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Circuit Training and Endurance Athletes

Many athletes enjoy circuit training.  By circuit training, I’m referring to the practice of performing a relatively moderate to high number of repetitions of multiple different exercises in quick succession with minimal rest in between each exercise station.  This isn’t the only way to define circuit training, but it’s a common way and the definition we’ll use here.

This form of supplementary training remains common in the endurance sports world, in part because it appeals to our favored exertion level of not totally easy, but not maximally hard.  Further, circuit training workouts are a good way to work up a good sweat, making you feel like you accomplished something regardless of whether the workout provided any beneficial stimulus relative to your needs.   

Despite its popularity, circuit training is often a questionable choice.  One reason to avoid circuit training for distance runners and other endurance athletes is common sense: if you’re already training at a relatively high level of maximal capacity (or perhaps being overtrained), you really don’t need more conditioning…and if you do, either you’re a complete beginner, for whom ANY training will offer benefit so long as it doesn’t cause injury, or your training plan simply isn’t very good.  There are certainly ways to supplement training for injury prevention, skill development, and power generation, but supplementary training should not be seen as a way to “sneak in” some extra aerobic training if you’re already an aerobic athlete. 

If the goal is to get stronger, then training should be organized to develop strength.    If the goal is to correct movement dysfunctions, the training environment should foster motor learning.   Adding a temporal component on a regular basis (seeing how fast you can move between stations or how fast you can do the exercises) only detracts from these goals.  I’m not saying you should never use circuits for time, but it’s important to consider the goal, as many people train inconsistently with their goals without even realizing it.

One recent study (Taipale 2012) quantified differences between circuit training and other training forms: explosive, maximal, and combined explosive/maximal.  Authors studied a group of 21-45 year old males using both endurance and strength training with strength falling into one of the previously listed four categories.    

With maximal, explosive, and combined explosive/maximal they found (among other things) “significant increases in maximal dynamic strength (1RM) and countermovement jump.”   However, before we get too excited about these findings, “Maximal isometric strength and muscle activation, rate of force development (RFD), maximal oxygen uptake and running economy (RE) at 10 and 12 km hr(-1) did not change significantly.”   Nevertheless, although we may or may not care about 1RM or countermovement jump performance in endurance athletes, a significant increase in 1RM and countermovement jump in a four week block is a sign of a healthy nervous system. 

What was most interesting about these results was not the positive findings in explosive and maximal training but rather the negative findings in circuit training: “No significant changes were observed in [circuit training] in maximal isometric strength, rate of force development, countermovement jump or muscle activation, and a significant decrease in 1RM was observed in the final 4 weeks of training.”   Circuit training did improve peak running speed and running speed at respiratory compensation threshold, but because these were not highly trained runners it is unlikely non-specific training would improve running for those more highly trained (you could make the same analysis for the relationship between circuit training and many activities).

Though you might question the value of 1 rep max values for endurance training, four weeks should not result in a significant decrease of anything.  You might not always find the magic intervention to elicit improvements, but never ever should training take you significantly backward.  Further, such a decrease in 1RM may also be a sign of a depleted nervous system, but it was not studied specifically here.  First four weeks in a program you are almost guaranteed gains due to neuromuscular adaptation (becoming acclimated to the mechanics of the lifts).  Not only did the circuit training group fail to exploit this normally “easy” strength gain, strength deteriorated after week four. 

Conclusion

The main caveat here is the wide variation in how different methods may be applied.  Further, the main point is not that we need maximal or explosive training (remember these weren’t highly trained endurance athletes in the studies), but rather that lower quantity supplementary training with a great emphasis on technical precision will better support the event goals for endurance athletes.  As noted, supplementary training is not an excuse to sneak in more aerobic conditioning.    I want call out any names of specific circuit training protocols (usually falling under the High Intensity Interval Training paradigm), but its best to use supplementary training modes to obtain qualities you aren’t getting in endurance training; not to pile on loads with intense non-event-specific exercise circuits.

Reference

Taipale RS, Mikkola J, Vesterinen V, Nummela A, Häkkinen K.  Neuromuscular adaptations during combined strength and endurance training in endurance runners: maximal versus explosive strength training or a mix of both.  Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Jun 19. [Epub ahead of print]

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