As an endurance athlete, the words "strength training" probably don’t excite you, and I’m not going to try to convince you that a gym is more enticing than the road, a forested trail, or the mountains. But I am going to attempt to inspire you to include the weight room in your regular training regimen, all season long.
And if I can’t inspire you, then perhaps the evidence of the endurance performance benefits of strength training will persuade you.
Here are 6 reasons why endurance athletes should care about strength training:
Injury prevention. Resistance training provides musculoskeletal stability, strength, and flexibility which reduces the likelihood of strains, fractures, and tears.
Fix muscle imbalances. Endurance sports require repetitive motion, almost exclusively in the sagittal plane. But our bodies are meant to move in many directions! When we spend so much time in a single plane of motion, likely favoring one side, we are not using the full potential of our bodies, not to mention that an overuse injury is probably on the horizon. Strength training enables you to work on balanced motions in all planes of movement.
Increase aerobic AND anaerobic endurance. Yep, you read that right. Strength training increases your endurance by improving your economy (i.e. you’ll be faster with less effort), and elasticity (your muscles and tendons can “store elastic energy” and spring like a rubber band). In a recent study, a group of trained cyclists were divided in two groups - one group completed a 16-week strength training program in addition to their endurance training while the other group did endurance training only. The strength group improved their average power output and total distance covered in a 45-minute cycling test by 8% (aerobic endurance), and increased power output in a 5-min all-out cycling test by 3-4% (anaerobic endurance). The endurance only group did not show similar gains. (1)
Modify your body composition. As you build muscle, you will burn fat, turning you into a lean endurance machine. How does this work? As you build strength, you build muscle. Muscle tissue burns approximately 2.5 times more calories than fat.
Go farther and longer. Your fast-twitch muscle fibers store creatine, which is used to power high-resistance movements, such as lifting heavy things. Although most of the endurance activity you do uses slow-twitch muscle fibers, your fast-twitch muscles play an important role as back-up during long endurance events. The more these fast-twitch muscles are trained to store creatine, the better back-up force they will be at mile 20 in your marathon.
Want to reap these benefits of strength training? You need to do the work! Step #1 is to drop the excuses.
No, you won’t bulk up. Do you have any idea how HARD that is to do? There are a whole group of athletes on this planet who spend more time in the gym than you do on your swim, bike, or run, just trying to gain muscle mass. Thinking that you will bulk up with only 1-2 hours of strength training a week is like a body-builder saying that they believe they will qualify for the Boston Marathon on their 1-2 hours of low-impact cardio training each week. It’s not gonna happen.
Yes, you have time. Don’t underestimate the benefit of the cumulative effort of strength exercises. If you shortened 3 workouts this week by 15 minutes and spent that extra time doing strength training, you will have completed 45 minutes of strength training for the week, recruiting all the necessary mechanisms to see results in your overall strength and economy.
It's only boring because you've decided that it is. I’m not suggesting that you spend 5-15 hours in the gym, as you do swimming, running, or on your bike. Make your gym time interesting by learning new movements, gaining body awareness, and visualizing what you are going to do when you hit all your PRs.
No gym membership? No access to weights? No problem. You still have a body, correct? Do some research on bodyweight exercises - like push-ups, planks, lunges, and squats - and get to work. Here’s a bodyweight workout that I give to all my athletes. I call it the “no excuses” workout because you can do it anywhere. At home, in a hotel room, in a park. You can also create your own home gym over time with a set of dumbbells, resistance bands, a stability ball, and a BOSU.
How to Get Started
If you Google “best strength training for endurance athletes” you’ll get 36.1 million answers. Clearly, there is no right answer to that question, but here is my answer:
Forgo the next 1-hour workout on your training plan and book a session with a Strength & Conditioning Coach instead. Here’s what to cover in your session:
Discuss your goals. No matter where you are in the season, a Strength Coach can help you with performance and injury prevention.
Get a movement assessment, as well as a strengths and limiters assessment.
Get a basic strength program - personalized for you - with instruction on how to modify during your season. If you can visit a Strength Coach regularly, that would be preferred so your strength program adapts with your training volume, intensity, and race schedule.
Perform all of the exercises in your prescribed program to ensure that you are doing the movements properly. Ask the Strength Coach to take a video so that you can refer back to it when they are not with you the next time you’re in the gym.
There’s a cool new resource for finding a Strength & Conditioning Coach who specializes in working with endurance athletes, and it’s called GritLink. GritLink has a directory of all kinds of sports care providers who are experts in endurance and adventure sports. When you become a FREE member, you will receive an ebook, "An Outdoor Athlete's Guide to Sports Care." Here is an excerpt from that ebook that gives some helpful questions to ask when searching for your best-match Strength & Conditioning Coach:
What education and certifications do they have? They should have schooling in Exercise Science or Kinesiology, hold a certification from an accredited strength certification program, and have mentored with a reputable experienced Coach.
How many years of experience do they have working with endurance athletes? Do they actively engage in your sport themselves?
How will they personalize your strength training program?
How do they price and package their services? Do they have a required number of sessions, or can you see them for a single session? Since most health insurance plans will not cover strength sessions, be clear on how you are spending your money.
Here are a few of those 36.1 million articles that I really like:
Here’s a workout fit for a minimalist, and made for one of the most popular tweets from an Outside writer
I took away so many nuggets of gold from this WITSUP podcast interview with Strength Coach, Amber Johnson
Here’s some great sample exercises to strengthen your transverse plane
(1) Bazyler, Caleb D. Abbott, Heather A. Bellon, Christopher R. Taber, Christopher B. Stone, Michael H. 2015. ‘Strength Training for Endurance Athletes: Theory to Practice.’ Strength & Conditioning Journal. Volume 37 - Issue 2 - p 1-12
More About GritLink:
The GritLink Provider Network is currently based in the Greater Seattle area, but will be expanding. It also includes Physical Therapists, Chiropractors, Massage Therapists, Acupuncturists, and Dietitians/Nutritionists. As a free GritLink Member, you will gain access to GritLink University, a resource of articles, videos, and podcasts from the trusted providers in the GritLink Network as well as other experts in the field of endurance and outdoor sports. Join for FREE today.