Endurance athletes tend not to do much in the way of strength training, preferring instead to do more of what they enjoy doing the most. That’s fair enough but there are some very specific and relevant adaptations to concurrent strength training for endurance athletes that really ought not to be ignored.
Runners, for example might do a bit of core training or maybe some yoga and then, for power they might do some sprint intervals, Fartleks or hill sprints, something like that. Cyclists like doing power intervals on the turbo or a Wattbike and feel that is all the ‘strength work’ they need.
Now, if you are a recreational athlete and time is an issue for you then I absolutely get that the more gym-based strength training you do, the less time you’ll have for running/cycling/swimming or whatever your main discipline is. But if you are competitive and want to get better outcomes than you currently are strength training is where you should be looking.
Worry not, I am going to give you a suggested training plan here, at the end of this article.
What exactly are the potential benefits of doing strength training for endurance sport, considering that the styles of training seem extremely at odds with each other? A number of studies (of which these are just a mere drop in the data ocean) have shown that there are (at best) neutral adaptations in maximal oxygen uptake, otherwise known as V02max (1,2,3). But, that’s why endurance athletes do aerobic exercise so no surprises there.
However, research on soccer players showed a 13% increase in time to exhaustion on a cycle ergometer and that maximal strength (<85% 1RM) was associated with improved sprint times and jump height (2).
Ronnestad and Mujika’s 2015 paper exploring the effects of heavy and explosive strength training on endurance performance demonstrated a number of positive benefits, with oxygen economy being the main adaptation for runners (3). The table below summarises their findings.
Ronnestand & Mujika (2015)
It’s often said that strength training reduces injury risk and that is certainly my experience, I have never had a client do some resistance training for a period of time and then come back saying; "my running sucks and I'm injured all the time!" But, is there evidence for this? Well, all the way back in 1986 -the same year that Mike Tyson beat Trevor Berbick to win his first world title, Queen performed their iconic Wembley shows which were televised worldwide and a massive poster of Mr T adorned my bedroom door – a paper by Fleck was published (4). They concluded that strength training could indeed reduce injury risk by improving the following:
A review of literature by Bazyler et al (2015) and published in the journal of strength and conditioning suggests that a block periodisation approach using the following training cycles could be optimal:
Bazyler suggested 4-week blocks with the first 3 weeks of each block progressively loading up intensity and volume with the fourth week being a de-load prior to starting the next training phase (1). A typical de-load week will be 50-60% of your usual volume, keeping intensity about the same.
This will obviously depend on time, training schedule for the skills work, injury status and goals. Some athletes enjoy both strength training AND endurance training and apply a hybrid training approach that combines both powerlifting and endurance training. If this concurrent approach appeals to you then you will have to take your diet and recovery VERY seriously. It’s also advisable to do your strength training prior to the endurance training. For example, you might choose to do your resistance training routine in the AM and your long run or ride in the PM, giving yourself adequate recovery after the maximal strength work. But if you were to do the aerobic work first you would compromise strength performance due to muscle fatigue.
If your sport means that power to weight ratio is important and you don’t want too much of a hypertrophy effect the answer is simple. Two RT sessions per week 2-3 sets of each exercise at 3-8 reps per set. The volume is low enough that muscle growth will be minimal but intensity high enough that you still get a strength and power adaptation from the training.
Personally, I find that endurance athletes, runners in particular, adapt quite well to kettlebell training. There’s a much smaller chance of significant hypertrophy, the weights are mostly not heavy enough to produce too much overload and are therefore not so taxing that you couldn’t effectively perform both in one day without frying yourself out.
The dynamic nature of a lot of kettlebell exercises are such that there is an anaerobic and explosive strength aspect to them, which seems to make more logical sense to endurance athletes. They’re great for improving hip mobility and dynamic joint and core stability. That’s not to say endurance athletes shouldn’t use other types of strength training, They absolutely should, but kettlebells are convenient and less time consuming and you can own your own and train in your front room rather than joining a gym. Just something to think about, that's all.
Most of the exercises should be based around leg strength and core stability, but some upper body exercises for balance is recommended. I’ll often get runners and cyclists using the TRX for upper body exercises, so they don’t pack on much upper body bulk.
Anyway, here’s an example gym-based training program using the Bazyler periodisation template.
In summary, resistance training is worth adding into your training program if you are a recreational endurance athlete, or play a sport with an endurance element to it. Focus on mostly lower body, unless you really want or need to pack on some upper body bulk. Kettlebells are a good alternative to traditional weights, especially if the powerlifter style of training isn’t to your liking.
If you’re new to resistance training and don’t know where to start then it’s a good idea to get some personal coaching sessions with a trainer who understands strength and conditioning and has experience working with endurance athletes.
If you’re new to kettlebells and aren’t near enough to me to get some one-to-one coaching you could try my 6-week kettlebell challenge to build a foundation before moving on to more challenging exercises.