Real Strength Training for the Endurance Athlete


To increase your performance as an endurance athlete you must possess certain key qualities. Two key qualities that we are going to focus on are lowering your risk of injury and improving running economy. In order to improve on these qualities most, if not all, people will agree that there needs to be a significant amount of time spent running, biking, or performing whatever the main movement is. Usually there is some “cross training” sprinkled in there which might consist of higher rep med ball work, calisthenics, and other training modalities. Sometimes there might even be some “strength” training in there. From my experiences I have noticed that most of this so called strength training is just more high rep work stressing the aerobic energy system and working a similar stimulus as the other cross training modalities. While I am in no way disregarding this type of work, I believe that these athletes would benefit greatly from adding some real strength training into their program. After all most athletes who are using these “cross training” modalities do recognize the need to get stronger and how this may benefit them in the long run (pun intended).

In my experiences as a division 1 and 2 coach I have seen various teams and people that seem to have this imaginary line drawn where they are afraid to cross over to the other side. This line consists of the endurance athlete and the speed power athlete. Both sides occasionally hop over to the other side and use some of the others training methods i.e. endurance athlete doing some speed work to improve final kick. Most of the time though, people are so comfortable with their current side that they choose to play it safe and stay on that side. Therefore the line remains. This seems to be especially evident with regards to endurance athletes performing strength training.

I believe that endurance athletes should incorporate 1-3 days of weight training(depending on time of year, training age, goals etc.) into their current program. What I am proposing here is by no means cutting edge, but I do think it needs to be considered being implemented into the training of an endurance athlete and here is why.

Everyone would agree that in order to perform better in an endurance event, you need to be able to put the work in i.e. Train! In order to train, you need to be able to stay healthy. If you talk to any athlete after a successful season or performance, most of the time they reflect upon the fact they were able to remain injury free and put the training in which allowed peak performance(s) to be achieved. This is where the first benefit of strength training comes in. It has been proven that strength training (assuming it’s implemented and performed correctly) can decrease your risk of injury. Strength training improves muscular, tendon, ligament, and even bone tissue allowing for more work to be performed. More work may not be the answer to improving performance, but staying healthy by having increased function of connective tissue would certainly give you the option to train more.

While this first point is certainly important, one of the less obvious and potentially more important benefits to real strength and power training is the neural adaptation that takes place. Strength training has been proven to improve the rate of force development (RFD), increase the number of motor units recruited, improve the order of motor unit firing, and increase power output. All of this results in an improvement in a very common endurance term, running economy! If our muscles are able to work in the most efficient way that they can, then we will utilize much less energy to achieve the same effort that we were previously able to achieve. Therefore, this will allow us to work harder. Not only will we have more energy but our peak power output (the highest amount of effort we can give at one time) will be increased so it will feel easier when we work at that lower level because it is now a lower percentage of our max effort.

As I mentioned earlier, I am sure there are certain endurance athletes that do some cross training and realize the benefits of such. Doing med ball, calisthenics, and general weight room circuits are great for improving general strength and endurance. This type of work allows for less pounding on the body while still addressing fitness goals. It has its place but will do little to improve running economy and power output as compared to doing legitimate strength training.

A key element of strength training for the endurance athlete is its implementation. With all of time that needs to be spent on specific aspects of the sport, there is probably going to be minimal time left for other training elements such as strength training. Therefore approximately 2x’s per week with 30-40 minute sessions would be a good place to start and maybe stay. No more than 5-6 exercises should be performed per session and staying in the range of 3-5 sets for 1-8 reps is a good benchmark. The whole idea is to get in and get out and be efficient with the training. Key lifts such as the power clean, squat, and deadlift are great because you get a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to performing them. You can hit multiple key muscle groups with each exercise allowing you to save time.

Another good idea would be to perform super sets for most exercises. This allows you to get more work done in less time. An example of this would be alternating between upper and lower body lifts such as the squat and pull-ups. The key is to make sure you aren’t fatigued going into each exercise or else it will start to turn in to a circuit style lifting session and chances are form as well as the amount of weight you can lift will both suffer. As a general rule of thumb, allow 2-3 minutes before hitting the same exercise again.

Another key element of the implementation of your strength training is using proper progressions. If the end goal is to be able to power clean you might be better off starting with kettle bell swings or dead lifts. If you can’t squat with a bar yet, start off with dumbbells or a medicine ball.

The final thing to note here is that you don’t need to be maxing out much if at all for this type of training. Keep the overall focus of your program on improving your endurance through running, biking etc. and adding supplemental modalities such as strength training around it. Lift after a speed session or the day before a long run. Increase weight slowly and progressively and ease into this type of training if you aren’t currently doing any strength training. This will decrease soreness to an extent and allow your body to get use to it. Don’t worry about bulking up either! With all of that endurance training you are doing, the chances of you increasing your muscle mass by much is very slim and what little mass you might gain will likely result in increased performance.

As you can see strength training is not just for Speed/Power Athletes. It can be beneficial to all athletes. Don’t be afraid to cross over to the other side and try something new that just might be the missing link to your current training program! And, always remember to surround yourself with professionals who know what they are doing and educate yourself!

*Below is a sample of two training days

Day 1:
Power Cleans 6×3
Superset: {Squats 4×6, Weighted Pushups 4×8}
RDL’s 2×8
Seated Plate Russian Twist 2×8

Day 2:
Kettle Bell Swings 5×7
Superset: {Barbell Lunges 4×7, Pull-ups 4×7)
Staggered Good Mornings 3×6
Overhead Squats 3×7