Strength training for endurance athletes
Forth Edge Ambassador and long-time blood test advocate, Coach Joe Beer gives the reasons why strength training should be part of your training plan. He argues it’s not just for rehab or in the off-season bad weather, it’s year round for all ages and abilities.
3 mins read
August 22, 2023
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As an endurance athlete, you are always thinking about aerobic sessions, technique sessions, quality targeted intervals and, of course, racing. Perhaps that's a personal time trial or even an actual big race such as a triathlon, cycling time trial, marathon, gravel race or ultra run. Often, strength work is only added due to injury rehab under the guidance of a physio or the more serious stuff after surgery that gets you back to being able to just move again.
However, and this is capitalised for good reason:
YOU SHOULD PLAN STRENGTH TRAINING AS AN ESSENTIAL PART OF YOUR FITNESS, NOT JUST A NICE-TO-DO THING
As you age, there is a slow and gradual loss of muscle - and if you don't use it, you lose it. This is called sarcopenia, the loss of muscle through ageing. The good news is gym work slows the losses and can even add back lean muscle tissue. Whatever age you start at, strength training is a good thing for your future health and fitness.
STRENGTH TRAINING FOR CYCLISTS
For cyclists the strength work, such as squats or leg press, can improve the key pushing musculature that drives the pedals down. Importantly, these lower body exercises still put the upper body under physical load, thus improving the cyclist's ‘Achilles heel’ that of low bone density measured in various areas of the body (e.g. lumbar spine). The lack of gravity when you just float around on two wheels means you really should add resistance work to be all-round healthy.
STRENGTH TRAINING FOR SWIMMERS
Swimmers can protect their shoulders from injury by strengthening all around the joint, develop lower body strength (vital for explosive push offs etc) and do what has always been known as “dry land work” to compliment their in-the-water swim training.
STRENGTH TRAINING FOR RUNNERS
Runners need to develop the primary drivers of the calfs, the ‘landing gear’ aka the quads, and upper body strength to hold good posture. Triathletes, well you are all of the above.
As well as decades of research and studies, you can find evidence of the benefits of strength training by taking a look at any elite athlete trying to get the best from their body and keep injury at bay: they will have strength work year round.
Most strength training research that shows positive gains in strength and performance actually uses quite basic movements and plans. Whilst there are many different opinions as to the exact list of exercises and rep ranges and numbers of sets you should do, to start, plan your strength sessions to fit around races, recovery periods and your body's development and niggles.
Consistency across the whole year is the goal, not just a couple of weeks of sessions with extreme effort, aches and then stop.
Always start your plan (or restart it) with moderate resistances to get your body used to good technique. Three sets of around 12 repetitions with RIR (reps in reserve) of 3-5 is great to get technique and still feel you are underway. We can progress from this at the 4-6 week mark - and your joints will love you for it, as they take at least this amount of time to re-model to the new forces you are imposing.
Choose exercises relevant to your sport, but include the whole body to avoid imbalances and improve overall fitness and strength.
Look for additional exercises that target your sports primary muscles (or personal weaknesses) and/or your previous injury history (and physio suggested exercises you've since forgotten to do). For example, a triathlete may choose more tricep work to help improve their swim section performance, or one-legged squats for a runner to correct poor L-R imbalances.
Keep a record of your sessions, aiming for the 12 rep range and for two sessions a week, adding in variances approximately every 5th session to challenge coordination and reduce boredom. For example, swap out bent-over rows for upright rows, or calf raise substituted with weighted box step ups. Be varied, but be careful, a new exercise needs time to get used to being under load.
FOUR MISTAKES TO AVOID
TRAINING TOO LONG
Don't make sessions into long drawn out endurance feats. Keep to about 20 to 40 minutes. These are also easier to squeeze into your week.
Keeping muscles reminded of the exercises is vital, even if you do “break even” sessions that only hit 80% of your normal resistances. Every session cannot be maximal. Moderate efforts still keep the mind-muscle connections alive.
NO BOOK KEEPING
Don't fail to keep records. To see and manipulate progress (plus not to injure yourself by overreaching) you need an exact guide to the resistances you use. Paper and pencil will suffice.
NO FUEL OR BUILDING BLOCKS
Don't ignore your energy level before and during the session, this must be stable enough to allow you to work hard. Time your eating and stick to foods that have worked before. Also, ensure quality protein meals are in your day (aim for around 2g of protein for every 1kg of your bodyweight, for example, a 65kg athlete needs at least 130g of daily protein).
ONE FINAL WORD OR TWO
Always use controlled breathing to keep focus on your technique and ensure you stay relaxed. These early days of strength training will still stimulate muscle tears, cause a few aches and raise the metabolic rate in the recovery period after training. Be sure to ease up if a joint or muscle gives you pain but realise that weights can make your endurance aerobic sports feel easy, even if it takes a good warm up to often shake out the previous resistance session.
Start conservatively, be consistent and build that strength base work, whether at home or in the gym, this is a new habit that we want to enjoy and be doing many, many months and years from now.
JOE'S JARGON BUSTER
Rep – one movement of an exercise, e.g. one rep of leg press is push up and recover back down to the starting position
Rep Max (RM) – a target to hit such as 8RM, which intends for total fatigue to happen at the 8th rep
Reps in Reserve (RIR) – when doing a set exercise (e.g. 50kg leg press for 10 reps) you still have say 2 or 3 reps left you can do
Sets – a number of repetitions done of an exercise before resting, either to go to another exercise or to repeat the same exercise
Recovery Interval (RI) – time period between sets (e.g. 2 minutes) such that you get the desired time to keep quality up (this could be totally inactive, light stretching or hydrating/in-session recovery nutrition.