The Value In Strength Training For Endurance Athletes
The fitness space can be a very confused and complicated place for many. Chances are, we all got started in physical activity through athletics as kids. Most sports require some degree of running and some of you are those that choose to take it up competitively via cross country, triathlons, biking, or track and field events. I personally love to see people continue their physical activity, even after their high school or college days. One of the most popular forms of activity is running or cardio based exercise. While there is nothing wrong with these, as a strength coach and personal trainer, I see many endurance based athletes run their body into the ground…quite literally.
Some of these athletes do triathlons, run marathons, or choose to compete in long distance biking because of not only the physical challenge, but the mental game as well. Now I can be the first to tell you, I am NOT an endurance based athlete…really quite far from it. However, after over 13 years (as of the writing of this article), I’ve helped dozens of athletes that patriciate in endurance based sports prolong their careers or stay healthy from proper strength training methodologies. If you love doing endurance based work, I’m here to tell you, that strength training SHOULD be a part of your training. The last thing you want to have happen is the shear amount of milage and work you’re putting in, cause you to have to step away from the physical activity you love.
The awesome thing is, strength and conditioning can not only keep you in the game longer, but more than likely improve your performance outcomes. You won’t need to worry about gaining a plethora of weight or seeing decreased times, as with a proper training plan in place this should be the last thing that happens. Afterall, you’re not going to be training like a bodybuilder or powerlifter. You’re going to be training like an endurance athlete, with just enough strength training to keep the splits dropping and milage you’re logging continue to rack up overtime.
The Issue With Traditional Endurance Based Training
Most endurance based activities usually only focus on the things you already do well..run, bike, or swim. Most endurance based athletes shy away from strength and conditioning, or cross training, because they are either worried about it decreasing performance and/or increasing soreness which can then in turn inhibit solid training days. I get it. Strength training can make you sore, but when planned for accordingly, it should have minimal soreness outside of the very first couple strength training days you start to implement into your weekly plan. The other thing endurance athletes struggle with, is knowing what to do with weights and if they are doing things properly. With the number of endurance athletes I’ve worked with, I’ve never seen an athlete actually try to do something wrong, but rather, they are cautious whether they are doing it correctly (I wish my football players could say that!).
The other major issue with endurance athletes is that they record insane training distances and volume. Not only is this hard to recover from, but it can take a huge toll on the body long-term. They also lack the ability to take a rest day, as the mindset is that if you’re not logging miles, you’re not improving. The truth is, the body isn’t made to perform long, repetitive based movements for an extended period of time. The forces the body is undergoing running, biking, or swimming miles upon miles is just damaging when not addressed with some sort of preventative based work and load/distance management. This can in turn cause imbalances, injuries, burnout, hormone fatigue, tissue damage, and even illness. These are not good things if you’re in the sport for the long haul.
Re-Thinking Endurance Training
An optimal approach to endurance training would not only be managing your total workload of your sport, but incorporating strength, dynamic warm ups and movements, and proper recovery methods (nutrition, modalities, rest). The strength work should work to improve your power output (especially power to weight ratios) while addressing the main important musculature that you need for your endurance events. If done correctly, these should line up nicely to help your performance at a similar rate that your endurance training moves. Your endurance training is laid out to help aid your performance, and the goal with the strength work would be set to match that same goal.
Dynamic based work, warm ups, and tissue preparation are all things that can encompass aiding your performance, but it’s really your standard strength work. Specific eccentric work (like in an RDL) can help prepare your tissues early on to strengthen tendons and provide that “snap” you’re looking for, making movement more efficient. Plyometrics like jumps, bounds, and pogos can improve rate of force development and tendon stiffness, giving you that kangaroo like spring in every stride you take. Add in your typically warm ups, soft tissue work, and mobility exercises for your sport can keep you moving more fluid and make your movement more efficient over the course of hours of training or competing while helping prevent overuse injuries from poor mechanics.
Essentially there needs to be a balance (which we know will still drift heavy towards the endurance side) where you’re still hitting strength, power, movement, and recovery to optimize your training, but also your time invested.,.both in the short term and long term.
Addressing Orthopedic Issues In Endurance Athletes
It’s no secret that endurance athletes are some of the most injured athletes when it comes to chronic and overuse injuries. Other sports typically see acute injuries from accidents, tears, broken bones, and sudden changes of direction. Just the number of hours and miles logged starts to add up quickly, especially if endurance training is pushed too quickly to where the body doesn’t have time to adapt. And even with the accumulation time, the physical repetitive use becomes the major orthopedic nightmare. The body is certainly designed to move, and quite a bit, but not to the degrees that endurance athletes place upon themselves.
The chances of an endurance athlete having an overuse injury is a staggering 56% chance! So more than one in every two endurance athletes will have some sort of overuse injury in their career. This doesn’t include those that just chug along through injuries and issues and ignore the warning signs their body is telling them. The most common areas of issues for endurance athletes are knees, lower legs (shin splints, compartment syndrome, ankles), and the lower back. The other issue is that if an athlete chooses to address the problems, many times rehab and recovery is rushed or not provided enough time to allow for a full recovery before return, just to have the overuse injury occur later on in their career.
All this information, and it’s not even taking into the account of endurance based athletes having increased illness rates. Endurance athletes train typically five to six days a week (some even every day!), and this can really place a drain on the body, increasing global inflammation, which can decrease the body’s ability to fight off infections and illnesses. What could have likely be mitigated by some extra recovery or a better training plan, could sit you out for up to a week of training just so the body can get back to a place of homeostasis.
Improving The Energy Systems For Endurance Athletes
At the end of the day, improving endurance athletes comes down to improving efficiency. That can be done via several ways, but the most optimal way to do this is to improve the power to weight ratio of the athlete. We need to have the right amount of tissue and muscle in the places needed most. Extra weight just hurts that power to weight ratio, which decreases times and causes the athlete to burn through more calories and energy. No bueno. After working with dozens of endurance athletes in my career, I can tell you the number one place we’ve seen athletes improve is by increasing strength to weight ratios in the weight room via strength and conditioning. Endurance athletes just need to master a key few movement patterns targeting the muscles the way they would be used in the events they compete in, with only 45-60 minute training sessions one to three times per week. These include things like goblet squats, split squats, lunges, RDL variations, alternating based pressing and pulling exercises, jumps and bounds, posterior chain work (glutes and hamstrings), and trunk work. All these can help prevent imbalances, build quality tissue to aid performance, and increase tendon strength and stiffness. Using eccentrics during particular times of the training year can also help improve oxygen utilization, vascularization, mobility, and stimulate growth like factors to the direct tissues in need (think hamstrings and calves).
A Training Program For Endurance Athletes
The training program and template that I’ve provided below would be an amazing resource and place to start if you are an endurance based athlete. Without knowing more about you as a specific athlete, there very well could be things I’d add or take away, but this should get you moving in the right direction.
A1) Box Jump – 3×5
A2) Pogo Hops – 3×15 sec
A3) High Knees (In-Place) – 3×10 sec
B1) Heels Elevated Goblet Squat – 3×6
B2) Push Up With Opposite Toe Touch – 3×5-8 per side
B3) Half Kneeling Cable Row With Opposite Reach – 3×8-10 per side
C1) Kickstand DB RDL – 3×6 per side
C2) Reverse Sled Drag – 3×25-50 yards
C3) Half Kneeling Band Face Pull – 3×10 per side
D1) Suitcase Carry – 3×25 yards per side
D2) Band Leg Curls – 3×15-20, dynamic
D3) Standing Band Hip Flexion – 3×10-15 per side
A1) Broad Jump – 3×5
A2) Low Hurdle Hops – 3×3-5 (minimum 3 hurdles)
A3) Sled/Prowler Push – 3×20 yards, moderate load
B1) Romanian Deadlift – 3×5
B2) Half Kneeling Landmine Press With Opposite Reach – 3×8-10 per side
B3) TRX Inverted Row – 3×6-8
C1) FFE Goblet Split Squat – 3×6 per side
C2) Lateral Sled Drag – 3×25-50 yards per side
C3) Calf Raises – 3×10-15; stretch emphasis
D1) Deadbug With Band Hip Flexion – 3×6-10 per side
D2) KB Swing – 3×10-15; dynamic
D3) Heel Walks – 3×30-60 sec
These exercises can be found on our exercise index.
If you’re an endurance athlete, there’s nothing more than you want than to see your hard training improve your performance for the activity you love. Just a couple days a week of proper strength and conditioning training can elevate your performance and extend your competitive career, which may very well be your best return on investment to your training regimen.