sessions can be 5 minutes or less, and a 2020 review in the Journal of Physiology distinguished between those brief sessions and “exercise snacks,” which can be as short as 20 seconds at a time throughout the day. My favorite exercise snack is speed-eating a bag of Fritos.

The authors of the review apply the principles to resistance training, presenting the evidence in favor of minimal doses in the general population that can be less than 15 minutes at a time, done frequently in the week, with lower load/intensity. Check out the lead author’s great summary thread on Twitter. And I especially love those conclusions when read together with another 2022 study, this one in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. Hold onto your butts, because this one is extra fun.

Gains From Minimal-Dose Resistance Training

The authors of the Research Quarterly study analyzed data from 14,690 participants, with an average age of 48, who completed minimal-dose resistance training for up to 6.8 years. In the study, minimal-dose was defined as just one time per week, with single sets to momentary failure of six exercises. That’s a shockingly small dose, right? What beneficial adaptations could that possibly provide?

In the first year, participants had 30-50% gains in strength. Over 6 years, they reached 50-60% beyond their baselines. Thus, there seems to be rapid gains, with a later plateau. But that’s the way all training works! We’re not looking to create roided-up linebackers for the Cleveland Browns (who I would draft in the first round of my Franchise Mode), we’re looking for a strength stimulus that gets the undeniable benefits of resistance training without athletes bailing altogether.

Similarly, a 2021 review article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that strength could be maintained in younger populations with 1 session a week and 1 set per exercise, as long as relative intensity is maintained. In older populations, that increases to 2 sessions per week. 

Less is not necessarily more, but less is more than zero.

The body of research on minimal-dose strength training has some important context. A 2018 article on resistance training in Sports Medicine put the research in a different light: “The overarching principle argued herein is that volume is the most easily modifiable variable that has the most evidenced-based response with important repercussions, be these muscle hypertrophy or health-related outcomes.” Less is not necessarily more, but less is more than zero.

RELATED: A Trail Runner’s Guide to Strength Training

The big conclusion? Do some strength work year-round. 

It can be six exercises once a week! But do something, for your bones if nothing else. Take it to the bank and deposit it in 20-year savings bonds like your grandma gave you on your birthday.

And now we’ll conclude with a bit more speculative investment. This could be Bitcoin in 2010 (brilliant!) or it could be Bitcoin now (a vibes-based investment with crappy vibes). I think that right at this moment, you should start a minimal-dose-style program and keep it going for the rest of your athletic life. Let’s quickly break down two reasons.

One: Even a very small amount of strength work has benefits, so make sure you can accrue those benefits over many years.

Based on literature in the field of Exercise Epidemiology, I think almost everyone would agree with point one. The strength program you do is infinitely better than the strength program that you don’t. I have seen dozens of athletes post strength videos on Instagram, only to fall off that wagon later on. Heck, I have done it myself. Having a background pulse of a minimal-dose program is helpful, even if you go beyond that at other times in your athletic journey.

Two: There is an inflection point where intense strength programs risk creating excess stress that detracts from endurance performance.

And here we start to wade into controversial waters. A shark carrying a kettlebell may bite my head off if I’m not safe, so to be clear: this only applies to athletes designing their own programs while pursuing peak performance in running, and not to experts in the field. Strength coaches are awesome. I am not a strength coach. If there was a strength coaching video game, I would probably simulate all of the sessions while eating Fritos.

But here’s the conundrum: running training is a constant battle against breakdown. This breakdown can be seen in blood tests, with inflammation markers, cortisol, and creatine kinase stacking up during heavy training blocks, with potential downstream impacts to other biomarkers and health more generally. For many athletes, they are not limited by how much they can pour into the stress cup, they are limited by the size of the stress cup. Lifting is a major stress. A big session in the gym can do similar things to biomarkers as an ultra. And even a moderate session with heavy loading can look a lot like a hard workout at the cellular level.

That’s amazing if an athlete can adapt to the stress. But what if their stress cup was already full? Then they are faced with two options: either reduce their aerobic training to make room, or run into the brick wall that is overreaching (and later on, overtraining). I never want strength work to detract from an athlete’s ability to put in the endurance work needed to be successful, outside of an initial adaptation period.

Remember, all of the best runners in the world do relatively similar running training, consisting of a relatively high volume of aerobic work. That’s the prerequisite. Strength is common but not as ubiquitous. So make sure the extra credit doesn’t prevent you from doing your homework.

And even if an athlete is not overcooked by stress, the response to heavier strength work may depend on individual factors like muscle fiber typology that make outcomes less reliable. I have seen athletes do squats and deadlifts and get faster, like is reflected in many research studies. I have also seen some get immensely slower from similar protocols. Some have great endurance supported by traditional lifting programs, others see their endurance melt away. 

My guess is that has to do with muscle fiber typology, with slower-twitch athletes responding better to increases in stress. Whatever you do with strength, make sure you’re adjusting based on your individual responses over time.

Conclusions

In the general population, the emerging field of minimal-dose resistance training indicates that it may not take much strength work to see major benefits, and to maintain those benefits over time. All runners should likely be doing some strength work for the same reasons, since running does not accomplish all of the physiological stimuli needed for long-term health. You can work with a strength coach, try the Busy Runner’s Strength Plan for an intro, or the All-in-One Strength Work Cheat Sheet for a more involved program. Or you can do 6 exercises once a week! Just do something.

Beyond that, I think there is an inflection point for every athlete when strength work leads to excessive stress that hurts endurance performance. Finding that inflection point is such a cool journey! And it’s certainly not as boring as the training theory agreements of running 80-90% of volume easy and 10-20% faster.

You can accrue major benefits from small amounts of strength work. Set up a system that prevents you from going to zero, and that minimal dose will be good for health and performance. Just avoid deep-frying your body from overstress along the way.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and you can find more of their work (AND PLAY) on their Patreon page starting at $5 a month.