Strength for endurance

A common observation I have in endurance athletes is the all or nothing approach to strength work. A strength program tends to be started off the back of an injury or a good sales pitch that 'guarantees' to take 2 - 3 mins off your race time without more running.

Runners are normally scared to add muscle bulk, cyclists never have time and triathletes are too tired. If the rug is pulled out from under their feet though, in the form of an injury or a less than ideal result, suddenly the gym lights are turned on.

The classic ramp rate to the adaptation of exercise in beginners always amazes me. A newbie to strength training can improve by simply watching an exercise and imagining themselves doing it. Imagery can help create neural pathways, without lifting one weight! Then add in actually lifting the weight and suddenly you get motor control as well, not a single % of strength has been gained through greater muscle tissue so far, it's all happening on a neural level. This is why the ramp of improvement is so fast in beginners. If the strength plan has considered this the consequence is extremely motivating and buy-in is created. If the strength plan is not thought out, it is likely to overload the athlete instantly, creating high amounts of soreness and demotivation due to overloading muscles.

The next phase of the ramp in beginners is the levelling out phase when improvement becomes harder because you're no longer getting neural and motor pattern freebies. We now must use discipline and patience to allow for muscle tissue to be grown. This phase is hard for endurance athletes, tissue growth requires a stressor (lifting weights), fuel (protein to rebuild) and time to grow (rest). An endurance athlete is likely not lifting more than twice per week, meaning more time is needed to give muscle stress as too much acute stress (heavier weights) is going to cause too much overload. We also tend to see protein overlooked for endurance as carbohydrate or fats are known as the energy creating macronutrients, but protein is vital in all athletes due to the high amount of tissue damage in any sport involving high amounts of physical exercise. Lastly, rest means rest... not a quick run or an easy few miles with your mates, so if you are balancing endurance with a strength plan you must recognise the interference it can have.

The above is why many endurance athletes do not manage to continue their rate of improvement, which requires progressive overload and sufficient recovery to activate the super-compensation effect. Improvements may take 4 - 5 weeks and won't necessarily mean load tolerance (weight lifted) is going to go up. It might mean less soreness after hard training days, the ability to tolerate more intensity in all sessions and or a lowered injury risk to previous injury sights. So all benefits that you don't immediately notice. It's not until you get through 12 months and realise your usual calf flare-up after a hard training block hasn't happened this year do you think, oh yeh I must have made it stronger.

So when you think of a strength program to go alongside your endurance program think long, think really really long. You will actually only know the benefits you are creating after the fact, almost the opposite to the modern days love of instant gratification.

I developed the Run Strong program with the above in mind, it is 6 months long and is not fancy... But it works! I have gotten feedback from 2 years of athletes using it now and it's nearly always the same.

'It doesn't feel like much, but it lets me continue my usual endurance training with fewer aches and pains. Over the season I could actually train more, which resulted in improved results'.

Want to try it? Head here

It's been proven to work with runners, cyclists and triathletes. You can also email me with any questions,

Thanks for reading.

By; Tom Walker, Endurance Coach