Strength Training For Endurance Athletes

Weight training workouts provide big payoffs for endurance athletes

Endurance athletes often spend the majority of their training time engaged in their particular sport. Runners run, cyclists cycle, swimmers swim. They’ll typically add some stretching or core work after  their main workout, and perhaps do a bit of cross-training in the off-season, but in general, they quickly become specialists in one sport. In fact, the principle of specificity is one of the fundamental tenants of a training routine that helps good athletes become great athletes.

Although spending time building endurance is the primary focus of endurance athletes, an ideal training program should also include a healthy dose of strength training. To maintain a high level of fitness, to avoid overuse injuries, and to keep up with the competition, endurance athletes need to add strength training to their routine.

Strength Training Reduces Injury Risk

Overuse InjuriesThe most common injuries for endurance athletes include nagging chronic aches and pains that often end up as a tendonitits due to excessive use of the same muscles in the same movement patterns for hours on end. To develop the smooth, fluid skills for running, swimming, skiing and cycling, certain movement patterns need to become so engrained in the body that they are automatic. Yet it is precisely this automatic movement patterns that can also lead to chronic issues, muscle imbalances, and soft tissue irritation and inflammation.

Sprains and StrainsSprains and strains are another common type of injury for those who pound the pavement day after day. As with the overuse injuries, strains are more likely to occur as muscle patterns become so routine that the agonist and antagonist muscle groups no longer maintain a nice balance, but begin to get out of balance—one side becomes strong and tight and the opposing muscle group becomes weak and lax.

This is often a set up for a pulled muscle or even an ankle sprain.

Reducing the risk of injury can occur with as little as 10-15 minutes of resistance exercise several days a week. Ideally, an endurance athlete will include 1-2 full weight training sessions per week, but even a few focused exercises each day can help improve muscle balance and reduce injuries. The main way resistance training does this is by building structural integrity of the bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Choosing exercises that balance out the muscles and help maintaining overall body alignment goes a long way to avoiding long-term aches and pains.

Strength Training  Increases Strength and Power

Another benefit of strength training is an increase in speed and power during endurance events.

When endurance athletes perform sport-specific strength training, they can build more muscle fibers as well as train the cardiovascular system to work more efficiently and even boost the lactate threshold.

The best way to get the most from strength training exercise is use heavy weights for fewer repetitions.

Strength Exercises for Endurance Athletes

  • Compound ExercisesCompound exercises are great for all athletes because they combine movements in real-world patterns rather than isolating one or two muscle groups.  Compound exercises are those that include the basic movement patterns, such as bending down, pushing and pulling things, and picking things up. The exercises most commonly recommended include: deadlifts, squats, lunges, pull-ups, chin-ups, push ups, burpees, and weighted step-ups. These exercises target functional, real-world movements that we do everyday and most likely use in sports.
  • Bodyweight ExercisesBodyweight exercises generally provide an ideal workout that you can do anywhere. Most bodyweight moves are already compound in nature, so you get the benefits mentioned above. This type of routine can ensure you don’t skip your resistance training, and allows you to customize the time and intensity as you like. Try a basic bodyweight routine and build it up as you get more comfortable with the options. The best bodyweight exercise that you can do anywhere include: wall sits, lunges, jump lunge, push ups, planks, side planks, v-sits, and lunges.
  • Glute ActivationMost people sit for many, many hours every day. Even if you have a daily exercise habit, odds are you are spending time sitting at work, at home or in the car. With extended periods of sitting, the glutes can become inactive and weak, while the hamstrings and hip flexors can be excessively tight and inflexible. A few basic glute activation exercises can correct some of these issues, and get your glutes firing properly before you launch into an endurance exercise routine.
  • Hip and Knee ExercisesMany knee injuries, aches, and pains actually start with weak, poorly functioning hip. The abductors and adductors, in particular, are critical for providing integrity of the hip joint and proper functioning throughout the lower body. To do their job, they need to be exercised through an entire range of motion. Along with the quads and hamstrings, the hip flexors help keep the knee cap tracking properly and reduce the risk of developing knee pain, IT band pain or patellofemoral syndrome.

Strength training sessions for the endurance athlete don’t need to be extensive. Choose 5 exercises and do 8-10 reps of each for 2-3 sets. Use a fairly heavy resistance. You’ll know it’s too heavy if you can’t maintain proper form for all 8 reps. If you lift heavy, you only need to lift 1-2 times a week.

Strength Training Tips for Endurance Athletes

  • Lift after your endurance training or on a non-training day. Because strength workouts are often high intensity efforts, you want to have enough energy to maintain good form and provide enough effort to make lifting effective. If you are fatigued, your strength workout will be marginally effective or possibly lead to injury
  • If you haven’t been doing much (or any) strength training, start slowly and start with the basics until you build your foundation. Select as little as five minutes of strength exercises with about five exercises. Over a few weeks, increasing your intensity, or add more exercises to the routine that cover a variety of movement patterns.
  • Bodyweight sessions can be low-to-moderate efforts that can be performed most days of the week after your endurance work. Add a cool down of core exercises: crunches, planks, and push ups as a go to routine any day of week.
  • Use a foam roller regularly. While technically not a resistance exercise, using a foam roller regularly should be a part of any endurance athlete’s cool down routine.

The Bottom Line

Strength training is a good addition to almost every athlete’s training program, but endurance athletes have some very clear benefits of beginning a weight workout.

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