Strength training for endurance athletes is still a bit of a lightning rod of a topic for many athletes and coaches. There are still many misconceptions and misunderstandings about why strength training is important for athletes of all sports, and there are even more misconceptions about how to incorporate strength training for optimal endurance sport results.
Let’s delve into some of the common arguments against strength training for endurance athletes.
“Endurance cycling and running has nothing to do with strength or how much one can lift, it’s completely irrelevant. It’s to do with oxygen turnover efficiency, movement economy in gait.”
Strength, is never completely irrelevant.
Lack of strength means joints, bones, and other tissues of the body will be stressed beyond their designed purposes and abilities, leading to a bevy of injuries including life-long joint, bone, and tissue problems, which could and should have easily been avoided.
For those who believe strength is irrelevant, they have missed the premise of the proper role strength and resistance training has in the overall preparation of the individual.
Strength can be defined in a variety of ways, and while yes, oxygen turnover efficiency and movement economy in gait do have big impacts on endurance performance (in running and triathlon), strength training, when done properly, allows the individual to increase and improve intermuscular and intramuscular coordination—two key tenets of becoming a better athlete.
Those who believe strength training and strength are irrelevant to endurance sports most often tend to see training tasks a purchase (“If I do X, I automatically will receive Y”) as opposed to what it really is: an investment.
Strength Training, the Investment
Investments take time, and do not have immediate expected responses. Rather, when we make an investment, we do so knowing that the most likely outcome of this investment will be Z, but we don’t know how soon that desired outcome will be realized. While this is due to external factors (injury, illness, lack of sleep, etc.), when it comes to making the investment, the individual must consciously and conscientiously take part in each and every training task. This might be on-bike skills or focusing on running technique (which the vast majority of cyclists and triathletes neglect completely), or strength training tasks.
Investments need to be balanced in order to see best returns, which means they should be composed of a few different parts—each which level out the risk and rewards which the individual seeks, and oftentimes do not share many similar characteristics (i.e. stocks vs. bonds, or in our case, strength training vs. energy system training).
However, investments offer relatively “known rewards” based off of the actions of the investor, so long as they pay prudence to understanding the risks which they take on with each investment vehicle.
Continuing the comparison to investments (stocks and bonds), think of your in-sport training sessions focusing on in-sport skill, energy systems, and cardiorespiratory fitness as stocks. They offer the biggest reward towards our desired outcome, but also carry much volatility (getting sick or injured leads to a quick and fast loss of some abilities), but should be the primary focus of our athlete portfolio.
Strength training, when done properly for the athlete, are like bonds. They give us a low-level response, but one which steads the boat. In our case, this means it lowers our risk of injury due to poor posture and strength imbalances, while giving us low, steady returns (improved recovery, decrease wearing on joints, improved posture for in-sport tasks).
Avoid Adapted Strength Training Programs
The other part of this mindset that strength training is irrelevant for endurance athletes tends to be from looking at the strength training programs that have been adapted to help cyclists and triathletes.
I’ve seen these programs, and frankly very few of them constitute good training for anyone outside of a bodybuilder, or a general health and wellness client. Case in point, TRX tricep extensions and bicep curls should not be included in a strength training program for a cyclist or triathlete, yet they almost always are.
Isolation exercises for accessory muscles like these are a burn of the athletes time, focus, and most importantly energy, and should not be included unless or until it is 100 percent apparent there is no other way to get the desired result to improve coordination.
These isolation exercises have not been carefully weighed as to their value in the overall training scheme towards that athletes specific training needs. And in fact, these specific training tasks are an utter waste of the athletes time and energy unless a movement assessment and analysis have been performed to find that this particular athlete needs this specific isolation exercise.
Strength training should focus in on the tissue properties, biomechanical movements, and muscular imbalances that a specific athlete has at that point in time, for those specific in-sport challenges. This must be paired with in-sport technique or training work to harbour those effects into sport-specific abilities.
“Being stronger (being able to lift heavier weights) doesn’t necessarily translate into being a better runner or cyclist.”
This quote is absolutely correct, yet this is where so many coaches and athletes are misguided. I spoke a bit at length about this in regards to strength training for runners at the elite level. While it may be difficult for some to comprehend, we must think about strength training in regards to the sport properties, sport skills, energy systems, and neurological needs which have to occur in order for us (or that athlete), to improve in that sport.
The missing link here is that of “sport skill”—one of the five interrelated components of producing sports performance:
Endurance athletes’ main goals from strength training programming is not to lift heavy things as deemed “heavy” by the general world at large. If we take a single task (such as the deadlift for example), and look at it from a sports performance standpoint, we should be able to quickly understand that training our cyclists and triathletes to get “stronger” at this task will in fact allow them to hold desired postures on the bike, due to better balance of the muscles at primary involved joints.
Stop thinking about strength training as just barbells and dumbells and start thinking of it as challenging the organism as a whole to execute multi-joint movements that require intramuscular and intermuscular coordination in ways which the athlete does not see in their sport, but will improve the athlete’s overall neuromuscular capabilities to carry out the desired tasks. This will help balance out the repetitive nature of their chosen sport in a way that will allow the body to decrease the demands placed on the involved structures, and allow the body to function better as a whole.
“Why do we see so many lower body (specifically lower leg) injuries in athletes, but yet we’re so worried about how “strong” we are for lifting weights? Many athletes can lift heavy regardless of whether they’re injured, but as soon as they run any distance they’re injured again, yet they’re only carrying their bodyweight. This shows the relevance of vertical lifting!”
This is probably my favorite of all the arguments against strength training, as it hits on the need for intelligent strength training programs. This includes time and instruction to help your athletes improve their sport-specific biomechanics, and thus decrease their risk of injury.
I have seen, and continue to see, countless athletes from around the world who come to me because they’re doing strength training for cycling/triathlon/running, but are still getting injured. When we go through a movement assessment and their in-sport movement analysis, we see broken biomechanical patterns, poor technique for their sport, and lack of understanding about what they really should be focusing on during their strength training and in-sport sessions to get better.
Focus on Technique
Miles and watts will come over time, when you put attention into getting your joints (and thus muscles), into positions where they can learn to execute tasks in ways they were designed, as well as more efficiently and effectively.
Many people hear strength training and automatically think it means moving heavy things, without a thought as to the technique, biomechanics, muscle balance at the involved joints, or the tissue qualities that need to be developed to help an athlete stay healthy and injury free for their specific sport.
This is not strength training for a sport, but just general physical preparation, which is needed for our athletes, but not throughout the training year.
Intelligent strength training programs look at the athlete’s in-sport demands, current biomechanical and strength imbalances, and seeks to improve the athlete’s overall abilities by not only improving the strength of the muscles used, but through allowing the athlete to retain or regain biomechanically advantageous strength ratios at the involved joints in the body, as well as improving posture.
The postural part of the equation, as well as teaching great breathing patterns, are the two most-often neglected aspects to strength training program design, which are left unaddressed in the vast majority of training programs for endurance athletes.
If you’ve taken either of my TrainingPeaks University courses, Strength Training for Cycling Success or Strength Training for Triathlon Success, you’ll notice that breathing and posture are spoken about quite a bit throughout each course. You’ll also note that I talk a lot about how strength training needs to allow the athlete to build strength-balance at the joints, and that joint position dictates muscle function.
But this isn’t all. You, and your athletes, also must work on their in-sport skill, including movement economy, and this means making running, swimming, and cycling technique skills an integral cornerstone of your training plans.
If you’re wondering why so many athletes get injured despite lifting heavy weights, you’re missing the premise that it’s not lifting heavy things that allows the athlete to see gains and increases in sport performances. Rather, it’s an improvement in the joint positioning due to better strength balance at the joints, along with better tissue qualities and improved abilities to maintain good posture and positioning of biomechanical advantage in their sport.
Should we continue to look at and think of strength training in simplistic terms of picking up heavy (absolute numbers) things, and putting them down, then yes, you and your athletes will not reap the massive benefits strength training can offer their in-sport performances.
That being said, getting too lost in the weeds of corrective exercises and not lifting (relative to the athlete’s abilities) heavy things with great technique, better breathing patterns, and with a steady eye on the principles which help us create sports-oriented strength training programs, you and your athletes can wind up missing out on the massive benefits and gains training has to offer.
Yes, strength training for endurance athletes matters, especially if you do it incorrectly, as it can lead to prolonged cycles of injury, lost training time, and frustration for the athlete and coach.