As I look back over my career as a strength coach and movement educator, I would have never expected to be working with endurance athletes. Like many in my field, I felt inherently predisposed to athletes participating in sports more traditionally geared towards the strength end of the strength-endurance continuum. However, my business is based in the Bay Area, which is a haven for professional and amateur endurance athletes: distance runners, cyclists, and triathletes. As a result, it was only a matter of time before I began working on strength training with some of these endurance athletes as clients.
In order to provide this new group of athletes with the best possible programming, I needed to understand specifically what role strength training plays in endurance sports. I asked questions like: “How much and what kinds of strength training would be important?” After reading the scientific literature, as well as consulting with coaches and athletes over several years, I’ve found that a comprehensive strength program—one that emphasizes improvements in movement quality, strength, and power—is not only paramount for performance, but it is also an important tool for preventing injuries. Strength training for endurance athletes has proven to be a crucial component for longevity and healthspan both in sport-specific performance, as well as in an athlete’s post-competitive years.
A progressive strength training program is particularly essential for juniors, adults over the age of 50, and female athletes. These populations typically have less muscle and strength relative to younger male athletes, which could predispose them to greater injury risk and a loss in performance.
Through my research, I found few resources on endurance-specific resistance training—especially for ultra and Ironman distances. Furthermore, most were outdated and/or written for the casual athlete. Some programs offered little more than physical therapy exercises or bodyweight calisthenics. Others offered bootcamp-style circuit classes, which do not offer the sport-specific strength work needed for endurance performance. What’s more, other programs consisted of the types of machine-based exercises that you might get for free with a gym membership. Some programs did attempt to provide strength standards, however they were entirely inadequate for elite performance. None of the programs supported the type of comprehensive training system necessary for serious recreational and competitive endurance athletes. Although they may be appropriate for the commercial fitness consumer, the specificity and phased development of each program paled in comparison to one you might see in other sports at the elite or collegiate level.
Below I have identified five of the most common myths and errors seen when reviewing the strength training programs of endurance athletes:
Strength Training Errors Endurance Athletes Make
Error #1: Allocating too much time to low-intensity or rehabilitation exercises
Not surprisingly, endurance sports have some of the highest rates of injury of any [professional] sport. In long-distance triathletes, the incidence of reported injuries can range from as low as 37% up to 91%. Most of these injuries, at least at the Ironman distance, are overuse injuries. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see endurance athletes regularly incorporating physical therapy, chiropractic, and massage services into their daily routine to help rehab and recover. The problem arises, however, when these rehab modalities are mistaken for performance-based training, where the goal is to increase physical capacities of the body (i.e. strength, speed, power, etc).
A good rehabilitation program is designed to educate patients about their pain, provide treatments for pain modulation, offer movement strategies that aid in progress towards meaningful activity, and educate about load management and lifestyle strategies that help prevent relapse or re-injury. Most rehabilitation interventions, unlike strength training programs, are not designed to increase the capacity of the body to withstand forces that will be encountered during swimming, biking, or running.
I commonly see athletes diligently completing rehab exercises as their form of strength training, believing them to be an ‘insurance policy’ against future injuries. Unfortunately, these exercises do not provide enough stimulus over time to increase the capacity of the body to handle more stress, thus failing to decrease injury risk. This is where, at some point, rehab exercises need to transition to—or be performed concurrently with—a structured strength and conditioning plan. By adding load and new stimulus, the body’s capacity improves and injury risk declines.
Error #2: Avoiding heavy lifting
One of the most common myths within the endurance world is that athletes should avoid lifting heavy weights. Despite significant scientific evidence to support heavy lifting, endurance athletes continue to worry about gaining too much muscle and the perceived negative performance consequences that come with it. The reality is that, when performed appropriately, heavy strength training can increase strength without size. Heavy strength training not only bolsters the structural elements of the body (bones, joints, tendons, and connective tissues), but it also increases an athlete’s ‘physiological headroom.’ This means that, at a given pace or power output, the stronger athlete, who has been including heavy strength training in their plan, will operate at a lesser percentage of their max than the weaker athlete who has avoided heavy weights. In addition, heavy and explosive strength training is associated with increased running and cycling economy, and provides the basis for an improved capacity for surges and sprints throughout a race.
Like any other form of training, heavy strength training needs to be progressed slowly and methodically. It would be ill-advised to start lifting heavy weights at the onset of a new program. However, athletes that have been completing three sets of twenty repetitions with the same weight year-after-year should consider progressing towards heavier loads and lower repetitions.
How heavy is heavy enough?, How many sets and reps should I do?, and How strong is strong enough? are all good questions that will be addressed more completely in a future article. However, as a general guideline, athletes should begin a program by lifting multiple sets of around 8-15 repetitions in the off-season, progressing the weights to sets of only 3-4 reps over weeks or months as the competitive season approaches. The number of sets and reps will depend on several factors, including, but not limited to, the athlete’s response to the training program and their place in the overall season (off-season, pre-season, or in-season). The goal is to not be as strong as an elite powerlifter, but to be as strong as possible without interfering with key sport-specific metrics.
Error #3: Avoiding power exercises
Even more than heavy lifting, power training—which includes jumping, plyometrics, and explosive weight lifting—is likely the least understood but most essential training component of a strength training program for endurance athletes. Like heavy lifting, training to be more explosive seems counterintuitive to success within the context of endurance competition. However, especially for runners, power training increases tendon stiffness, which allows for greater storage and release of elastic energy. This means that for every step, the best runners have more efficient tendons, and can therefore use less muscular effort on the run. It is not uncommon to see a runner’s VO2max—a measure of aerobic power—go down as they age, even though their running times are improving. Despite age-related declines in aerobic output, the athlete can still improve performance by increasing efficiency of the muscles, tendons, and connective tissues in the body with the implementation of smart training methods.
Another interesting feature of increasing strength and power is that a stronger athlete has the potential to apply the same or greater amounts of force in less time than an athlete who is less strong. This increase in force produced in less time can theoretically prevent muscles from occluding (accumulation of blood via blockage of blood vessels) and will allow for more time during the movement cycle for the muscles to recover, and therefore delay markers of fatigue.
Lastly, it is important to note that strength and power begin to decline around the age of 30. This is why world-class sprinters rarely set new records in their mid-30s. Even more concerning, however, is that after the age of 50, humans lose, on average, 2% of their muscle fibers each year. This is not only devastating to performance for older athletes, who are still eager to participate in athletic competition, but it also underscores the important role of strength and balance maintenance for non-athletes, as the risk of falling increases and quality of life measures decline. Moreover, power (the ability to create force quickly) declines faster than strength. This is an important point for aging athletes, who likely notice that their bike and swim are holding strong, but their run has declined significantly. Running requires not only strength, but also power, and significant declines can impact overall speed. The good news is that these age and lifestyle-related declines can be slowed or reversed with the right strength training program.
Error #4: Failing to progress exercises or load over time
There is a principle in strength and conditioning called the ‘Progressive Overload Principle.’ This states that in order for the body to adapt, one needs to continually increase the stimulus over time. Essentially, repeating the same exercises, with the same weight, and the same number of sets and reps each week will yield increasingly fewer benefits. For the body to adapt and get stronger, it needs an ever-increasing stimulus. In general, 4-12 weeks is the period of time one should spend on any given strength plan before progress begins to stall. Those that are new to strength training can typically get away with the same program for longer. However, most athletes that I train (with a training age of around six months in the gym) usually do not spend longer than a month on the same program.
Furthermore, endurance athlete strength programs must be periodized to align with sport-specific training. Off-season strength plans should typically coincide with the base building phase of endurance training. Early pre-season training should be aligned with building maximal strength in the gym. Later pre-season training should be aligned to power- and rate-of-force development. In-season training should focus on maintaining previously trained qualities.
Finally, the athlete must approach each workout with a clear intention for what they need to accomplish in the weight room, be willing to cultivate a growth-mindset, and agree to put in the same focus and consistency that they do in their sport practice. Strength coaches should actively collaborate with the athlete and provide meaningful feedback and education that links the importance of each element in the weight room with their performance in their chosen sport.
Error #5: Becoming too “functional” with balance exercises and unstable surface training
Similar to over-emphasizing rehab and recovery exercises, there is a trend for endurance athletes to do a lot of what has been termed “functional” training. Functional training is sometimes associated with performing exercises on unstable surfaces (swiss balls, balance discs, wobble boards, etc). Although some of these devices are appropriate for rehab purposes, they do very little to improve strength and power measures. Introducing an unstable surface will limit the amount of load one can use. And if load goes down, strength will not improve. Unless an athlete has been prescribed an exercise by a rehabilitation professional, he/she would be better off sticking to basic strength training.
The importance of strength training in endurance athletes should not be overlooked when creating a comprehensive performance-based training plan. Incorporating heavy weights and power training are particularly essential for improving both performance and health. Future articles will expand on specifics around strength training protocols for endurance athletes, including means and methods, exercise selection, and programming considerations.
Charlie Reid is a ACSM- and NCSA-certified strength and conditioning coach, who works with a number of top pros and collegiate athletes in addition to doing online movement education and workshops.