Whether you’re eager to incorporate strength training into your weekly routine, or you’re only reading this article because your coach said you need to do it, here’s a rundown on how to get started…
Do endurance athletes really need to strength train?!
In recent years, strength training has become more popular amongst distance athletes, rather than being reserved for sprinters, competitive lifters, and physique athletes. Studies have repeatedly shown a positive impact of strength training on performance in endurance sport, including in well-trained female duathletes and run economy and time trial performance in middle and long distance runners, as well as benefits from specifically heavy weight training on Olympic-based time sports.
Strength training builds stronger muscles, ligaments and tendons, which in turn stimulates your body to adapt to and subsequently be able to handle more stress. Extra protection against injury is clearly a win, and this in turn enables you to stay consistent for the long haul in your sport. Plus, the mental benefit of incorporating a different stimulus shouldn’t be discounted either.
Older adults and females have an additional reason to incorporate strength training, as well. Muscle mass decreases with age after around 30, by approximately ~3-8% per decade, with an increased rate of decline after age 60 or so. Strength training not only increases muscle tissue and strength, but also increases bone density and prevents bone loss, which is of notable value for osteoporosis. This condition weakens bones to the point of becoming easily breakable, and it’s four times more common in women than in men.
Which type of strength training is right for you?
If you're now convinced that you need strength training in your life, here are some notes to help get you off the line...
Types of strength training
- This is the simplest place to start, as you learn basic movements (squat, hinge, push, pull) and use the resistance of your bodyweight. As you progress, these can be used as a warm-up for the movements you’ll add weights to.
- Examples: air squat, wall sit, lunge, push up, pull up, plank
- It’s exactly what it sounds like: the band is providing the resistance. You can use bands across your thighs, under your foot, or pull/push against them to work the upper body.
- Examples: lateral band walk, hip abduction, lateral raise, shoulder press
- This usually involves moving between “stations” to complete different exercises for a set number of rounds. It may be time or repetition based, and there can be a mixture of bodyweight, free weight, plyometric exercises.
- Example: 25x bodyweight squats → 10x push ups → 15x kettlebell swing → 12x dumbbell shoulder press → 30-second plank (repeat for 5 rounds)
- Powerlifting hinges on the “big three” lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift. The name of the game is the total weight lifted. It’s heavy stuff.
- Olympic weightlifting focuses on both power and strength with their explosive movements. The two main ones are the snatch and the clean and jerk, but other variations and progressions are used in training (i.e. power clean, front squat, squat clean, power snatch).
- CrossFit includes barbell olympic lifts but also employs a circuit-style workout. The goal is high intensity in short bursts but with heavy lifts and functional movements interspersed throughout.
Free weights and machines
- Dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells are examples of free weights. By using these, you have to stabilise the free weight object which makes completing the movement under load more challenging.
- Machines are the opposite of free weights, as you don’t have to stabilise anything. The trade off is being able to go a bit heavier, but you’re not required to use the same amount of core strength and joint stabilisation.
Is there a "best" option?
There definitely seems to be. One of the studies mentioned earlier noted the biggest benefit in athletes who used heavy weight training. This meta-analysis highlighted high weight, low repetition sets as being the best and most efficient for endurance athletes.
By focusing on heavy weights and low reps, your endurance training is reserved for, well, your endurance training. The two styles have different goals, so it’s appropriate to use different methods. If you adopt lighter weights for more reps and focus on getting a “pump” or “burn”, the total volume (sets x reps x weight) will likely be higher and could be harder to recover from.
Higher weights and lower reps might be more challenging from a force perspective, but the total volume is usually lower. This fulfils your goal of maximising force production and stimulating the body to handle increased loads. (You’re likely getting plenty of endurance volume in your regular training anyway!)
When it comes to time, multi-joint compound movements are the most efficient. These allow you to work multiple muscle groups at one time. Examples include barbell or dumbbell squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, bench presses, bent over rows, lunges, as well as bodyweight dips and push ups.
If you’ve made it this far into the post and still have the age-old question ringing in your ear, I’m here to tell you… No, lifting won’t make you “bulky.”
That would require highly specific, long-term training and nutritional strategies (there’s a reason bodybuilders have to spend a massive amount of time and effort to get to the shape they’re in).
“Long and lean muscles” and “toning up” aren’t really a thing – your muscles won’t grow in either a shortened or lengthened direction depending on the weights you choose. The anatomically determined origin and insertion of your muscle is what it is, but you can (and arguably should) build on it and make it stronger. And, all muscle is automatically lean. To note, in this study, the body composition of runners wasn’t negatively impacted by heavy weight training.
How to add strength training to your schedule
First things first, take a personal inventory of where you’re starting from. Assess your familiarity with strength training, skill and fitness level, training age and personal goals.
Do you have any injuries or mobility concerns that would preclude certain movements (and/or necessitate specific work on them with a personal trainer/physical therapist first)? Additionally, what equipment do you have access to? And how much time do you have to dedicate to this?
Look at your current training schedule to figure out where to place your strength workouts. Instead of focusing on one major muscle group per workout, use full-body days so you can spread out the total sets throughout the week. This prevents you from overdoing a particular muscle group on one day and having the soreness impact your other workouts. (If you’ve ever tried to walk up stairs after a brutal leg day, you know exactly what I’m trying to save you from.)
In contrast to the fear mongering you might’ve heard, you actually can put your strength training sessions on the same days as your endurance training. This study evaluated “concurrent training” and found that as long as the two workouts are separated by a minimum of two hours, there was no negative impact.
Further, both this study and this one showed no impact of session order. Depending on how you set up your week and where you place your rest days, you can double up certain days if need be – just allow adequate time to rest, recover and refuel in between the workouts.
The minimum effective dose to improve your strength is relative to where you’re starting, so simply challenging yourself session to session will likely be adequate if you’re new ('newbie gains' are real). For an evidence-based estimate, choose a loading range of 6-15 repetition maximum (RM) for at least 4 weekly sets per muscle group. In Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) language, that translates to a 7.5-9.5 RPE. And, use the multi-joint compound movements that we previously established are optimal in this case.
If you have time, include accessory work to target specific muscles that you want to strengthen. Single joint exercises, such as leg extensions and hamstring curls are excellent compliments to your bigger compound movements.
As you get stronger, those RPE and RM targets will shift. This is good! Focusing on progressive overload week-to-week is a helpful goal, and this can look like increasing repetitions, increasing weight, needing less rest between sets, and improving technique/form.
Remember, your workout doesn’t have to take a long time to be effective. It can be under 45 minutes, assuming you're challenging yourself with the weights you choose.
Here's what an example setup could look like: *(choosing weights that leave ~2-3 reps "in the tank")
- Barbell back squat
- 3 sets of 8 reps (aka 3x8)
- Barbell RDL
- Leg extension
- Dumbbell bench press
- Barbell row
- Barbell deadlift
- Dumbbell split squat
- Hamstring curl
- Dumbbell overhead press
- Lat pulldown
Our friends at Global Triathlon Network have also done various videos on strength training for endurance athletes, including this one that has a few tutorials:
Tapering into a race
As you get closer to a race, you can rest easy knowing that reducing your strength training volume won’t undo all the progress you’ve made. It’s significantly easier to maintain strength than it is to increase it. You can even drop your total volume by 50% for a couple of months without taking steps backward.
While you wouldn’t want to do this for extended periods, it’s a reasonable strategy to let your body taper into a race and maximise recovery. During this time, you could simply do a single set of each of your normal exercises at a challenging weight to continue giving yourself the neurological stimulus and maintain movement coordination.
On the other side of the race, incrementally increase up to your previous volume to adjust back into the swing of things.
7 strength training tips
- Use specific warmups to save time
- For example, perform bodyweight versions of the movements you’ll be loading
- Stick to a program
- Progressive overload is the goal, and this means giving yourself time to repeat the same movements week after week to improve
- Novelty (new stimuli = new exercises) can be a trigger for soreness. If we want to minimise soreness to protect other workouts, changing exercises too frequently would be contraindicated
- Focus on form and quality
Don’t be afraid to work with a personal trainer and have them evaluate your technique!
4.Rest between sets
- Remember - this isn’t endurance training. The goal is strength, and you should be challenging yourself enough to need some rest before the next set.
- Be patient
- You likely didn’t become a top-notch endurance athlete overnight, so don’t expect yourself to be an expert at lifting right away either
- Any time you’re adding training, you’ll need a second to catch up to the total volume plus the new stimulus. (Consistency, consistency, consistency…)
- Start slowly but don’t underestimate yourself
- You can do hard things, so challenge yourself. Just do it step-by-step!
- Judge your improvement/performance by power output not soreness perception
- Our bodies can still perform when they’re sore, so don’t be afraid of a small amount of soreness
- When you do notice a power output decrease, pull back the weight you’re choosing to match your desired RPE
Now, go pick up some heavy things...