Breaking Barriers to Strength Training for Endurance Athletes
I know, I know. Here you are, staring at yet another article that is urging you, the
endurance athlete, to drag yourself to the gym. I get it: as endurance athletes, we love
our sport and can be somewhat reluctant to integrate other activities into our schedules.
However, we also don’t like to get injured. Strength training is the bridge that connects
these two desires: not only can it help to stave off potential injury but also it can help
improve performance. Sounds good, but not convinced yet? Let’s look at a few common
barriers and myths with regard to strength training, and we’ll check in at the end.
I don’t have time.
Yes, training for and competing in a sport can be a tricky balance. Somewhere in
between work, chauffeuring the kids, cooking dinner and maintaining a house, you have
to run/bike/swim, foam roll, stretch, get eight hours of sleep AND strength train? It
certainly can be overwhelming, and this is often why endurance athletes let strength
sessions fall by the wayside. The key to integrating strength training into your plethora
of training sessions is to be concise and prioritize. For time-crunched athletes, 30
minutes is plenty of time to reap the benefits of this powerful addition to your schedule.
You can also carve out the time throughout the day; no one said that everything had to
be done in a 30 minute or hour block. You just might inspire your coworkers to get up
and move if they see you doing squats or lunges in between emails. Integrate drills and
exercises into your warm up and cool down (you are doing a warm up and cool down,
right?). If none of these options seems feasible, cut down your run by a mile, or subtract
10-15 minutes from your session so you have time to get some exercises in before
switching your hat to mom/student/employee/etc.
But I don’t want to be sore for my key training sessions!
I actually think this is the biggest reason why endurance athletes don’t go to the gym. A
common scenario is as follows: read an article like this one, get inspired to go to the
gym for the first time in weeks/months, wake up sore the next day and have a lackluster
training session. This progression can be largely mitigated by a properly structured plan.
Soreness is often an indication that your body has done something it has not adapted
to. So to fully reap the benefits of strength training, it is recommended to consistently
perform two to three sessions per week. Just as you build up to a 20-mile run when
training for a marathon, resistance workouts must be tailored for your planned races
and include an appropriate progression. I recommend taking a six-week block of time in
the off season and starting a sustainable routine during a period of reduced training
volume. This way, your body will adapt sufficiently to resistance workouts such that you
hardly notice the soreness and feel fresh for your workouts.
A good rule of thumb is to make your hard days hard and your easy days easy. As long
as you are otherwise healthy and have no nagging pain, perform these sessions after
faster efforts, such as tempo runs or track workouts. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT strength
train on your recovery days from endurance exercise.
I’m not sure how, and all of these articles contradict each other!
Research backs plyometrics (jumping and other explosive movements) and heavy (80-
90% of one repetition maximum) lifts with low repetition numbers (four to six) as most
effective for improved running economy and thus improved performance 2 . Certainly, you
can’t start out at that intensity and expect to walk normally the next day, let alone train.
As previously mentioned, it’s important to build up to this sort of intensity if you deem it
appropriate for your training. This is where an exercise professional or strength and
conditioning specialist can help provide guidance. At Precision, we work with such
professionals and would be happy to send you in their direction.
However, just because research suggests that these heavier loads are superior to lower
load strength training doesn’t mean that there isn’t a time and a place for exercise
bands or training programs using the more traditional 10-15 repetitions. With respect to
injury prevention, consistent strength training practice is your best defense, and the best
exercises are the ones you actually do. Body weight and resistance band exercises are
plenty to stave off injury and maintain muscular harmony around your hard-working
Lifting weights makes you bulky, right?
This is perhaps the biggest myth. Body builders look the way they do because of their
carefully measured lifting volumes, cardio sessions and nutrition. There is plenty of
research to suggest that high volumes of endurance exercise interfere with muscle gain
in body builders, but there is a definite paucity of literature to support the opposite 1,5 .
Therefore, lifting to augment endurance training results in strength gains, but not muscle
bulk the way most of us think about it.
However, building muscle is a good thing for an endurance athlete. There is a widely
accepted misconception that one must be long and slender to be competitive. Yes,
many elite athletes seem to have that body type in common, but body type alone isn’t
what makes them swim-bike-run machines. It’s the high-quality, consistent training and
recovery from said training that allow them to perform as well as they do. They are not
fast just because they are featherweights; they are fast because of their physiology. And
we all have the capacity to change our physiology.
I don’t have access to a gym.
A gym is not required to positively affect your performance. Even though you may not
be able to introduce a heavy load to your body, you can still induce PR-setting
improvements from the comfort of your own home. In the absence of weights,
plyometrics are the next best thing in terms of improvement to performance 4 . This type
of exercise improves your ability to quickly absorb and release energy with every step,
therefore pushing your body forward faster and more efficiently. Put simply, plyometrics
improve the “spring” of your legs.
Plyometric training involves a quick lengthening and shortening of the muscle, similar to
what happens with every step when running. Certain muscles of the leg lengthen as the
foot hits the ground and then quickly shorten to spring you forward. The faster this
process occurs, the faster you’re on to the next step and closer to the finish line. The
most common, and running-specific, plyometric exercises utilized by athletes are
jumping and variations of jumping. I like jumping rope as a good entry point to this type
of training, then progressing to include box jumps and single-leg hops.
As a bonus for triathletes, plyometric exercise has been shown to improve running
economy off of the bike 3 .
In addition to plyometric training, a body weight exercise routine can be helpful for
avoiding muscle imbalances and keeping you firing on all cylinders. All you need is
some floor space and the absence of pets and/or children (probably the most difficult
part of working out at home). Stairs or curbs are great for step ups or calf raises,
resistance bands can be creatively used to make certain exercises more difficult and
chairs make a great pivot for your split squat. Get creative, and plan your workout as
you would any other to ensure that you’re consistent. Maybe even invite a friend to go
with you to a park to enjoy some sunshine and make each other stronger.
Well, what do you think? Have I convinced you to start pumping some iron? Sorry to
steal your excuses, but strength training is a powerful and worthwhile investment in
yourself as an athlete!
Keep going; you got this!
Kacy Seynders PT, DPT
1 (Ferrauti, 2010) Effects of Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training on Running
Performance and Running Economy in Recreational Marathon Runners
2 (Mikkola, 2011) Effect of resistance training regimens on treadmill running and neuromuscular
performance in recreational endurance runners
3 (Bonacci et al, 2011) Plyometric training as an intervention to correct altered neuromotor
control during running after cycling in triathletes: a preliminary randomised controlled trial.
4 (Gómez-Molina, 2017) Effect of 8 weeks of concurrent plyometric and running training on
spatiotemporal and physiological variables of novice runners
5 (Sedano, 2013) Concurrent training in elite male runners: The influence of strength
versus muscular endurance training on performance outcomes