Should Endurance Athletes do Strength Training?
As endurance athletes we have such high expectations of our bodies. Whether it’s swimming, cycling, running, or all of the above, we ask a lot of our bodies on a daily basis, yet how often do we check in and see how things are going?
The human body and its functions are an amazing feat; we only have one, yet we’re all guilty of taking it for granted and feeling let down and angry when things go BANG!
So surely it makes sense to set up some sort of insurance. Taking a proactive approach will ensure our bodies - our ‘chassis’, our frameworks - are ready to not only endure but also excel in our training and racing.
As advanced and clued up as we are with the latest training kit, equipment, nutrition/hydration and recovery methods, it’s safe to say that endurance athletes are often somewhat less versed on the benefits of strength training for endurance performance, let alone the best ways to implement it into their plans.
Here's why you should consider adding some decent strength training to your next training block...
Think about a car. We wouldn’t expect to it to run for 1,000 miles without oil, water and mandatory checks. Similarly our bodies are our own vehicles for performance. Strength training gives us the ability to carry out a “systems check” on our bodies.
Joint mobility, muscle activation and developing stability and strength on a consistent basis will ensure that we can continue to go the distance.
To put it bluntly, “the stronger you are, the harder you are to kill” - a great quote that resonates well with any endurance athlete that's looking to push their limits both physiologically and psychologically.
The main aim of any good strength program is to bring strength and stability to structures throughout your body. If this is done well, then you'll be able to put intensity, volume and distance into your body with less fear of injury, damage and overloading.
Achieving optimal biomechanics and technique (whether it’s for swimming, cycling or running) means we can go faster and harder for longer periods of time.
But this can only be done if our muscles are strong enough to maintain these optimal positions and overall form. Strength training allows us to develop full body strength, reduce imbalances and move in such a way that we aren’t wasting the energy we put in. Simply put it helps us organise our body.
Dispelling the Misconceptions
So, those are the benefits, but there are still a few misconceptions amongst the endurance community about strength training that we need to dispel...
1) It's not about bulking up
As endurance athletes who most likely run, ride or swim for at least 5-10 hours a week, you’re actually doing the opposite of what's needed to build large amounts of muscle.
Gaining muscle requires a separate type of obsession, one that takes years for bodybuilders to achieve; eating every couple of hours; weight training twice a day, 6 days a week just to start seeing some decent gains.
Rather than building the size of your muscles, think about your strength training as developing structural strength throughout your body.
2) It’s not all about weights
You have to earn the right to lift weight. Any quality strength program will start with measuring and, if necessary, improving your movement.
If you move poorly through basic bodyweight movements like the squat, you should not be adding load. Once you've addressed your mobility, you can then look to activate important muscle groups, with the use of resistance bands.
Yes, weights are certainly in your future but first there's a great deal of essential work that you need to be doing to build the structural strength and stability around your joints.
Adding weight too early will only increase the risk of injury and encourage our existing imbalances.
Putting this into action
This is all great, but how do you go about putting it into practice?
How often should endurance athletes strength train?
You should be looking to include 2-3 strength sessions a week lasting between 30-45 quality minutes.
However, we have enough experience to know that this isn't always possible. If this is the case, aim for one full session and then break the rest into manageable chunks throughout the week. This is why we developed our Pre-swim, Bike and Run ‘Strength Units’.
Complimenting - rather than hindering - your other sessions
Scheduling strength training correctly around the rest of your plan is key to getting the balance right and getting the maximum benefit out of every session.
It all depends on what your priorities are for each session. If you have a hard run session planned, of course you aren’t going to do an hour of strength training immediately before. But you may do 5 minutes of mobility and activation work which will mobilise key areas and switch on your glutes for a more efficient run form.
On the flip side, if you're looking to do a quality strength session, you need to be physically and neurologically fresh to get the most out of it, so you wouldn’t do this right after a 4 hour ride.
We need to think about what works for us as individuals.
Why ‘purpose’ is essential
Every exercise you do in the gym or at home should have a purpose, especially if you are short on time.
If you can’t say how a particular exercise is benefitting you, you should question whether it's necessary in your program. There's a lot of ‘noise’ in the strength and conditioning world nowadays, which can be very confusing. Exercises can be overcomplicated for no reason at all. If anything keep it simple and keep it consistent!
This post was written by our friends at Strength for Endurance, who help endurance athletes move and perform better by helping them implement strength training effectively. Check out their free training resources and clinics.