A Guide to Strength Training for Endurance Athletes, Part 1

The title of this article brings to mind countless controversies regarding the role of strength training for endurance athletes. Some opponents argue that the anabolic effects of strength training are at best useless, and at worst counterproductive to the goals of endurance training, while proponents beg to differ. And as a proponent I would like to elaborate on the benefits of getting stronger and how you can incorporate strength training into your program. But first, to address the obvious questions:

Can lifting make you a faster marathoner? Probably not. (Some runners may stop here and refuse to read on. I suggest they do, however!)

But can it make you a healthier marathoner? Absolutely.

There is no substitute for training in your actual sport, and I certainly don’t propose that lifting in any way should be substituted for sport specific training. You get better at running by running, you get better at cycling by cycling, and so forth. Even with that being said, some trainers and coaches argue that certain types of lifts or motions, such as high repetition quarter squats on the Smith machine, are more specific to the motions of running or cycling, therefore making them superior lifts for runners or triathletes. I am not arguing that any lift is specific to endurance training, however. In fact, I’d state quite the opposite.

Lifting will not replace running, cycling, or swimming- no lift can completely replicate the forces or loads of specific motions involved in endurance training. Attempting to duplicate sports movements and train sports movements in the weight room MAY work for specific athletes (think of football linemen and the bench press), but for runners this is wrongheaded. No lift will approximate running or replace the development of run fitness or technique, but it can supplement your training to (1) to improve integrity of joints, (2) correct imbalances, and (3) improve strength for small bursts of speed on hills or at the end of a race.

Note: Throughout this article my references to endurance training will be made in terms of running, but the same topics can also be applied to cycling, swimming, hiking, etc.

Injury Prevention

Initially it will take time to develop the neuromuscular adaptations to complete compound lifts without risk of injury. In the end, the goal is injury prevention, so this is a good place to start, but this is only possible if you learn how to lift safely. One of the primary advantages of compound lifts for an endurance athlete is that they’re not only efficient, but also great for injury prevention because, (if done properly with good form), the lifts stress most muscles in the body in their most natural movement patterns. First and foremost, the aspiring lifter should understand proper form, but most importantly, NOT revert to machines if uncomfortable with the free weights.

There is a reason these lifts aren’t done on machines. In order to lift heavier weights, your body will naturally develop strength in areas that are weak, especially around joints like the ankles, knees, hips, lower back and shoulder girdle. Yes, you could isolate the muscle groups surrounding each of these joints, but that would require at least 2-3 exercises per joint or 10-15 lifts. Instead you could hit all of these muscle groups with just 3 lifts –the deadlift, squat, and bench press (and of course variations of each). Lifting is critical to health because it forces the body to anatomically adapt to supporting and moving progressively heavier loads- machines take away the full-body stimulus that only free weights can provide.

Let’s take the deadlift for example (the squat and bench press will be discussed more in part 2). The standard deadlift (there are multiple variants of this lift, including the straight legged deadlift, Romanian deadlift, etc.) is a compound movement that primarily targets the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. Obviously, increased strength in all of these muscle groups would be beneficial to running (more about this later). Less commonly discussed, however, are the benefits to smaller muscle groups and joints.

Specific Adaptions From The Deadlift

Improved ligament and tendon strength results in improved joint integrity. The forces exerted on the joints during compound lifts put strain on connective tissue, which effectively pulls the tendons and ligaments from the bone.  This causes osteoblastic activity (osteoblasts are the cells within bone responsible for new bone growth), or in other words, the strain of the ligaments and tendons acting on the bone causes increased bone formation at those sites. The end result is improved strength at the point where the tendon or ligament attaches to the bone. Stronger attachments to more robust bone mean lower risk of injuries at the joints stabilized by those attachments.  There is also the matter of mechanical loading on the bone itself- the long bones (of the legs, for example) bow ever so slightly under heavy loading, which results in adaptation (bone thickening across the entire length of the bone) to prevent possible damage in the future.  This is VERY important for endurance athletes, as stronger bones are far less prone to stress fractures.  Now imagine these processes taking place across the entire skeletal system, from neck to toes, while picking up a heavy load from the floor.

In addition to improved tendon and ligament attachments, there are the specific adaptations in the muscles surrounding the joint itself. The forces transmitted through joints while running are not always conducive to joint health- uneven running surfaces can cause unpredictable forces on the joint, which have to be countered by the body. A slip or stumble can result in strong sudden shear forces across a joint, or sudden twisting which pulls directly on the ligaments- one interesting fact is that ligaments are NOT designed to be used at all! Ligaments are not activated in normal joint movement, it is the job of surrounding tendons and muscles to stabilize the joints, with ligaments only activated in extreme circumstances (such as knee twisting, etc.)  Sudden sharp impacts or changes in force may also overwhelm the surrounding muscle’s ability to tighten and stabilize the joint, which requires the ligaments to intervene. However, stronger muscles which are better trained (and therefore activate faster) are excellent protection against ligament and joint damage. Improved musculature surrounding a joint can provide increased stabilization (through stronger tissue and faster response) and therefore improved control when facing uneven ground, and can make the difference between slight embarrassment (after a stumble) or catastrophic ligament damage.

Correcting Imbalances

The repetitive motion of running can amplify structural and/or muscular imbalances. Many runners wonder how to adjust their running to correct these imbalances, but I would argue that you can’t. You will only continue to exacerbate the imbalance by repeating the same repetitive motion over and over and over again. By incorporating a focused strength program that emphasizes full range of motion through multiple joints, these imbalances can be identified and corrected. You can spend 1-1.5 hours a week in the weight room now OR 1-2 months off recovering from an injury later.

Let’s consider the deadlift again- the simple act of picking a load up off the floor. An athlete with weak hamstrings will have difficulty pulling the bar off the ground, the first phase of the lift. An athlete with tight hamstrings will have difficulty reaching down for the bar. And an athlete with a weak back will have difficulty locking out, the final phase of the lift. You may be wondering why any of this matters- it matters because these same muscle groups are vital to the run- any imbalance that exists will be amplified significantly given the repetitive motion of endurance training. Once an imbalance is identified though, simple measures can be taken to restore balance and therefore allow for better form, and no runner has EVER suffered from having hamstrings that are strong or flexible, or having a lower back that is TOO strong. No runner can afford to have disproportionately weak or tight hamstrings, or a functionally weak lower back.  Running is rarely a controlled environment- every step represents an opportunity for the unexpected to happen, and if a runner is not a complete athlete, he or she increases the opportunity for injury every time he or she hits the trail, track, or road.

Worth reiterating here, of course, is that the goal of strength training should be to complement your endurance training, not to replace it. A benefit to compound lifts like the squat, deadlift, and bench press, which engage a variety of muscles groups throughout the body during each repetition, is that rather than working one muscle group in isolation, they target many opposing muscle groups in very practical ways. Think about it. Every time you squat down to pick something up off the floor or lean down to lift something up, or push something away from you, you are engaging the muscles groups targeted in one of the aforementioned lifts.

Improved Strength

Powerlifters lift to get stronger. Olympic weightlifters lift to get stronger. And yes, endurance athletes should lift to get stronger. Note, I did not say bigger. Bodybuilders, for example, follow a very different regimen that focuses on muscle hypertrophy over strength. The lifting routine that I recommend is more similar to powerlifting, and focuses on 3 compound lifts and relevant accessory work (a sample workout is provided at the end of the article). Worth mentioning is that powerlifters are not all gigantic, beefy, slow moving behemoths- powerlifting, like most strength sports, is broken down into weight classes, and athletes design their routines specifically to maximize strength and explosiveness without necessarily gaining any weight at all.

A lot of endurance athletes and some coaches are concerned about the overall anabolic effects of lifting on skeletal muscle, which may compromise performance by increasing overall mass. However, I would argue that the mass gained by lifting is minimal for most endurance athletes given the persistent catabolic state that most endurance athletes are in (I will expand on this further in Part 2, but for now suffice it to say that unless a runner is eating to gain weight, he or she will NOT gain much muscle mass due to lifting weights). In addition, not only will the athlete still reap the benefits mentioned earlier regarding tendons, ligaments, and bone integrity even without weight gain, but even if mass IS gained, it is in the form of muscle, which is beneficial to most endurance athletes (except, perhaps, Tour de France climbing specialists…though even they have VERY strong and efficient leg musculature for their size).

The increased muscle mass and cross sectional area of muscle fibers contribute to improved power when accelerating to pass another racer or when climbing up a steep hill. The endurance training will come in particularly handy when recovering after the hard effort, but strength training can directly translate into increased power output during those hard efforts. There is also data showing a positive correlation between increased muscular cross sectional area and improved lactic acid clearance- certainly a plus for many runners.

Fitting It All In

And now it comes down to putting it altogether. For a typical week, I generally recommend two lifting sessions, with one session falling on the day before your long run or, for shorter distance athletes, on the day before your most aerobic effort. If you have to schedule it on the same day as your long run, then I recommend doing the strength training session before the run. This should be a moderately heavy lift day focusing on the posterior chain (squat or deadlift, stiff legged deadlifts or good mornings, leg press, and abs) that will fatigue the CNS and muscles prior to the run. The concern may be a decrease in performance during your run, but bear in mind that your most aerobic day is less heavily dependent on power output and all those type II fibers you’ll be using to lift; in fact the impact on your endurance workout will be roughly the same as if you’d simply already run a few miles. Be sure to keep this in mind when you’re running as you may feel more fatigued when you start- this is normal and your body will get used to it after a couple of weeks.

The other lifting day should be scheduled 2-3 days later, preferably on a free day when you don’t have another run scheduled. However, if you must schedule it on a day when you’ll be running then prioritize the strength and endurance workouts so that the more technical workout is done first. For instance, if you’re lifting on the same day as an interval or repeat day then you’ll want to run first and lift afterwards, as the run performance is more critical to your overall goals. On the other hand, if you’re scheduling it on the same day as a recovery run then your lift should come first followed by your run so that the workout requiring more technical skill and resulting in more CNS adaptations can be done fresh.

Since you’ll only be lifting twice a week based on this schedule, you can lift both upper body and lower body each day. If you only have a short amount of time each week to dedicate to lifting then you may choose to lift upper body one day and lower body the other day. If this is the case then schedule your lower body day on the day before your long run- your legs will be fatigued after your long run regardless, and this allows you to lift more intensely during your upper body workout later in the schedule while minimizing performance impact on the more intense runs.

Each strength training day should include at least one compound lift (bench press, squat, or deadlift) plus ancillary lifts that stress the same muscle groups. The most basic and efficient schedule is shown below and separates upper and lower body days, each done once a week, for someone running 4 days a week (though it can be tweaked easily for someone running 5-6 days a week). If you’re running more than that then you’re likely headed down a path of overtraining and no amount of strength training can prevent the injuries and CNS fatigue that will result- regardless of goals, unless you are a professional athlete who is eating, sleeping, and living for their sport, two a days or weekly schedules with zero days off are simply too hard to recover from.

Day 1: Recovery run

Day 2: Upper body

Day 3: Intervals/repeats/tempo run

Day 4: Anaerobic threshold run

Day 5: Rest

Day 6: Lower body

Day 7: Long, slow distance run

Day 2 should be a hard effort, technical lift that focuses on technique and joint integrity. The bench press should be the primary focus for developing a symmetric and erect upper back and chest. Ancillary lifts should include rows and lat pulldowns to develop the upper back, lateral raises and front raises to develop the shoulders, and tricep pushdowns or bicep curls for the arms. Developing a strong upper body will allow you to lead with the chest and prevent rounding of the shoulders as you fatigue during your run, which can cause breakdown in running form translating into inefficiencies and changes in biomechanics that can lead to injury. In addition, a strong and mobile upper body improves day to day posture, which is doubly important for older athletes.

The emphasis on day 6 will be primarily strength and developing the posterior chain, which includes to the muscle, tendons, and ligaments of all the joints and muscles from the trapezius to the calves. A good place to start is with the deadlift, to warm up the erector spinae muscle groups (the muscles along the spine) along with the glutes and hamstrings in a relatively natural movement. The desired adaptations as they relate to endurance training have already been explained above. In addition, the squat is good compound lift that can be worked into a regular routine once you feel comfortable with it. Ancillary lifts include the stiff legged deadlift and good mornings, which also target the posterior chain, leg press to quadriceps, and abdominal exercises like hanging leg raises and crunches. Note that many of these lifts are more challenging to perform than isolations- improperly performed deadlifts and squats can be hazardous to the knees and back. This is no reason to not perform them, however, and the mistakes that make these lifts potentially dangerous are more often than not the result of imbalances (quad/hamstring imbalances leading to knees bowing in or forward during the squat), disproportionately weak muscles (lower back rounding during the deadlift), or balance issues that absolutely need to be addressed for the athlete. Generally speaking, if an athlete cannot perform a compound lift comfortably, this is a sign that the athlete needs improvement, not that the lift needs to be eliminated!

Again, the routine above is very general and should be tailored for your specific endurance training and goals. I will elaborate more on specific training programs in part 2.

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