One of the most frequently debated topics among endurance athletes (among others, such as the utility of power meters, footstrike versus heelstrike, value of “junk miles”, water versus sports drinks, costs versus benefits of disc wheels, whether the catch up drill is good or bad for swimming form… actually, endurance athletes seem to argue about a lot of things…) is the benefit of actual resistance training to performance. Some argue that strength training is a “nice to have”- it won’t directly benefit performance, but it can reduce the overall risk of injury, help correct imbalances, etc. Others argue that a properly designed resistance training routine can directly make athletes faster or improve endurance.
The truth? Somewhere between the two, but I’m leaning towards the latter camp- resistance training offers benefits in terms of improving bone density, strengthening connective tissue, improving posture (if done correctly!)- of this there is little question. Can it improve performance? In certain cases, yes- corrections in posture, improvement in glycogen carrying capability, improvements in maximum force production (and repeated sub-maximum force production), can all improve speed- and just as important, can improve efficiency.
But this isn’t an article debating the merits of resistance training- the objective here is to determine WHAT kind of resistance training you should be doing. For more details about resistance training for endurance athletes, read A Guide to Strength Training for Endurance Athletes.
Things that will waste your time
First of all, forget about all that “instability” training. If you’re doing much of anything on a bosu or physio ball, you’re truly wasting your time. Not only are you greatly limiting your maximum force production (and therefore really missing the point of resistance training), but you’re not appreciably improving SPORTS RELATED balance. Certainly, if you’re a surfer or paddle boarder, the bosu is excellent, but for a runner or cyclist, there are nearly zero situations where that sort of 360 degree instability (That increases as you deviate from perfect balance) has any application to your sport. So, forget it. Please.
Also, forget about most of the “Core” training you see. I’ve heard the argument that planks, for example, improve core strength for the bike, as it’s similar to being in the drops or in an aero position. No. On a bike, you are supported at the pelvis- doing a plank, you’re supported at the toes. And if you think doing 60 seconds worth of planks will appreciably improve your ability to comfortably maintain an aero position for four hours on a bike, you are seriously kidding yourself.
And forget partial range of motion exercises. Single legged quarter squats and leg press lockouts are not improving your run or bike, simply because they are often unnatural exercises and do not allow for correct loading or posture.
Your objective in the weight room
So if those things are a waste, what SHOULD you be doing? The answer… keeping it simple. Choose two main full body lifts, a handful of accessory lifts, do them, and get out of there. You should be lifting to get stronger. Stronger overall. Lifting isn’t just about getting under the bar and groaning through sets of ten or twelve on the bench press. A squat isn’t just a squat- You can use the same exact movement to train for pure strength, explosive power, speed, local muscular endurance… the list goes on. As an endurance athlete, you want to be building local muscular endurance and full body stability- exercise choice depends on what your sport is.
For example, if you are a runner: The parallel squat is your friend- performed both explosively and in the high repetition range. My recommendation is to squat twice a week- Your explosive workout (where you focus on building speed through the usage of light weight- 50% of max- and high velocity for multiple short sets of 3-5 repetitions) should fall on the same day as your speed work, preferably beforehand as the lifting is more technically taxing than the run. The local muscular endurance day, where you perform high repetition sets with moderate weight (55-65% of max for sets of 20-25) at a controlled cadence should be done on off days, or preferably the day after any distance work (as you should be in a refeeding state regardless). Your secondary lift should be the front squat (which strengthens the quads and glutes while improving posture)- this should be done in the hypertrophy range (8-12) on your explosive day, and in the endurance range (15-20) on your local muscular endurance day. Core work should include hanging leg raises (to strengthen weak hip flexors) and dumbbell pullovers.
As another example… If you are a cyclist, the same primary lift applies, but incorporating stiff legged deadlifts as your secondary rather than front squats, as cyclists tend to have tight, overly developed quads and comparatively weak hamstrings. Wider stance squats will also strengthen the adductors, which is another weakness many cyclists have.
You may be wondering if 20-25 repetitions has any relation whatsoever to the work required to even do a, say, 400 meter run. Short answer- not directly. What it DOES do is help to improve your lactic acid threshold and hill climbing/short term sprint endurance, in addition to improving stability (being able to support a loaded bar for an extended period of time DOES indeed improve balance and proprioception, and the chronic heavy loading will strengthen ligaments and increase bone density). Now, 20-25 repetitions does NOT mean “easy weight”. These should be HARD- the last few repetitions may even require that you stop and catch your breath in between.
This may seem rather general- and it is. The reason- strength training for the endurance athlete should not be complicated. It should not require a dozen silly movements like those planks where you extend your left arm and right leg and repeat, or squats to overhead presses with dumbbells, or walking lunges while wiggling your wrists and attempting to forcefully adduct your big toe. It should be simply, functional, and to the point. Think about what your sport requires from your body, and work it specifically. If the explanation you read for a given movement sounds too complicated, then chances are, it’s a load of BS.
This is just an introduction- an article on general training philosophy will be up shortly, that will explain how to construct a weight lifting routine for different athletes. If you’re an athlete in a specific sport and want me to check out your strength training routine, I’d be happy to help you optimize it free of charge, just shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll see what I can do.