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2 MILE-3200 METERS
To Fail or Not To Fail - That is the Question
By Rick Morris
With apologies to William Shakespeare, a version of his famous line - "To be or not to be, that is the question", is often asked by athletes. To fail or not to fail - that's the question many runners ask about their strength training routines. Should you take your strength training exercises to high levels of fatigue or full failure?
Many athletes are convinced that they need to get every last repetition that they can out of each exercise in order to maximize their results. Are they right? There is no blanket answer to any training questions. There are times when training to failure is the proper technique, but not always.
There are a couple of problems with a distance runner taking strength exercises to full failure. The most obvious problem is the time that is sometimes involved. Many strength training exercises for distance runners are body weight based - they are highly running specific and functional in nature. When doing body weight exercises you are somewhat limited in the amount of resistance you are able to use. For many of those distance running strength exercises you would need to perform many time consuming repetitions to reach full fatigue or muscle failure. As you are well aware, distance runners would much rather spend that time with running rather than strength training.
The other primary problem with training to full fatigue is both the recovery time needed and the associated muscle soreness and damage. The recovery time required and muscle discomfort can decrease the effectiveness and quality of your subsequent running workouts.
It's fairly obvious that training to full failure isn't very convenient for a distance runner, but is it physically necessary? I don't believe so and neither does science. I found several studies that dealt with the subject of taking strength training to high levels of fatigue. One study conducted in 2006 concluded that "both training to failure and training not to failure resulted in similar gains in 1 RM (repetition maximum) strength, muscle power output of the arm and leg extensor muscles, and maximum number of repetitions performed during the parallel squat." Even more interesting is that the researchers found that during the peaking stage the training not to failure group showed larger gains in muscle power output of the lower extremity than the training to failure group. That is an especially important finding for distance runners who concentrate on lower extremity strength and power.
There was another very interesting study conducted in 2002 by researchers at the Chelsea School Research Centre in the United Kingdom. These researchers recruited the help of 23 volunteers to look at the effect of fatigue on strength gains. The subject were divided into either a high fatigue group (HF) or a low fatigue group (LF). These scientists found that after 4.5 weeks the HF group showed 50% greater strength gains than the LF group, which they considered insignificant. But, after 9 weeks both groups showed similar strength gains. The researchers concluded that "Fatigue and metabolite accumulation do not appear to be critical stimuli for strength gains, and resistance training can be effective without severe discomfort and acute physical effort." Another important finding in this study is that after one week the HF group "suffered from severe muscle soreness, which is indicative of muscle damage." The LF group had no muscle discomfort. Muscle damage can result in decreased levels of strength for days or even weeks, which would certainly play havoc with your running workouts.
OK, so it looks like you should usually avoid performing strength training to failure or even high levels of fatigue. How far should you push your strength training? You don't want to create a lot of muscle damage that would decrease the quality of your running workouts but you still need to place enough stress on your muscles to stimulate strength and power gains. For most exercises I think you should perform your distance runners strength training exercises to the point where you begin to feel a strong burn. That is a sign that your muscles have reached a moderate level of fatigue. At that point you have challenged your muscles enough to create a strength building response without breaking down your muscles and suffering from excessive muscle damage.
Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains, J Appl Physiol 100:1647-1656, 2006
Fatigue is not a necessary stimulus for strength gains during resistance training, Br J Sports Med 2002;36:370-374
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