The importance of strength training for endurance athletes
* Above is the ‘Iron Cowboy’ James Lawrence. He completed 50 Ironmans in 50 Days in 50 States earlier this year. He used strength training as an integral part of his programming in the lead up to the event(s)!
Strength Training for endurance athletes
Many endurance athletes are scared of strength training for many valid reasons. They feel it will make them slower, bulkier and detract from sport specific strength training. These are valid points if strength training is not carried out properly and certainly, a poorly designed strength training routine would be detrimental to athletic performance – as in any sport, not just endurance.
So what are the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes? First off, endurance sports typically involve short ranges of motion repeated again and again, hundreds if not thousands of times. This will result in muscular imbalances.
For example many runners develop chronically painful or weak lower backs and many cyclists will have massively rounded and weak shoulder girdles. Tight anterior hips and therefore misaligned pelvis is common in both. This can be offset with specific resistance training and mobility.
This leads nicely into injury prevention. Strength training will strengthen ligaments and soft tissue around joints, making your body more robust and therefore more enduring. It will also strengthen the bones, making them less prone to stress fractures and other impact/overuse related injuries.
Also having strength will help with events that require concerted efforts uphill or any sort of sprint finish. Those with a bit of strength training under their belt will certainly find this less taxing and find they have more power in reserve.
The problem is that many endurance athletes try to replicate the demands of their sport within the gym. The thinking being that if you are cycling a 100 mile race you can replicate this and get better at it with light quarter squats for lots of reps. This is a complete waste of time.
Resistance training should be added to an endurance athletes programming to supplement their sport not substitute their sport training. Think of this, a football player does not try to replicate kicking a football whilst in the gym, that is sport practice which takes place in specific training sessions. As such, runners, cyclists and swimmers should not be trying to replicate their sport in the gym.
Strength training should be focused around basic compound movements taking the joints through a full range of motion. This will help strengthen the whole joint and will hopefully ward off muscular imbalances. I would suggest that once technique in the movements is sufficient that heavy loads are used training for strength in the rep range of 5-15 reps depending on time of year and training phase.
During the season I would look to get in 1-2 Strength sessions a week, off season ramp this up to 3 sessions. These sessions don’t need to be long draining pieces, and may look something like following for a runner:
15 Mins of specifc mobility and prehab work.
A1. Back Squat – 4×5 Rest 60s
A2. Pendlay Row – 4×8-10 Rest 2 mins
B1. GHD Hip Extensions – 3×15-20 Rest 90s
B2. KettleBell Front Rack Lunge – 3×12-15 Rest 60s
10 mins easy spin on static bike.
Many will be reading this think that they do not have time to fit this in around their 50 mile a week training schedule. My advice is take a long hard look at your training, is every mile you are running essential? Less is more sometimes and in my experience, endurance athletes are a lot like crossfitters in that they love junk training. This is just training for the sake of it. Be brutal with your programming, properly coached strength training is absolutely essential for anyone looking to reach the top level and to be there for any length of time.
The last concern I want to address is that of extra weight. The fear of doing a few weights sessions and turning into Arnold overnight.
This will be difficult to achieve, purely due to the fact that many athletes hugely overtrain and under eat. Diet will be the deciding factor, if you start strength training and feel you are putting on more weight then address it by amending your calorie intake or by scaling down the reps that you are doing. This however will not be a big problem for most.
Hopefully this has given a small insight into the benefits and application of strength training for endurance athletes.