Time to Read
Points of Interest
- Volume or intensity?
- Start with the goal in mind
- What the research suggests about strength training
- How do we apply this to endurance athletes?
All things being equal, a strong muscle is more powerful, more capable and less injury prone than a weak muscle. Not only that, but the process by which we make our muscles stronger has additional benefits, including improving the health and strength of connective tissues, the neural system and the offloading effects on our joints.
This article will discuss some of the research and considerations for strength training in endurance athletes.
The two schools of thought when it comes to strength training are based around volume and intensity of work. Some coaches argue that the key to strength improvement is in the volume – to lift more, you should lift more. The other school of thought is based in intensity – it’s not how much lifting you do, it’s how well and how focused your lifting is that matters.
The reality is it’s a case of horses for courses. There’s room for both depending on your goals and outcomes, but how should an endurance athlete approach strength training?
The purpose of a strength training programme for an endurance athlete is to develop a very specific type of strength – one that is localised to the muscles required for the event. There’s no advantage to a cyclist having a large, powerful upper body for example.
The other purpose is to reduce risk of injury, so we have to take into consideration the type of movements an endurance athlete requires and their outcomes. For example, Olympic weightlifting movements have a higher risk of injury and don’t offer endurance-specific benefits, so they’d be out.
Next up the is the available training time. Endurance training takes up a lot of time, so you’re likely to be under a heavy training load anyway. With that in mind, you should make the strength training as efficient as possible, given you don’t want to add any more than the necessary volume. Think ‘minimum effective dose’ at all times.
When subject to scientific analysis, testing shows that in strength-trained individuals, there is more value in high intensity training programmes for building strength. Given endurance athletes are already trained, this may hold true for this population also.
Interestingly, the study also shows that the force development improvement is quicker, so it requires less volume. Additionally, there is more muscle growth associated with this type of training. That’s not necessarily a desired outcome – excess bulk is metabolically expensive and adds additional weight, screwing up power to weight ratios.
These findings were given further credence by a similar study that tested changes in the rate of force development and changes in barbell velocity using either a high volume or high intensity training programme. The study indicated that high intensity is more effective than high volume for strength and force improvement.
Taking what we already know, we can start to build a picture of how strength training for endurance athletes should be programmed…
The acute considerations for individual sports, athletes and training cycles need to be appreciated, but these are three seemingly golden rules and should stay front and centre of the coach or athlete mind when designing a strength training programme for endurance athletes.
Exercise selection should be based around the big, compound (multi joint) exercises. This effectively rules out all bodybuilding exercises such as bicep curls and instead focuses attention on exercises such as deadlifts, squats, kettlebell swings, pull ups and weighted carries.
There are additional accessory exercises such as calf raises that you should include, but these are specific to you and your sport.
The research shows that high intensity, short duration strength training is the most effective way to build strength, so we should focus on that. Understanding that as endurance athletes our training loads are already high, strength training should be limited to a maximum of 30 minute workouts, 2-3 times per week.
Exercise selection should be limited to those that strengthen muscle groups used in your event. This isn’t a bodybuilding approach, it’s a ‘get better at your sport and not get injured’ approach!